One of the usual memes you see every time an Olympiad comes around is fans of a particular sport questioning the value of having another sport in the Games. Something more recently amplified by Twitter.
Why is synchronised swimming in the Olympics? That’s not a real sport. Same for dressage, Show jumping, the modern pentathlon or more recently, mountain biking and BMX. Some wonder why ‘professional’ sports like Tennis are included. Shouldn’t the Olympics be reserved for the amateurs? As if today’s full-time shot putter or javelin thrower is an amateur in the true sense of the word.
Similarly, if you were an Olympian in either mountain biking or BMX, you’d be wondering what you need to do to get a little respect from some corners of the cycling world.
Cycling doyen Phil Liggett was quoted in Melbourne’s Herald Sun tabloid as saying these newcomers to the Olympic family would have founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin “laughing his head off”.
"It is absolutely disgraceful what they have done. They have devastated the track with the new events and taking out the iconic events of the Olympics," Liggett told the paper.
"They have taken out the exciting and interesting events - the individual pursuit, the 1km time trial and the women's 500m time trial, and put in an omnium that no one will ever understand.
"There is only one rider from each country in the omnium and they are a jack of all trades and master of none.
"Nations and riders complained, but the UCI (International Cycling Union) wanted equality," he said.
"They got that but they also took out women's events. They introduced BMX. Great, but I am sure (Olympics founder) Pierre de Coubertin would have laughed his head off if he found out it was an Olympic discipline.
"It might be exciting but we are talking the Olympic Games.
"We have never had a good mountain biking event. Thousands will watch them but they are not Olympic gold medal events.
"They weren't meant to be in the Olympic Games."
Both mountain biking and BMX may be relative newcomers to the cycling family but they have some of the best athletes in the world in their ranks. Mountain bike world champion Jaroslav Kuhavy of the Czech Republic and Australia’s BMX stars Caroline Buchanan and Sam Willoughby among them.
Cadel Evans is both a mountain bike Olympian and Tour de France champion. Unworthy in one but worthy in the other? Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal also rode from the dirt to the tarmac. The list grows when you look deeper. And in fact mountain biking appears to be a fertile field in which to grow Grand Tour riders. It can be like looking into the future.
I’d argue that cross-country (XC) mountain biking more than deserves its place because it is a larger more broad based sport than track cycling. More so when you look at specific events. The XC Enduro scene is vibrant in a way local track cycling is not, with hundreds of athletes competing regularly on weekends. Check out the ABSA Cape Epic in South Africa some time. There isn’t a similar participation rate for any individual pursuit that I’m aware of.
The practical focus of track cycling is at the elite level while in mountain biking it is community. Surely there is a place for sport with a different kind of appeal in the Olympic Games?
Don't the athletes of mountain biking and BMX deserve their chance at further development and a spotlight on the world’s biggest sporting stage?
Ligget’s comments have placed many in the mountain biking and broader cycling world on the defensive, including Cycling Australia’s Graham Fredricks.
“The deficiencies with the current track program have nothing to do with BMX,” said Fredricks. “Track could easily be enhanced with the cooperation of the UCI and the IOC addressing the mix of events and considering a couple of extra medal events without any requirement to increase the number of athletes.”
Puzzled Canadian mountain bike Olympian Geoff Kabush is one rider who spends a bit of time crossing over.
“I think there are great events across all cycling disciplines,” said Kabush. “I ride the road a lot, and I’ve ridden a little BMX for fun, and I’ve even gone around the track a few times. There are exciting races in all disciplines, and unfortunately at the Olympics they can’t have them all. It’s the nature of the Games.”
It’s not that I disagree with Liggett about the decimation of the track program at the Olympics. His observations are correct and he is voicing what many of us have said since the changes came into effect.
But the Olympics is not just any sporting event.
It needs to be an evolving spectacle or it will end up like its founder, six feet under and oblivious to modernity. It needs to evolve because it is equally an entertainment extravaganza as it is a sporting event, and it needs to attract new demographics to remain relevant in an ever-changing world.
Cycling evolves too. Outside of a few special events we don’t ride (or race) Penny Farthings on a daily basis any more, do we?
Remember too that elite cycling already controls its own destiny on an annual basis, in events that I would argue, are far superior to any Olympic Games, the various world championships.
These really do bring the best of each sport to each event and are not generally hamstrung by the artificial scarcity imposed on the Olympics, running a full slate of events.
Have we already forgotten the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Melbourne? It had everything. And it was epic.
This year’s UCI Road Cycling World Championships will not only feature the usual wide variety events but also reintroduce a previously run spectacle, a teams time trial. There is something you won't see in the Olympics. That already makes the worlds a more highly anticipated event. And you will get to see it streamed live right here at Cycling Central.