Commentary

BMX's unpredictability makes it a predictable success at Olympics

Updated: August 22, 2008, 9:18 AM ET
By Alyssa Roenigk | ESPN The Magazine

BEIJING -- If we've learned anything over the past few days, it is that anything can happen at any time. It's a lesson we're supposed to pick up as kids, the first time we're blowing away a group of fifth graders in a race at recess only to trip 10 yards from the finish. The reality is, sometimes our expectations get the better of us.

As we watched the previously undefeated U.S. women's softball team step onto the silver-medal podium Thursday night, or the men's and women's 4x100 relay teams drop batons on their final handoffs, or Tyson Gay and Shawn Johnson fall short of the expectations thrust upon them before arriving in Beijing, we shouldn't have acted so surprised. Some days, David beats Goliath. Clean triumphs over dirty. Heart succeeds over strength. It is why we watch sports.

[+] EnlargeMike Day
AP Photo/Ivan SekretarevMike Day survived a few crashes to land silver in the first BMX competition of the Olympics.

And it is the reason BMX will succeed at the Olympics.

"In our sport, the fastest guy doesn't always win," said bronze medalist Donny Robinson after the first BMX medal ceremony in Olympic history. Neither, as the world watched and discovered Friday morning, does the fastest girl. Or the rider who's leading into the final turn. Any BMX fan knows better than to expect their favorite rider to win -- no matter who they are or how many titles they own.

The sheer unpredictability of BMX racing is what makes it so exciting, and nerve-rattling, to watch. Not only might the fastest rider not win, but he might also not make it out of the first turn. In track and field, a fourth-place finish by a runner favored to win is considered a failure. In BMX, it's just part of the sport.

The rider who wins is often the shrewdest, or most aggressive or fastest out of the gate. And, sometimes, it's simply the luckiest rider that day.

"I think I did an excellent job of showing the world how great BMX is," Robinson said. "I crashed -- a lot -- and I came back from those crashes."

His teammate, Mike Day, who was the fastest rider in the time trials and nearly flawless over the two days of Olympic competition, finished second in the final behind Maris Strombergs of Latvia. Jill Kintner, the lone female on the U.S. team, took bronze in the women's final. Kyle Bennett, who separated his shoulder in Wednesday's quarterfinals, rode all three semifinal heats, but just missed qualifying for the final.

"I separated my shoulder once, and I was laid up for three weeks," Day said. "I can't imagine how much pain he was in today."

Watching a 40-second BMX race is a bit like watching the 400 meters, except the BMX version would see LaShawn Merritt bolt from his lane and dive tackle Jeremy Wariner in Turn 3 to leave just enough crawlspace for David Neville to squeeze through for a win … after completing an oversized obstacle course.

"BMXers can tell you all day why we think our sport belongs in the Olympics," Robinson said. "But the viewers and spectators should dictate that."

The reaction from one of the most internationally diverse crowds at any event at these Games -- the 16 riders in the women's final represented 13 countries; 11 for the men -- should be all the IOC needs to declare BMX a success. At several points during the races, Olympic volunteers walked through the stands requesting that the overzealous fans, "sit down, please." Needless to say, that never happened.

"This is so exciting to watch," said Jerome Pierson, a 38-year-old French fan who recently moved to Beijing. "I raced BMX bikes when I was young, so this reminds me of being a kid."

Which is another reason why this sport will succeed. It appeals to both the highly coveted teen demographic and is equally beloved by parents who grew up during the early days of BMX. And, of course, there are the crashes.

"It's exciting to watch and it's so much like boardercross," said 2006 Olympic snowboard silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler, who was in the stands watching her first BMX race in person. "I think it is going to do for Summer what snowboarding has done for the Winter Olympics -- give people a fresh new perspective. And there's a lot of carnage."

In the first of three semis, Swiss rider Roger Rinderknecht crashed in the first turn -- which ate up nearly one-third of the field at some point over the course of the two days of competition -- slid off the track and nearly took out an NBC cameraman with his bike. In the women's final, Shanaze Reade of Great Britain, the favorite to win the event, caught the back tire of silver medalist Laetitia le Corguille in the final turn, slid out and then watched the other six women pass her as she lay on the track, her gold medal gone. That went to Anne-Caroline Chausson of France.

In his third heat, Robinson caught the back tire of another rider in the first straightaway, flew to his face and cracked part of the visor off his helmet. As he staggered to his feet, the crowd began screaming and chanting for Robinson to get back on his bike. What he didn't see, but the crowd certainly didn't miss, was that another crash had taken out two mid-pack riders. "Pass them! Pass them!" the U.S. fans shouted. And that's what he did, rolling across the finish in sixth place, which secured his spot in the final race.

"I'm happy," Robinson said. "It's been a long road. This medal will be sleeping with me tonight."

Those who believed BMXers wouldn't embrace the Olympics need only to listen to riders like Robinson talk about taking part in the Games. Or, better yet, check out the cuffs of Kintner's jersey sleeves. Before the race, Kintner scrawled notes to herself. On the right, in black Sharpie, she wrote, "In memory for dad," for her father, who passed away in 2006. On the left, "G" for her coach Greg Romero, the word "form" to remind her to pay attention to her riding, and "primal" to remind her to sometimes throw form out the window and react on instinct.

As Kintner rose up out of her seat and her hands gripped the handlebars before each run, she looked at the words for a reminder of why she was here.

"I was wearing my dad's love on my sleeve," Kintner said after the race. "He was definitely there in spirit."

That doesn't sound much like a disaffected action sports athlete.

Which is why BMX is here to stay.

Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Alyssa Roenigk

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com whose assignments covering action sports, Olympics and football have taken her to six continents and caused her to commit countless acts of recklessness. In 2012, she joined the X Games TV broadcast team and ordered additional pages for her passport. Follow her on Twitter at @espn_alyssa.