Tokyo 2020: From E.T. to the Olympics - The day BMX won over a nation with Bethany Shriever and Kye Whyte
When Steven Spielberg released the film E.T., he probably didn’t expect to put the wheels in motion for BMX to surge in popularity. But nearly 40 years on, the sport has found a home at Olympic level – a stage no one is quibbling about in Britain after Bethany Shriever and Kye Whyte struck gold and silver on Fab Friday. You want it? We have it. Stream every Olympic event live on discovery+
‘Life changing!’ – Shriever and Whyte celebrate the enormity of their success in BMX
Every time a fashionable new sport is added to the Olympic programme a shudder goes through traditionalists, who would like to keep the world just as it is, thank you very much. Some will have grumbled when BMX joined the party at Beijing in 2008.
The pair were all over the morning news bulletins - and so was their sport. Never had BMX racing put a spring in the country’s step and seldom has Liam Gallagher tweeted his love for a minor Olympic activity. A sport sparked into life by the film E.T. (I’m not making this up) has just phoned home.
For Tokyo, the International Olympic Committee added baseball/softball, karate, skateboard, sports climbing and surfing. There were gripes aplenty - often from people who abhor change and want to carry on imposing their tastes on the young. Eighteen events and 474 athletes were added to the Tokyo show.
The IOC president Thomas Bach said: “We want to take sport to the youth. With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.
“Taken together, the five sports are an innovative combination of established and emerging, youth-focused events that are popular in Japan and will add to the legacy of the Tokyo Games.”
Much of this zeal is commercially driven and designed to please the host country. New sports are left to thrive or die as Olympic spectacles. Some merely retain a niche following. Others find a global hook. It helps when a 13-year-old (Momiji Nishiya) wins gold in skateboarding or social media goes giddy for a surfer having his board snapped in half by a wave. You can argue all day about the choices the IOC make about which sports to promote, but the instinct is correct. The schedule has to reflect global tastes and emerging forces, not the closed shop of complacent and fading sports.
‘Wow!’ – 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya secures gold with incredible move
Compared to the sports added to the Tokyo schedule, BMX is a veteran now, but this was its British breakthrough: an important one, because this urban, punchy, frenetic form of riding reaches into parts of the country more traditional middle-class sports often fail to reach. BMX races are sprints by riders who launch from an eight-metre, 35-degree hill and can reach 60km on a 40m course of jumps and banked corners. It’s viewed too as “a contact sport.”
In Britain BMX has had to fight for the right. Shriever left the national set-up when UK Sport looked at the results and said it would fund only the male riders. She turned to crowdfunding and worked as a teaching assistant. In 2018 the funders relented and released an extra £1.8m for BMX and the Madison so Shriever returned to British Cycling. In the ruthless ‘No Compromise’ age UK Sport wanted proof that medals would be won. Shriever is an example of someone who was invested in (belatedly) for their potential - a healthier approach.
‘Look what it means!’ - Shriever wins stunning gold for GB in BMX
The BMX track in Albany Road, Peckham, is a stronghold of community action and the club have added their name to the list of ‘watch parties’ from which Britain’s Olympians have drawn strength. Whyte’s brother Tre won a World Championship bronze in 2014 and Kye's mum and dad both wept as they shared the win on screens with their new Olympic hero son. The club was co-founded by Key’s father, Nigel, whose three sons all took up BMX. Kye moved to British Cycling’s Manchester HQ in 2018 but at first found the routine and expectations difficult.
"Growing up in Peckham, I was known as the wheely kid or the BMX kid, not part of [the gang culture]” he told Reuters in a recent report. "BMX gave me respect for my elders and for myself. It’s kept me on the straight and narrow."
We in the media love a tale of inner-city triumph. We impose assumptions about how life might have turned out but for the redeeming power of sport. It can be facile, and often condescending. But any podium finishes that democratise British Olympic sport deserve an extra jig of celebration. The farming of medals by mainstream, mega-funded sports has been enjoyable but the BMX gold and silver from Tokyo freshened the palette.
Whyte claims silver on medal-laden morning for Great Britain
According to the official blurb: “BMX racing has its roots in the racing culture that started in California between the 1960s and 1970s. Influenced by motocross riders, children tried to imitate their heroes, but the sport remained relatively small until the 1980s. In 1982, the movie E.T. was released and helped popularise BMX racing mostly due to the famous final chase scene. That year the BMX bike became the ‘must have’ bicycle for children and teenagers.”
So many times we see a couple of medals and shout that a sport will now write its way into the culture. Often they return to struggle and relative anonymity. BMX, though, has surely taken off.
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