THE RACE was over in an instant, 36 seconds and change. In that small window of time, U.S. riders Mike Day, 23, and Donny Robinson, 25, took silver and bronze, respectively, behind world champion Maris Strombergs of Latvia—and bicycle motocross (BMX) made a golden Olympic debut. The IOC got it right, people agreed, swapping out track cycling time trials for this fast, young sport with its roots in the American dirt. "Everything happens at once," said New Zealand racer Marc Willers, describing a typical BMX heat. And because "everything" includes such elements as high-speed plunges, 40-foot jumps, savage race tactics and five-alarm wipeouts, this is one crowd-pleasing event. "It's always an adrenaline rush," said the Australian rider named, simply, Kamakazi.
"I think BMX is on the extreme side of things," said Kyle Bennett, 28, a three-time world champion from Conroe, Texas, and the prerace favorite. Bennett knows of what he speaks, having dislocated his left shoulder during a crash in the qualifying heats on Aug. 20. He wasn't alone: Liam Phillips from Great Britain also wrenched an arm from its socket while hurtling around the 370-meter track filled with dirt berms, grass obstacles and tight turns. While Phillips failed to advance, Bennett went on to compete in the semifinals two days later.
Things were no more delicate in the women's field. The semis were full of pileups, as was the medal race; women limped off the course carrying their bikes or picked themselves up and slowly rode to the finish. "I think I broke my hand," said world champion Shanaze Reade of Great Britain, who crashed trying to squeeze past leaders Anne-Caroline Chausson and Laetitia le Corguille of France on the last turn in the final. Jill Kintner of Seattle swerved around the fallen Reade, pulling into third and taking bronze. "This is unreal," said Kintner, who postponed reconstructive ACL surgery to compete in Beijing. "And with only one knee!"
Fast, steep and technically complex, the Laoshan course was a test, but the U.S. team was ready: They had built an exact replica at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. They were familiar with the track's 26-foot vertical start ramp, the equivalent of tearing down the side of a three-story building; they knew that being out front at the first turn—a crazy hairpin with a 60-degree bank—was key and that anyone caught back in the pack would probably leave some skin on the ground. And if it seemed as if Day had that corner aced, that's because he had moved to Chula Vista, Calif., last January to devote himself to studying its every contour. As he stood at the start of the medal race, Day says, he told himself, You worked four years for this one lap.
Talk about blood, sweat and tears. "I've fallen down and gotten back up. Fall off, gotten back up," said Reade, her gold medal dreams gone in a cloud of dirt. Clearly BMX is no sport for whiners. And with races this thrilling and athletes this gutsy, it's hard to imagine that we won't be seeing more of it in future Games. "We dig the Olympics," Donny Robinson said, speaking for his fellow riders. "This is our place."