BMX - An Expanding Olympic Sport?
It’s so long since I looked at this BMX racing page that it had real webs. But I did dust it off because I had just been reading British Cycling’s BMX plans and, earlier, the UCI’s proposals to expand into BMX Freestyle - both with an eye to the Olympics.
Certainly the BC plans look well organised; with four tiers - Olympic Talent Team, Olympic Development Programme, Olympic Academy and Olympic Podium Programme - in a nicely defined structure. Now I do like things to be structured and organised properly - so good so far. And you do need to nice structures to breakdown large volume issues into more manageable parts. But my concern is that BMX racing is not a large volume problem - in fact it’s just the reverse.
The Olympic Podium Programme (with its acronym OPP) has Shanaze Reade has the only woman and there’s no men. So we have a programme with just one member? The BC text says “Many of the athletes are members of professional trade teams in addition to their membership of the programme...” but then goes on to list just Shanaze.
The Olympic Academy Programme (yes it is OAP - of course) is much the same; with comments like “...many of the riders on the Programme will have progressed via the Olympic Development Programme..” but then going on to list Liam Phillips as the only programme member. Amongst the under 18s the situation does get better with 5 members and there are seven 13 to 16 year olds listed as tier 1. But it is still only a total 14 athletes.
Determined to look for some more encouraging news I switched to the BC’s ranking tables. Back in 2007 I was concerned that the total elite BMX pool was only 22 - 21 men and 1 woman. Since then we have had the Olympics and BC got £19 million for a BMX Centre [due to open in Manchester this summer]. But there must be something wrong with the ranking tables at the BC web site - because the Elite Men ranking contains just 2 entries for 2011 and none at all for 2010. And the Elite Women rankings contain - a blank. True the “Championship Female” ranking category had four names - two of whom were in the junior Olympic programmes. But hardly a long list. I did then try the UCI and found GB’s Liam Phillips at 22nd and Marcus Bloomfield at 39th amongst the Elite Men Overall - so that’s a doubling of numbers. In the Elite Women Overall it was Shanaze Reade at 8th that was the only GB name in the 119 listed.
So with a new covered Olympic BMX track and a programme capable of handling 100’s - the only thing lacking is some more riders. Because at present the £19 million+ invested seems a bit excessive for a team of 14 or 15 Olympic possibles.
Would adding BMX freestyle to the Olympic schedule help things along? Probably not. First the new GB track is for racing only. Second a US organisation, IBMXFF, already promotes the freestyle worlds - and is having only limited success. Third there is an international freestyle calendar of sorts but it is largely limited to the USA and Germany - see this weekend’s JoMoPro to get a flavour. Finally there is no obvious demand - from fans or riders - to fall in line with the Olympic requirements and restrictions. And that comes not from me but from a contact who produces an international freestyle BMX magazine. For freestyle read free-spirit and you should then see the size of the culture gap.
As always I want the sport of cycling - in all its forms - to do well. But at times it seems like everyone involved is being sent in the wrong direction. Because BMX racing is now in the Olympics a team and a national centre have to be created. Yet the far greater on-the-ground support for disciplines like cyclo-cross seems to count for little when the UCI / IOC master plan dominates thinking. There is more than a touch of a Peoples Polit Bureau about the way things are being directed. But then the East Germans did have some medal winning teams!
BMX - a Long-term Olympic Sport?
The UCI say it was the IOC "They came to us 18 months ago asking for the inclusion of BMX. We agreed to that and knew we'd have to drop two medals to accommodate BMX” said Pat McQuaid in June 2005. That implies there are just two Olympic BMX events to contest at the new Laoshan track - hardly a full programme. Certainly the trial event had only two winners.
Quite why the Olympic Committee with the compliance of the UCI decided that adding BMX meant cutting back at the Velodrome is hard to fathom. And back in 2005 there were serious attempts from the grassroots to reverse the decision. A decision that did not save any money - since both tracks had still to be built. And it did not streamline the overall Games schedules since the two venues operate independently; events can be run at both at the same time. And the dropped events - the 500m and 1km - have normally been some of the first in the Games schedules to reach a conclusion; with no heats or repecharges to go through. With a field of, say, 50 competitors the whole procedure can be completed in an afternoon. So why make a change? And who forced it through?
Will future Games organisers agree to build specialist venues for such a small programme? Certainly the plans for 2012 in London include BMX - and more BMX tracks will get built in many countries over the next few years due to Games involvement. But seems like it is the sport’s bureaucrats, rather than the riders, that are setting the agenda.
The reasons suggested for adding BMX are; it is popular with millions of BMX bikes sold per year; it is commercial with plenty of products to promote and it is aimed at “youth”. No problems with all of these reasons - but then why not skate boarding in the Olympics as well? It meets all the points in the reasoning. As does roller-blading; a sport apparently already proposed!
Looking at the real world situation, a typical BMX club does not have ambitions or facilities to train elite athletes. In the UK there are only 19 English and 1 Scottish BMX clubs affiliated to British Cycling - the UCI-recognised governing body. With some of these being BMX sections with a cycling club. Looking at the 2007 UK Rankings you can see how small the BMX rider population is - just 22 “Elite Men” are listed; with Shanaze Reade included amongst the men!
BMX is great fun for boys and girls - and should be encouraged; but this is not the same as being an Olympic sport. Most countries do not have a sufficient BMX competition structure to create a professional class. Back at the velodrome the 1 km time trial was dropped because - according to McQuaid - only 24 countries entered the 2004 event and the medal winners were predictable. But I’m pretty sure that Michael Phelps was not the surprise winner of those 6 swimming gold medals - and this predicability was no reason to cutback events in the pool. We will have to wait until next August to see how the Olympics BMX events work out. But based on the UCI’s reasoning there will have to be a lot more than 24 countries competing and long-odds outsiders will have to win the medals. Not only to justify including BMX but also to explain the unrelated dropping of track events.
[Update 1-Dec-2007: I now read, in Procycling’s latest issue, that Victoria Pendleton made the same points when interviewed but suggested skate boarding could be the new Olympic sport that will be used to “demand” a cut-back in cycling events. Time to draw up proposals for a greatly extended track programme - attack really is the best defence]
Will BMX survive as an Olympic sport until 2016, 2020 and beyond? Who knows? But will it matter to the vast majority of riders anyway? BMX has reached its current position without the help of the IOC or for that matter much from the UCI. There is just the slight chance that the sport’s administrators are trying to hitch up to someone else’s successful wagon. If BMX came out from under the control of the UCI would it loose any recogition? And would the UCI then get behind the events it should be supporting and press for the restoration of the missing track competitions?