Jill Kintner knows better than just about anyone how the cycling program at the Summer Olympics can give someone an unexpected opportunity to chase their dreams.
Kintner began racing BMX bikes when she was 7 years old, eventually becoming one of the best in the world at it. She moved on to mountain biking but was lured back to BMX when the sport was added to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, eventually winning a bronze medal for the U.S. team.
“That,” she reflected recently, “was my chance to shine.”
These days, Kintner is one of the world’s best downhill mountain bikers, hurtling herself down rock-strewn trails at breakneck speeds in an adrenaline-pounding version of the sport. But not unlike her early years riding BMX, she must settle for world championships and other high-profile races as the pinnacle of her career – the event is not part of the Rio Games, and likely won’t be part of Tokyo 2020.
“It doesn’t really need it to succeed, but it would be nice,” Kintner said. “I wish all sports could have the recognition and glory they deserve, but it’s hard to decide who gets that chance.”
Downhill mountain biking and cyclocross, a combination of mountain biking and running, have boomed in popularity in recent years. So have freestyle BMX and other extreme versions of the sport. And that has made the UCI, cycling’s world governing body, take a close look at its Olympic programming.
The sport was once dominated by track events, but it has evolved over the past few decades to include BMX and cross-country mountain biking – disciplines that appeal to a younger demographic.
There are many considerations, though, not just popularity.
In the case of downhill mountain biking, finding a suitable mountain close enough to host cities could be problematic. It would have been a challenge four years ago in London and perhaps again this year in Rio. In the case of cyclocross, the discipline’s typical schedule begins in late fall and runs through the winter. And right now, there is no push for adding a cycling event to the Winter Games.
Then there’s the limit on medals that cycling can give out. The sport has been allotted 18 sets since the 2000 Sydney Games, and getting the IOC to agree to more is no easy task. So when the UCI has added a sport such as BMX, it came at the expense of other disciplines – track cycling, in that case.
UCI President Brian Cookson said there will be discussions about future Olympic programs after the Rio Games, but he cautioned that such decisions are not to be made lightly.
“There is quite a bit of pressure to look at other disciplines. We had BMX brought in, and we’re looking at the possibility of freestyle BMX at some point in the future,” he told The Associated Press. “But I don’t want it to be at the expense of our existing program, which is very, very strong.”
Indeed, cycling was among the most popular sports at the London Games. More than a million fans crowded the road course during the first two days of competition, and Paul McCartney and Prince William were among those who packed into the velodrome to watch the British team dominate the track events.
BMX and mountain biking also drew huge crowds late in the program.
“We’ll look at tweaking after Rio,” Cookson said, “but I want to do it from a position of strength.”
Cookson is keen to bring back some track cycling events lost over time, including the individual pursuit and Madison, but he’s open to other disciplines that could grow cycling’s reach.
Freestyle BMX is getting a tryout at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires in 2018.
The addition of downhill mountain biking or cyclocross would be a positive for the U.S., which has often struggled on the world stage in current Olympic disciplines. Aaron Gwin is the world’s top downhill rider, and Jeremy Powers and Katie Compton are among the best in the world in cyclocross.
“Yeah, it’s frustrating. It would be great to have Aaron win an Olympic medal, or Katie lining up for an Olympic medal,” said Marc Gullickson, who is in charge of elite downhill and cyclocross teams for USA Cycling.
“For sure,” he said, “it seems like we’re leaving cards on the table.”
But what is popular in the U.S. isn’t necessarily what is popular globally. Road and track cycling are wildly popular in Europe, Australia and elsewhere, and BMX has exploded in Latin America.
So, it becomes a precarious balancing act as the UCI considers future Olympic programs.
“I don’t know why there’s so many track cycling events, but that’s not up to me,” Kintner said with a laugh. “And I know that for track cyclists, this is their one chance to get recognition, so I wouldn’t want to take that away from them. It’s a hard discussion to have.”