SHE'S one of the best-known faces of British sport, yet at 31, the reigning world sprint cycling champion has already retired from the track, after winning gold and silver at the London 2012 Olympics.
Now Victoria Pendleton is to join a motley crew of D-List celebs in the televised elimination show Strictly Come Dancing alongside such fading stars as EastEnders actor Sid Owen, former TV presenter Denise Van Outen and former children's TV host Johnny Ball.
Am I alone in feeling utterly depressed by the gifted cyclist's dodgy career move? It seems to me she's abandoning the Olympic spirit before it has a chance to flourish.
During the London games, it seemed we'd witnessed the dawning of a new golden age of television where for once we were celebrating true human endeavour instead of ogling a group of desperate half-wits bearing judgment on each other in the name of entertainment. The world-class performances of athletes such as Pendleton, Katherine Grainger, Helen Glover, Jessica Ennis and Ellie Simmonds helped stoke our hopes that at last Britain's teenage girls would be inspired to follow their lead. As was noted at the time, seeing so many different female body shapes and different types of women could only be good for under-confident, image-shy youngsters.
Here was reality television as it should be, lionising the basic lesson that success must be nurtured by hard graft, self-discipline, good diet and early nights; that, to paraphrase Thomas Edison, true talent is only 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.
Notwithstanding Pendleton's self-esteem issues, which are documented in her upcoming autobiography, I can't help wishing she'd had the dignity and self-confidence to slam the brakes on her headlong rush into light entertainment, because she has switched the focus away from her sporting achievements and her potential as a fantastic role model, and onto the more dubious attractions of fancy dresses, fake tans and false eyelashes. The altruistic potential of helping others excel in sport as, say, a coach or mentor – especially in the run-up to Glasgow 2014 – seems sadly to have been abandoned in favour of short-term celebrity.
By ditching Lycra for long dresses, does Pendleton now hope to persuade her fans to switch from cycling to salsa? More worryingly, is she implying that cycling is too elitist for the hoi polloi? She does seem to be playing the populist card, for she Tweeted to her 195,000 followers this week: "Just like to warn everyone, dance experience is zero, unless jumping up and down in DM boots is considered dancing." She might as well have added: "You see? I'm just like one of you!"
I wonder if she cares that if she falls ingloriously, injures herself or otherwise loses face on the dancefloor her prowess on the track will be forgotten. It's a risk she seems willing to take, yet one she could have so easily avoided had she followed in the footsteps of Olympic swimming sensation Michael Phelps, whose presence in an advertising campaign for the upmarket label Louis Vuitton elegantly associated sporting achievement with an aspirational lifestyle. Likewise, of course, Andy Murray and Sir Chris Hoy, whose hazard-free brand endorsements net them millions.
Although Pendleton's fellow London 2012 medallist Louis Smith, who won silver in the pommel horse event, will join her as a Strictly contestant – and has already displayed his singing talents as contestant on The X Factor talent show – it's Pendleton who disappoints more, simply because she is a woman.
She may have her own reasons for abandoning the sport that made her a household name in the first place, but in demeaning her achievements she should know that she risks damaging our new appreciation that participation in world-class competitive sport is truly democratic, that it is open to all regardless of class, race, background – or gender. "I wasn't born a champion," she has said. "I have faults, I had to work to get there" and that's exactly the message young women need to get them off the sofa and onto the saddle. This is truly a lost opportunity.
Pendleton has now made herself an also-ran. Let's hope that as a Strictly star, her influence fades as quickly as a sequin does when the lights are switched off.
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