“When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big-league ball players and the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time.”
— General George S. Patton, Jr., international ass kicker
Time was in this country, we pulled ourselves out of the rack before dawn, slammed down a cup of joe — black — rucked up, and kicked international ass. No, really, pick up any history textbook, and it’s replete with page after page of international ass kicking. Heck, when we weren’t going abroad to kick ass we’d stay here at home and kick each other’s ass (See; Ft. Sumter – Appomattox, 1861-1865). Well praise the Lord and pass the bean dip, because in this most wretched of seasons for a good portion of the country it is time once again for the big enchilada of all international competitions, The Winter Olympics, currently being hosted in a war zone in Russia.
There is only one problem with this; it’s not exactly my winter competition of choice. I mean, sure, ice dancing and curling have their allure, for someone…somewhere…I suppose. But what about us, the two wheeled faithful? We’ve been patient, very patient, 110 years worth of patient to be exact, the last time an exhibition motorcycle race was held in conjunction with the Olympic Games. Why are we still taking a back seat to a bunch of Jamaicans on a glorified Flexible Flyer, and rock tossing Norwegians with brooms and Rodney Dangerfield golf pants?
Look at the history of international motorcycle competition, it’s not without its success stories, and it’s not a novel idea. Other international events have attracted enthusiastic followings; the Transatlantic Trophy match races, the International Six Days Trials turned International Six Days Enduro – often dubbed the Olympics of Motorcycling – the Motocross des Nations, and most recently the revived Superprestigio Dirt Track event in Spain with American Brad Baker bringing home the glory. All successful events in their own right, but success largely limited to the gathered faithful and the true believers, not a general audience.
What if we could bring all the disciplines together under one umbrella, a true motorcycle Olympics, even if largely restricted to indoor venues allowing for easier TV coverage? Supermoto, arena-cross, ice racing, trials, short track and TT racing, and yes, scooter racing. Does that sound nuts to you? How do you think it sounded the first time somebody proposed moving an outdoor motocross indoors? I’m sure that suggestion had a few scratching their heads.
But this most recent Olympics nugget I tripped across the other day left me wondering just who is nuts here. According to syndicated columnist Norman Chad, who must have a highly paid research assistant chained to a radiator looking these things up, NBC in its various incarnations is devoting an astounding 1,539 hours to Winter Olympics coverage. Now I get it, people love nuts, particularly in February, hell, half the nation is nuts in February, why else do you think they would watch ice dancing and grown men with brooms hurling rocks across frozen water, for 1,539 hours? But this is certifiable.
If NBC can assail the world with 1,539 hours of team figure skating and the like — Vas ist das team figure skating anyway? — we can inflict supermoto, short track, trials, arena-cross, and TT racing on an unsuspecting civilian populace. And don’t tell me we couldn’t put together a scooter road race team. If the tiny tropical island of Jamaica can field a bobsled team, we can assemble a scooter crew to represent the USA. In fact, “We,” wouldn’t have to do anything. “They,” have already done it themselves. You pick any one of those sporting disciplines of moto-competition listed above and I can show you organizations somewhere in the United States that are holding or planning events right now.
I apparently am not the only one who is left nonplussed by Norwegians skiing through conifers for hours on end stopping only to shoot their squirrel rifles occasionally. Former F1, CART, and IRL driver Eddie Cheever made a case for the inclusion of motorsports in the Olympics several years back in an interview with GrandPrix.com:
“What better venue than the Olympics to determine the best driver in the world?” Cheever argued. “Ever since the first Olympics, man has been competing in athletic endeavors. Be it running, jumping, swimming – we want to know who is best in the world. Driving a race car is an athletic endeavor, and I want to know who is best.”
“If you make a mistake in most Olympic events, the consequences aren’t very severe,” Cheever goes on. “You might fall down or pull a muscle or lose the competition. In racing, if you make a mistake, there is an immediate physical payment. The downside is not just failing. It’s possibly fatal. Because of that consequence alone, it requires an incredible amount of concentration.”
Cheever even went so far as to suggest that the Chinese could hold a GP in conjunction with their 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, to which I can only say, “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!” And if what Cheever is claiming is true for cars, how much more true is it of motorcycles, where you can actually see the rider work to hustle that machine to the front? People think downhill skiing is all that and a bag of chips? A knee on the ground at triple digit speeds, lap after lap, will have them hovering over the guacamole dip positively transfixed. Now it’s true that currently the Olympic charter prohibits motorized competition, but it’s not as though motorsports haven’t been included in an Olympic format in the past, almost from the advent of the modern games in fact.
