June 27, 2005

And a Big Finger to the Fans …

The UCI, like many Olympic IFs, has been working on its image. In order to secure a place on the Olympic programme for cycling, the leaders of the UCI have been working to make it more popular. And there are only certain kinds of popularity that count — primarily, the number of eyeballs watching on TV.

So the UCI came up with a plan. With the IOC's blessing, they decided that they wanted to add BMX to the 2008 programme.

In general, the IOC doesn't oppose this kind of thing, but lately they've been a bit sticky about scope creep. They're really trying to keep the number of sports, the number of medals, and the number of athletes under their self-imposed cap (see also: boxing).

So when the UCI wanted to add BMX, they knew that there would have to be some cuts somewhere else. Recently, they announced where they're going to make those cuts, and boy, have they put their foot in it.

The victims here are the two track time trials: the men's 1000m (a.k.a. "the kilo") and the women's 500m. The kilo has been in the Olympics since 1928, while the women's 500 was just added in 2000.

For a look at how this is going over in the track cycling world, here's a piece from VeloNews (Aussies Irked), and a selection of the very heated coverage at BikeBiz.com (Universal Disbelief, Which NFs Voted?, IOC denies UCI President's Claim). BikeBiz.com, in particular, is doing a nice job sorting out exactly how this happened, politically speaking, and I'll leave that to the experts.

You could never cut a sport from the Olympics without upsetting somebody, and a certain amount of outrage is unavoidable. Nevertheless, this decision seems a bit irrational. Apparently the UCI were told that they had to cut out two medal events if they wanted to add two medal events, and they also probably have a quota for the total number of athletes. Faced with these restrictions, they decided to cut out the two individual time trials.

Frankly, this doesn't make a lot of sense. First of all, cutting out the two time trials is probably going to decrease the number of nations competing in track cycling. The time trials are good "entry events" for small countries; you don't have to support a big team, and the athletes can train without a big support infrastructure. Reducing the number of participating countries doesn't make cycling look good when it comes time for IOC evaluation.

And if we're talking about cuts, there are a couple of other choices that might have made more sense. Now, I am not a huge track cycling fan, and I live in North America, which limits my exposure; but I do watch a lot of the Olympics, and I have never seen the keirin on TV. Here's the description from the UCI website; I have read it several times and I still can't believe it:

In this event from Japan, 6 to 8 riders square up against one another in a sprint of from 600 to 700 m held after riding for around 1400 m behind a trainer on a moped, gradually increasing in speed from 30 to 50 km/h.

So basically it's 1400m of not racing, followed by 600m of racing? Brilliant. Additional information: at the Olympics, the keirin is only competed by men, and there were 17 participants in Athens.

Next we present the madison:

This requires a perfect understanding. The event is between teams of two riders with intermediate sprints. The ranking is drawn up on distance and the points won by the riders. With a maximum of 18 teams, generally run over 50 km, this is a spectacular event. The tea[m] members can take over from each other as and when they like, by touching hands or cycling shorts. While one of the riders is in the race, the other one goes round at slower speed.

I'll have to take their word that this is "spectacular," because I have never seen the madison on TV, either. (And if you can't adequately explain an event in a couple of sentences, it's probably too complicated for your average BMX fan anyway.) Again, the madison is only open to men at the Olympics; there were 18 participating nations (36 athletes) in Athens.

So even if you accept that BMX absolutely has to be added to the programme, and at the expense of track cycling, wouldn't it make sense to ditch these two obscure men's events, rather than the premiere sprinting events?

And anyway, who says track cycling should pay? Over at the road events, the Olympics play second fiddle to the professional European tour, at least for the men; and then you've got those unending drug problems. And watching the road time trials on TV is like … well actually I like watching the road time trials, but I'm a bit odd that way.

And while we're at it, who thinks it's a great idea to put BMX into the Olympics, anyway? The IOC likes to talk about limiting the size and scope of the Olympics, but how much is it going to cost the Beijing organizers to add a BMX track? When I attended the Olympic closing ceremonies, BMX was part of the entertainment. The Olympic games are supposed to be about sports. The two terms are not synonymous, believe it or not.

Of course, we all know why the UCI wants BMX; it's because it's going to bring in a huge TV audience of young people with money. Maybe BMX can be to cycling what beach volleyball is to volleyball, or what half-pipe snowboarding is to alpine skiing. Trying to make your sport more popular is not a bad thing. But let's have a little consideration for the people who already like cycling! This kind of marketing drives me nuts, and you see it all the time in sports: chasing after the audience you don't have, all the while giving a big "screw you" to the audience you do have.


Sean said...

The worst part about chasing after these types of fans is that they are generally nomadic: many of the casual BMX fans were formerly casual snowboarding fans, and will drop BMX when the next trendy sport comes along.

Amateur said...

If I can also stereotype a little bit, they also tend to be a group that has rejected "traditional" sports for one reason or another. So it's unlikely that they are going to become fans of the Olympics in the larger sense; they're only tuning in for one sport.