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One of the more recent additions to the Olympic line-up is BMX, offering riders a chance to shine at the world’s greatest sporting show. But when did it first become an Olympic sport?
BMX racing made its debut at the 2008 Beijing Olympic games. There were medal events for both men and women, but BMX freestyle was only admitted as an exhibition event. It was at the 2020 Tokyo games when BMX freestyle first became an Olympic medal event.
As with all new additions to the Olympic arena, BMX had to clear a good many hurdles to prove itself ‘worthy’ of a spot to the IOC, the powerful organizing committee of the Olympic games.
However, both BMX racing and BMX freestyle have proved a hit with spectators and the wider television audience.
In this article, I’m going to check out the rise of BMX as a sport, its entry into the Olympics, and its current Olympic history so far.
The Rise of BMX
It took around 40 years from conception to Olympic acceptance for BMX.
Essentially the bicycle derivative of motocross, BMX offers a spectacular watch, full of skills and spills regardless of the format. Yet where did it all begin?
BMX began its rise on the west coast of the US around the turn of the 1970s.
Kids were already emulating motocross with their bicycles, zooming around dirt tracks and performing increasingly impressive tricks.
It was not a long stretch to begin BMX racing, with the BMX pioneer Scott Breithaupt credited for organizing the first race.
BMX quickly grew across the US, further aided by the 1971 documentary ‘On Any Sunday’, which although predominantly about motocross, contained enough about BMX to inspire more kids to take to the off-road trails on their bikes.
The creation of the American Bicycle Association (ABA) in 1977 was pivotal in creating structure around BMX. The ABA was the first national sanctioning body for BMX, and they introduced a number of innovations including the electronic starting gates.
BMX was starting to put in place the practices the IOC likes to see before acceptance into its ranks as a medal event.
Entry in to the Olympics
Before BMX could hope to gain entry into the Olympics it needed to raise its profile and participation around the world. This it managed to achieve, with the exhilarating quick-fire races which can last just 30 to 40 seconds finding appeal beyond the US.
In 1982, Dayton in Ohio staged the first BMX World championships.
This led to another important milestone in the development of BMX racing.
In 1993 BMX was admitted as part of the Union Cycliste International (UCI), sport cyclings international governing body, one which oversees competitive cycling events around the world.
BMX was now under the same organization which oversaw the more traditional cycling events including track and road racing.
Previously viewed by many as more of an ‘underground’ sport, BMX was now finally cementing itself as a part of the wider cycling world.
A decade later and the UCI was in Prague at the IOC conference. It was here they put across their case for the inclusion of BMX in the Olympics.
The IOC committee accepted the proposal and BMX was accepted as an Olympic sport set to make its debut in Beijing in 2008 (source).
Preparation for 2008
Well, at least one element of BMX was to make its full debut.
It was announced that BMX racing would be a medal event in Beijing, but the equally spectacular BMX freestyle would be an exhibition event.
For BMX freestyle competitors their quest for Olympic medals would have to wait a little longer.
BMX racing involves a single lap race on an off-road course.
As the sport grew the courses could be found indoors and out, and were constructed with banked corner turns and undulations to provide exhilarating jumps.
Races usually contain eight riders and can last as little as 30 seconds. This is a fast, pulsating sport, with races starting on a downhill ramp to provide momentum.
Having been excepted in to the Olympics, BMX now had the opportunity to show off the sport to millions across the world in this most prestigious of global sporting tournaments.
This was the time to make a statement and to make an impact, and the starting point for the UCI was the course.
The UCI had already been experimenting with an eight-meter high starting ramp for some events. This gave an immediate impression of something different, not your normal cycling race.
The sight of eight BMX racers hurtling down the ramp is a spectacular sight, one designed to immediately hook the viewer.
To further add to the spectacle the Beijing Olympic course was packed full of jumps, which combined with the steep banks on the corners taken at speed, provided a racing challenge to excite new and old BMX racing spectators.
The Beijing 2008 Olympics
On the morning of August 20th, 2008 BMX finally made its bow in the Olympic games.
Time trials were held in both the men’s and women’s events to determine the seeding for the knock-out stages. 32 men and 16 women had qualified for the Olympics and were now raring to go.
There were two days set aside for BMX racing and on the first day, following the time trials, the first quarter-final knock-out races were held in the men’s event.
With 16 competitors left in both competitions the stage was set for the semi-finals and finals on day two, Friday 22nd August.
The top four in both men’s and women’s semi-finals advanced through to have the honor of competing in the first-ever BMX Olympic finals.
As was to be expected on a course designed for excitement there were plenty of thrills and spills in both races, including a spectacular crash on the last turn in a tight men’s race which saw three medal hopefuls hit the deck.
