Should downhill be in the Olympics?
Could downhill go for gold?
With Freestyle BMX being the latest 'extreme sports' to be added to the Olympic Roster, Tim WIld asks whether downhill could, or should, be next.
Words: Tim Wild
Four years ago I broke my collarbone quite badly when I slipped on a stupid, flat bit of trail and landed on a tree stump; think sledgehammer on the shoulder and you’ll get an idea of what my bone looked like. I was laid up for a few weeks and I spent most of my time glued to the London 2012 Olympics. The games were excellent in my opinion and of course I followed the inevitable discussion around DH and whether it should be an Olympic event with interest.
The unbridled enthusiasm of DH fans strikes me as a great thing, but I do wonder if can lead to a somewhat blinkered view of the world. As a bit of a realist, when I take my love of the sport out of the equation, I don’t think it’s as simple as saying “hell yeah, I think World Cups are rad, so DH deserves to be an Olympic sport". There are two questions to ponder before you decide whether the Olympics would be good for DH and they are: could DH be an Olympic sport and then should DH be an Olympic sport?
The could question isn’t as simple as you may think. First up, we need to make space for DH, so we need to drop a cycle sport. This may sound easy to us, but are the UCI and IOC really going to drop a track or road discipline - something that is easy to organise in any city and already has the media and spectator infrastructure in place – for a single discipline event that needs to be held in its own venue on a mountain somewhere up to 400 miles from the host city?
I think the logistics issue is a big barrier to DH being an Olympic sport. If the sport needs its own venue miles away from anything else for two races then it’s easy to see why the IOC aren’t really clamouring to get it on board. So, could DH be an Olympic event and retain its natural environment? It’s unlikely.
What about the format? There isn’t anything quite like DH as we see it at World Cup level in the Olympics; we see very few individual time trial events on foot, wheels or water. There is the road time trial, but as it’s so long we have multiple riders on the course passing through the check points within a couple of minutes of each other, building great tension as the race unfolds and making good TV. The cycling time trial events on the track are generally run head-to-head to give excitement and keep things moving, or are very short.
The canoe slalom events draw more of a comparison. Technical skills, fitness and an ‘extreme’ label result in excitement for the viewer; the finals in 2012 made compelling viewing.
What can we learn from canoe slalom? Well, first up we – that’s TV viewers and spectators in the stands – get to see every second of every run. Every gate, paddle stroke and ferry glide is shown in glorious HD and slow motion replay; and that analysis matters when 100ths of a second count and you are trying to pull people into the event. Imagine 8 million viewers not seeing the exact moment rider A made the mistake that cost them the gold medal.
Secondly, the sport has been taken out of its natural environment. Purists will tell you canoeing belongs on the rivers like mountain biking belongs on the trails. White water centres like Cardiff International and Nottingham can be seen as good things for the sport, accessible with good facilities and a safe environment to learn. Could the Olympic event have been held on the Dee at Llangollen, for example? When you think about the logistics of things like getting grandstands next to the action, parking for spectators, gantries for TV cameras, hospitality for press and sponsors it starts looking like a right headache.
Thirdly, the races are short. Olympic events have to cater for the masses. Like it or not, they are not just aimed at regular spectators. Newcomers need to understand what they are seeing and have to be pulled in with excitement and results immediately. In a world of high technology and short attention spans, when it come to against the clock racing, a minute and a half of pure action gives a fast turnover of competitors and instant gratification to viewers.
So... what do we do? Build short, manmade courses in a good location on which we can see every second of the racing as well as making it a more appealing prospect logistically? Half the length of the races we see at WC level to keep people interested? Have two runs with a combined time to add tension? Run Qualifiers, Quarters, Semi’s and finals? I’m not sure myself.
Could DH be an Olympic event in its current format? I’m even less convinced that I was before.
Should DH be an Olympic event? Of course, the exposure would be a great thing for the sport commercially, there is no question. I don’t know about you but I’m not convinced that it would be a good thing for the sport when it comes to retaining the current ‘feel’. It’s a gut feeling for me, but when I look back at BMX and its inclusion in the Olympics it lost a bit of its edge; UCI officials all over the place, IOC delegates looking on, national teams and rules. Riders becoming slaves to an Olympic programme? Tracks built in the most convenient location rather than the best location? Changes to the format that would run over into world cups? Uptight officials, national teams and sponsors? No thanks.
I’m thankful that I’m not the person in charge and that I don’t need to make the changes that DH would have to make to fit into the Olympic family. While I would love to see my favourite riders become household names and see better coverage of DH racers on TV as well as bigger, televised national races, I know I need to be careful what I wish for. It isn’t just the action on the track that appeals to me; DH has an accessibility, simplicity and community that make a good sport great. Imagine if a fanatic that’s on the edge of control didn’t provide the commentary or if the coverage you read of the sport was written by jobbing journalists rather than those that are there for the love of the sport?
Wanting the sport to stay ‘cool’ over commercial success may seem a bit selfish, but I’d love to see the commercial growth while the sport retains its character. I really believe that there is a bright future for DH; I just don’t believe that the future involves the famous five rings.