For fans of extreme sports, BMX racing is surely in the top tier with surfing and skateboarding as one of the most exciting competitions to watch at the Tokyo Games.
It’s also among the most dangerous.
An action-packed day in which Great Britain rider Bethany Shriever won gold in the women’s event and Dutch rider Niek Kimmann took gold in the men’s did nothing to dispel either notion.
The races got off to a delayed start after a thunderstorm flashed through the area and momentarily looked like it might threaten the day’s competition. Stewards took to the course with leaf blowers and giant brooms to dry it out, and the sun did the rest of the work, creating exceptionally humid conditions once the races kicked off.
In the men’s final, seven riders battled it out for the podium on the purpose-built course at Ariake Urban Sports Park. Kimmann, who won gold, has had a week almost as bumpy as the course he was riding on, after a big crash in training on Monday left him with an injured knee when an official crossed the course without looking.
So this is what happened today. 💣 Hit an official that wanted to cross the 2nd straight. Hope the official is O.K. My knee is sore, but will do my best to be ready for Thursday! Thanks everyone for the messages, appreciate it! ❤️ pic.twitter.com/QOdJ2r0usT
— Niek Kimmann (@niekkimmann) July 26, 2021
Kimmann appeared in fine form today though, winning the race 0.114 seconds ahead of Great Britain’s Kye Whyte. Colombia’s Carlos Alberto Ramirez Yepes took bronze.
“This week has been an emotional rollercoaster,” said Kimmann in the post-race news conference. “When I hit the official I thought my dream was over, but after speaking with doctors and getting an MRI scan, I realised it would be possible to race, although not comfortable. It’s tough to win here even if you’re in the best shape ever, but I was prepared to struggle.
“For the final I was trying not to think about everything around me — the helicopter, the millions of people watching at home, the medal on the line. I just tried to focus on my job and keep it simple.”
In the women’s races, Shriever looked dominant throughout, comfortably winning her semifinal before powering to a gold medal in the finals. Colombia’s Marion Pajon, the Olympic gold medalist in 2012 and 2016, came a close second and the Netherlands’ Merel Smulders took bronze. Across the finish, Shriever collapsed into a heap, barely able to walk, and had to be carried to the side of the road by compatriot Whyte.
That Shriever’s journey to these Olympics had at one point been in question due to a lack of funding, makes her gold in Tokyo all the more impressive.
“There was no funding for the girls in British cycling for a while, so I ended up working part time as a teaching assistant and training on the side,” Shriever said after the race. “It was in 2019 that I crowdfunded to help with Olympic qualification and got to Australia with that money. I was then invited by Sparky (Stephen Park, British cycling’s performance director) to train full time up in Manchester. It was one of the best decisions I ever made and now here I am, a gold medalist.”
BMX racing tests riders’ skill and speed in the air as well as on the road, and the fiercely competed semifinals were packed with crashes that required two athletes, Saya Sakakibara of Australia and Connor Fields of the U.S., to be stretchered off the course after they crashed at high speed in their respective semifinals.
Addressing the danger of the sport after the race, Whyte said, “I’m ready for war. If you have fear that you’re going to crash, you might as well not get on the gate. There’s basically a crash every race, and you never know when it might be you.”
The Japanese team’s hopes for a podium position were dashed on Thursday after Yoshitaku Nagasako failed to advance past the men’s quarterfinals, and Sae Hatakeyama suffered her own crash in the women’s heat, which caused her to break her left collarbone.
“She is very disappointed, devastated, because she has been preparing for this for a long time, and now it is gone in seconds,” said coach Masahiro Sampei. “But she is still very young, and I hope she can make the most of this experience.”
BMX races are sprint-based competitions, with a maximum of eight cyclists racing at a time. The riders begin behind the start gate atop an 8-meter high, 35-degree starting ramp. The course is about 400 meters long and riders can reach up to 60 kph as they negotiate steep banking turns and a series of jumps and moguls atop their BMX racing bikes.
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