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It started in the late ’60s with California kids on Schwinn bicycles imitating motocross riders on vacant lots, and ultimately developing their own sport.
Now, four decades later, BMX has left those makeshift tracks for the largest sports stage in the world. Is BMX ready for the Olympics? Perhaps the better question is whether the Olympics are ready for BMX.
“The world’s in for a shock,” said Kyle Bennett, the top-ranked rider in the United States and second in the world.
In exactly 100 days from now, the 28-year-old from Texas hopes to be walking in the Beijing opening ceremonies alongside the swimmers and gymnasts and track athletes who have long defined the Games. Just as snowboarding changed the face of the Winter Olympics, BMX riders are planning to inject their own extreme flavor into the summer events.
“Everyone has ridden BMX at some point in their life,” said Donny Robinson, ranked second in the U.S. behind Bennett. “But our form of BMX racing is obviously something much different. People are just going to be so astonished, and people are just going to be wanting more.”
For those of you who have ridden a BMX (an acronym for Bicycle Motocross), we’re not talking about jumping the six-inch curb on your neighborhood block when you were 7, or racing your buddy down the flat streets of suburban Illinois. The Olympic BMX course features a starting hill nearly three stories high where eight riders, just inches from each other, propel themselves to speeds close to 40 mph, allowing them to jump up to 45 feet.
The winner is judged by speed alone; subcultures of BMX racing like freestyle and dirt jumping — where riders flip in the air on their bikes — are not part of the Games. The 2008 Olympic BMX athletes will be staying as low to the ground as possible as they push themselves in an all-out, one-lap sprint that will last under 40 seconds.
Going for gold ... and blood
“There’s nothing out there really like it,” said Arielle Martin, who is currently the top-ranked female rider in the U.S. “It’s guaranteed you’re going to see crashes [at the Olympics]. There’s no way, with that much on the line, people aren’t going to be going for blood.”
In her 22 years, Martin, like many of her competitors, has seen plenty of blood. She’s sustained a crushed liver, bruised her lungs, broken her back and torn her ACL. In 2002, after fracturing her spine, doctors said she would never compete again. After just an eight-month hiatus, she was back on her bike. Nothing could stand in the way of her Olympic dream.
At one point, fearing her relationship was getting in the way of her training, Martin even broke up with the man she eventually married in 2007.
“The opportunity to represent my country in the biggest sports event in the world would be such an honor,” said Martin, whose husband is serving in Afghanistan while she trains for the opportunity to represent her country in Beijing. “I grew up watching it, and I admired the athletes and saw the sacrifices they made. There’s something inside of me that wanted to do that.”
A total of 32 men and 16 women from around the world will get a shot to compete at the games. The men will have a quarterfinal, semifinal and final round; the women will have a semifinal and a final. In each round, eight cyclists race head-to-head, down the eight-meter-high hill and around the dirt track littered with jumps. The quarter and semifinals consist of three runs, with the cumulative time from those three runs determining which four riders advance. The final is a single lap with eight cyclists.
The U.S., as one of the top BMX powers, is poised to send the maximum number of athletes — three men and two women. The men's team will be composed of the top-ranked rider, the winner of the Olympic trials — which will be held in Chula Vista, Calif., on June 14 — and a coach's pick. The women's team (given that the U.S. receives two spots) will consist of the top-ranked rider and a coach's selection.
Martin’s biggest competition to make the team just might be her roommate, Jill Kintner.
Kintner, 26, left BMX to pursue a career as a professional mountain biker. But after it was announced BMX would be a sport in Beijing, Kintner said she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to become an Olympian and promote her sport to a worldwide audience.
“I can make a difference for the sport and really open people's eyes and see how it's a healthy, fun thing to do for everyone,” she said. “Kids can do it and adults can do it. And I'm preaching about bike riding in general, you know?”
An extreme sport goes mainstreamUpon Kintner's return to BMX, she quickly realized the sport had changed in the five years she’d been gone. The starting hill was bigger, the speed was faster. As the sport moved into the Olympic spotlight, media interest had increased. So had the interest of sponsors, who brought new money to the sport and more resources to the athletes. In short, a sport that had existed on the fringe since its creation was beginning to see the benefits of moving into the mainstream.
At the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., the USOC and USA Cycling recently built the only track in the world that is a near-exact replica to the one in Beijing. There, Kintner, Martin and their fellow Olympic hopefuls live and train together, benefiting from some of the top coaches, nutritionists and trainers in the country.
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“The sport has changed quite a bit with the emergence of the Olympics,” Robinson said. But, he added, these are just the first of many changes to come. “Who knows what BMX is going to be in 10 years? Look at snowboarding, snowboard cross — look at what the Olympics did for all that stuff.”
Robinson is thrilled to be on the crest of the wave of change, and plans to do his part to show the world just why it should pay attention to BMX.
“The biggest accomplishment I can wish for in the Olympic Games for myself is just to have an amazing lap — I make the final and that one lap, whatever happens, I just want it to be something that the whole world remembers,” he said. “I want it to be a victory for me, but something that keeps people on the edge of their seats.”