According to none other than the International Society of Olympic Historians, the 1900 Paris games featured 16 events for various contraptions to include motorcycles in both the Paris-Toulouse-Paris rally, as well as a series of reliability run competitions. It’s largely accepted now that these events comprised Olympic exhibition contests, one step short of full fledged Olympic Games, with one notable aquatic exception. The prize money awarded the winners of the rally portion of the competition excluded those racers from amateur status at the time. Likewise, the on again-off again motorsports exclusion from the Olympic Games clouded the status of the reliability run entrants, even though the racers were awarded medals in lieu of cash prizes back in the day.
You have to remember the modern Olympics as we have come to know them only arrived on the scene in 1896. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was making up the rules as they went. In the 1908 London Summer Games powerboat racing was for the first time a full blown Olympic medal event — motorsports exclusion be damned — after having debuted in 1900 as an exhibition. Unfortunately the briny of Old Blighty did not cooperate that summer, a gale blew up, and the majority of the assembled fleet of entrants DNFd. In short, the ill-fated 1908 powerboat race marked the first, and the last, full-fledged motorized medal event in the modern Olympic era.
In similar short-lived fashion, for five days in late June of 1900 — six if you count the scheduled maintenance day at the halfway point — 13 teams of the two-wheeled variety gridded their bikes up with the ground rules set. The land based lads faired significantly better. Each team was required to complete 70 laps of the track at Lac Daumesnil, 30 laps in the morning and 40 in the afternoon, for roughly 100 miles at speed each day.
These racers were not only arguably Olympic competitors, exhibition or otherwise, they were also pioneers, and those that lasted the duration had logged an impressive 500 miles at the event’s conclusion. One of the gold medals awarded in the reliability run went to brothers Eugene and Michael Werner who were riding their own invention, a machine they called the, “Moto-Bicyclette.” Despite the promising beginning, motorcycle racing was not embraced by the IOC either. The last mention of an Olympic motorcycle competition of any sort was in 1904 at the Summer Games held in St. Louis. We have been left wandering in the desert to watch synchronized swimming events ever since.
So here we are 110 years later, and in many ways ESPN’s X Games has strived to fill this motorsports vacuum. It is brilliantly packaged for TV with many of the events being held in stadiums, it appeals to a younger generation that likely could care less about uneven parallel bars or ice dancing routines, and it brings together a lot of the successful elements of AMA Supercross; the aerial shows, and the pumped up vibe associated with the whole scene.
Brad Baker of AMA dirt track fame, no stranger to international events, hopes to expand the Winter X Games format to include ice racing as a medal competition, and has cleared the way to run a new Harley-Davidson Street 750 in an exhibition event. Our own Evans Bransfield caught up with him for a recent interview. (See; “A Conversation with AMA Grand National Champion Brad Baker” http://www.motorcycle.com/features/conversation-ama-grand-national-champion-brad-baker.html)
Baker summed up in a nutshell the unique nature of two-wheeled motorsports when he said, “It’s a very exciting sport that brings a different type of excitement than some of the other games that are already in the X Games.”
Hear, hear, Mr. Baker, and that statement holds true for the Olympics too I might add. We bring an immediacy, a palpable tension, a high octane-balls to the walls-charge for turn one buzz to the whole scene that is unique to motorcycle racing. We are that, “different form of excitement,” that deserves their own stand alone event open to competitors, and teams, representing their respective nations from all around the world. Or in the alternative, a place under the big tent that is the Summer and Winter Olympics.
There are plenty of players with the requisite experience to sort the viability of all this out; The IOC, the Federation of International Motorcycling (FIM), ESPN Sports, NBC, the various manufactures, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface. And finally there are plenty of fans from Malaysia to Memphis who would tune in. Nobody would be reinventing the wheel here; they’d simply be orchestrating all the wheels to pull in the same direction at more or less the same venue at the same time. Logistics and cultivating revenue sources are not new to these organizations; they are good at this stuff.
So howsabout it? We’ve waited patiently for over 100 years. As heart stopping as team figure skating is, the world might just be ready for something a little less inscrutable. Racing is as old as the ancient Olympics themselves, and the rules are simple: When the green flag drops, the bullshit stops, the start/finish line does not recognize, “style points.” In the meantime I will continue to look optimistically forward to the day when the next, “Miracle on Ice,” Olympians are sporting MX boots rather than hockey skates, and Scott Russell emerges as the heir apparent to the Olympic Games’ Bob Costas in all things moto-related, sans Marty Feldman eyeball I hope.