X-Games Staple Goes Olympic
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The 2008 Olympics in Beijing are a little more than four months away and that has one set of athletes particularly stoked: BMX racers. Bicycle motocross is a medal event for the first time this summer. As NPR's Mike Pesca reports, it's part of a trend to bring more sports to the Olympics that appeal to young people.
MIKE PESCA: In BMX racing, riders in groups of eight launch themselves from a starting gate and attack a quarter mile of turns and hills. In skiing, these hills would be called moguls; here, they are rollers. Put 10 rollers in a row and they call it a rhythm section. In another sport, the soon-to-be Olympians would be called superstars. Here at this West Palm Beach-qualifying event, they're just the last group to race.
Unidentified Man: It's always good to see the friends and the family coming together for a little BMX in the sun, if you know what I mean.
PESCA: The best bet to represent the U.S. is BMX's top pro, Kyle Bennett, who's just now getting a real taste of fame.
Mr. KYLE BENNETT (BMX Pro): That was pretty cool when a guy from our local track came up to me and he was like, hey man, I saw you in the Sports Illustrated, you know, that was rad. That was pretty shocking, you know, it's pretty big for me, you know.
PESCA: Bennett is calm and laid-back whereas another elite rider, Donnie Robinson, is so extroverted he grants interviews during the rest periods between heats, or motos.
Mr. DONNIE ROBINSON (BMX Pro Rider): August over in Beijing is stinking worse than Florida so, that was the worst race we've ever been to as far as, you know, everyone being tired, I mean, everyone was puking and just passing out and - so I mean, it is good that we're kind of running it so fast even though it just kills us.
PESCA: The women's team will be made up of two riders. One of the favorites is Arielle Martin, who as they say has skin in the game.
Ms. ARIELLE MARTIN (BMX Pro Rider): Oh, it's not a bruise, that's just a scar, it's just the skin, you know, and nothing was broken. It just pretty much took a chunk of skin out.
PESCA: Martin is neck-and-bruised-neck in the standings with Jill Kitner, a former mountain bike champ.
Ms. JILL KITNER (Former Mountain Bike Champion): I know the people at the training center, they're all interested in what we're doing. And they come out and check out the ramp and they're like holy (bleep), look at the size of that Johnson.
PESCA: That ramp is the Beijing track signature feature, a 25-foot-high start that itself will guarantee the higher and faster part of the Olympic motto. It's the tallest starting ramp anywhere in the world - well, tied with the tallest, as Arielle Martin explains.
Ms. MARTIN: We have the replica built in our facility. We're lucky enough to have the USOC kick down enough money to get us that replica built, so I ride it almost every day.
PESCA: While Martin's husband is away fixing helicopters as an Army specialist in Afghanistan, she's taken on a roommate: her chief rival, Jill Kitner, who has plenty of time to contemplate that big ramp.
Ms. KITNER: You know, they wanted to see us jump bigger jumps and go faster, and that's what ramp did and, you know, it's not for everybody, and I guess, for fans, it's like the scale and stuff, all these people want more.
PESCA: But what do you think of it?
Ms. KITNER: I think maybe it's a little bit big, but, you know, it's fun to go down on and - it's just sketchy when you're next to eight people and someone cuts you off.
PESCA: Kitner knows the ramp will be dramatic on TV, and watchability was one of the main selling points for BMX to become an Olympic sport. Bob Tedesco is the managing director of the National Bicycle League. He says that the success of snowboarding in the Winter Olympics helped book BMX into Beijing.
Mr. BOB TEDESCO (Managing Director, National Bicycle League): The bottom line, too, is that NBC puts so much money into the Olympics. When they talk, people listen.
Their ratings are based on youth-oriented sports. There are thousands and thousands of kids doing this all around the world, as opposed to a few people that are running around a velodrome.
PESCA: Nothing against bicycle arenas, but the undulating dirt tracks of BMX are like speed metal to the velodrome's light rock. Or at least that's how the marketers see it. And therefore, that's how the networks saw it, and as a consequence, that's how the Olympics were made to see it.
Unidentified Man: Riders, ready, watch the gate.
PESCA: Here in West Palm Beach…
(Soundbite of beeping)
PESCA: …the riders are only seeing the hills and dips called step ups and table tops laid out before them. The elite men hit the starting gate in about 40 seconds; it's another Kyle Bennett victory. On the women's side, Arielle Martin wins, then pulls a pretty neat trick. After holding aloft her oversized winner's check, she calls over to a young rider, Bobby Jen Wincousky(ph).
Ms. BOBBY JEN WINCOUSKY (Young BMX Rider): She just came up to me and gave it to me. She said it's first place for us all. Too bad we ride hard.
PESCA: Right now, there is no BMX collectibles market. But come August, that piece of Styrofoam could be worth its weight in Olympic gold.
Mike Pesca, NPR News.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
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