The final placings in the men’s race were (source):
|4||Andres Jimenez Caicedo||Columbia||39.14|
|5||Rob Van Der Wildenberg||Netherlands||39.77|
|7||Sifiso Nhlapo||South Africa||DNF|
In the women’s final, the medals and placings were as follows:
|2||Laetitia Le Corguille||France||38.04|
|4||Sarah Walker||New Zealand||38.80|
|5||Maria Gabriela Diaz||Argentina||39.75|
|8||Shanaze Reade||Great Britain||DNF|
The following video features the men’s final from Beijing.
Whereas BMX racing is a dash from start to finish with the winner the first to cross the line, BMX freestyle is won by impressing a panel of judges.
The sport is sometimes referred to as BMX stunt riding for understandable reasons, as riders perform a series of stunts and tricks on their bike over different obstacles.
BMX freestyle started to take hold in the mid 1970’s. You would often see kids on their bikes performing more and more outlandish tricks at their local skate parks. Today, the sport can cover all types of settings from the street through to parks and trails.
As much as you want to outdo your competition with the difficulty of your flips and tricks, style counts for a lot too with the judges in BMX freestyle.
If you can make your jumps and tricks look smooth and effortless you are going to make a greater impression. Each rider has under a minute to make that impression.
Having watched their BMX racing cousins make their full debut in Beijing, BMX freestyle riders were finally given medal status at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics having previously been an exhibition event.
Unfortunately, the pandemic meant they had to wait a further year for their opportunity to perform on the biggest stage of their careers.
BMX freestyle’s endorsement by cycling’s governing body, UCI, in 2016 and the staging of the first world championships the following year helped set the stage for full medal status at the Olympics.
BMX freestyle was included at the 2018 youth Olympics before the inaugural men’s and women’s events at Tokyo, competitions which did not disappoint.
Australia’s Logan Martin took the gold in the men’s event at the Ariake Urban sports park.
It was a fitting reward for a man who rose to the challenge of limited training facilities by building a BMX freestyle arena in his own back yard.
Logan saw the immediate impact of Olympic recognition for his sport in the rapid increase in the quality of the riders and did not want to be left behind.
Logan won gold with 93 points, edging out Venezuela’s Daniel Dehrs who picked up the Silver medal. The bronze medal went to Declan Brooks from Great Britain.
The British BMX team would have even more reason to celebrate in the women’s event.
The lure of the Olympics had also been crucial for Britain’s Charlotte Worthington, who left her job as a chef in 2017 to concentrate on being a full time athlete.
It was a huge decision but one which paid off as she took the gold in Tokyo, although it was not all plain sailing. Having taken a tumble on her first run she needed to produce something big in the second run.
This she did in some style, becoming the first woman to land a 360 degree back flip during competition.
This earned her a huge score of 97.50, with the pre-race favorite from the US, Hannah Roberts, taking silver with 96.10 points. The bronze went to Switzerland’s Nikita Ducarroz, who finished with 89.20 points.
Charlotte looks back at her historic run in the following video clip, and talks us through that famous back flip.
BMX looks to have established itself as an Olympic sport alongside the previously more familiar cycling events.
The thrills and spills of both BMX racing and BMX freestyle offer exciting viewing for spectators.
Unfortunately at Tokyo spectators were not allowed, so hopefully in Paris the BMX freestyle competitors will get the chance to experience an Olympic crowd for the first time.
Being in the Olympics will have raised the profile of BMX. Both the racing and freestyle forms of the sport will have been watched around the world by viewers who may never have seen the sport before.
The background stories of the two winners of the inaugural BMX freestyle mentioned above show the instant impact the Olympics had on the sport and the mindset of its top competitors.
There are those that worry BMX will lose some of its individuality, with the focus purely on the top level of the sport.
There is a concern that the BMX racing tracks are being made with jumps which are too big and could put potential new riders off coming in to the sport. BMX freestyle supporters have also expressed concerns that arenas may become too generic.
However, a 2021 report released by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) shows a 44.6% increase in participation over the most recent three year cycle, with 2.69 million people involved in BMX.
The UCI heralded the importance of the Rio games in 2016, where it believes BMX was one of the most popular of all the Olympic events.
The introduction of BMX in to the Olympics at Beijing brought BMX racing to a global audience, placing it on a par with the other cycling events.
It is easy to see why it immediately became such a popular venue for fans. This is an adrenaline-fueled, all action, thrills, and spills sport, where the races come thick and fast during an Olympic program.
Joined by the BMX freestyle riders in Tokyo at the delayed 2020 games, all the kids watching around the world will hopefully think, “yeah, I want to have a go at that” and the sports popularity and participation will continue to grow.