Mark Cavendish gets his Olympic medal but can't outride controversy

Mark Cavendish, left, accepted blame for the accident that knocked Park Sang-hoon out of the omnium points race. AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Mark Cavendish had plenty to lose and one elusive thing to gain when he arrived in Rio. His place as the best road sprinter of all time was arguably secured at this year's Tour de France, where he won four stages to bring his total to 30, eclipsing all but Eddy Merckx in the bike race that means the most to most of the world.

Cavendish cast himself back into the arcane maelstrom of track cycling because he is restless and relentless and convinced he can always find a way to launch himself into the clear. Two previous Summer Games had ended in frustrating anticlimax, on the track in 2008 and the road in 2012. At 31, seeing the climbers' road course mapped out in Rio, he elected to juggle the indoor and outdoor disciplines this season in search of his first Olympic medal.

His speed work appeared to pay dividends at the Tour, but Great Britain has a formidable depth chart on the track, and Cavendish wasn't selected for his heart's desire, the team pursuit. Instead, he entered the omnium, a grueling two-day, six-event combo plate of fast-twitch and endurance skills.

Cavendish finished second, and his silver was a two-sided coin.

While gold medalist Elia Viviani of Italy shed unrestrained tears of elation, Cavendish -- as is often the case -- found himself enmeshed in controversy.

As he swung sharply right down the steep bank of the Rio Olympic Velodrome to try to position himself for the next sprint in the grind-a-thon 160-lap points race that concluded the omnium on Monday, he clipped wheels with South Korea's Park Sang-hoon.

The ensuing chain reaction also brought down Viviani and Australia's Glenn O'Shea, while Cavendish himself stayed upright. Officials neutralized the race for several long minutes. Viviani and O'Shea were unhurt and able to collect themselves, but Park lay frighteningly still before medical personnel stabilized his neck with a brace and carried him off the track strapped to a stretcher. He was hospitalized, but there was no official word on his condition.

Social media detonated with outrage and calls for Cavendish to be disqualified. After the medal ceremony, along the row of pens holding different broadcast and print media, a Dutch journalist showed Cavendish a replay of the crash and subsequently tweeted their hostile exchange.

Moments later, speaking with print reporters, Cavendish calmly said the incident was, "My fault. I should have been looking where I was going a bit more. I hope [Park]'s all right." Cavendish apologized to Viviani in midrace, once the Italian was rolling again.

Viviani and O'Shea, who finished seventh, said they didn't fault Cavendish.

"I saw it happen, and I went for a gap, to be honest," said O'Shea, who later watched the replay on the video board. "I didn't make the gap, so over I went. Probably didn't quite have the legs tonight anyway. That's just track racing; you can't blame it on him."

As Viviani, 27, who rides for Team Sky on the road, explained, "We're on a track, no brakes. When one guy changes directions in front of you and someone else is not ready to change directions, you crash."

When Cavendish described himself as "a marked man" in cycling lingo, referring to the fact that the other men high in the standings stubbornly refused to let him get enough space for bonus points, it couldn't help but echo with a double meaning. His excellence over time has only magnified expectations.

"I decided halfway I couldn't get a lap, no one was going to let me get a lap," Cavendish said. He settled for grabbing points in the sprints that come every 10 laps, and it was enough to hold on for second. His expression blended relief with slight rue as he greeted his wife and children.

Inevitably, Cavendish was asked whether he'd give the Olympics another whirl.

"I just don't know if I'm going to be arsed to answer to all you lot in four years' time -- 'Oh, you missed gold in Rio, do you want to go for gold this time? It's the only thing you're missing,'" he teased back with a wan smile.

When reporters tried to entice him into commenting on remarks by fellow Team GB star Bradley Wiggins about his absence from the team pursuit, he wouldn't bite.

"Anything I say now will be clickbait," Cavendish said before lavishing praise on the team.

No disagreement about that. Cavendish, so skilled at accelerating toward a finish line, probably won't be able to get a lap on his own fame.