In 1896, Greece welcomed 241 athletes from 14 nations to compete in the inaugural modern Olympic Games. These athletes-all men-competed in 43 events ranging from the triple jump to one-handed weightlifting.
While some sports from the first modern Olympiad have been dropped-one-handed weightlifting among them-the program has expanded considerably in the past 112 years.
When the Games of the XXIX Olympiad open in Beijing on August 8, 2008, more than 10,000 athletes will participate in 302 events across 28 sports. New on the program this year are BMX racing, 3,000-meter women's steeplechase, and a long-distance 10-kilometer freestyle swim called the marathon.
Here's a look at these new events and how the U.S. is expected to fare.
According to the American Bicycle Association, BMX-or bicycle motocross-started somewhere in southern California in the early 1970s when kids on their little Schwinn Stingrays began mimicking motocross in a vacant lot. The sport spread across the U.S. thanks partly to Bruce Brown's motorcycling film, On Any Sunday, released in 1971.
Today, more than 60,000 BMX racers belong to the ABA, and the sport has spread around the world. Cycling's international governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), reports that 43 nations have organizations that govern BMX racing. Given its popularity, the International Olympic Committee's Executive Board voted in June 2003 to include BMX at the Beijing Olympics.
BMX is an almost made-for-TV sport. From the gun, racers on small Schwinn-Stingray-like bikes sprint head-to-head around a dirt course that's punctuated-much like its motocross cousin-by jumps and 180-degree banked turns. Wearing helmets and pads similar in appearance to those worn in motocross, the racers fly in the air off the jumps, skid their rear wheels around the turns, and sprint madly for the finish line. Whoever crosses first wins, with no bonus points for big air.
BMX bikes have wheels as small as 20 inches in diameter (compared to 27-inch road bike wheels and 26-inch mountain bike wheels), and the bikes lack the suspension systems that mountain bikers enjoy.
Most BMX courses are 300-400 meters long and races last 30-40 seconds, with the men and women competing in elimination rounds. Eight riders race head-to-head in the final round, winner take all.
The U.S. will head to Beijing as the top-ranked country in the world in BMX. Three-time World Champion Kyle Bennett (Conroe, Texas) and World Cup winner Donny Robinson (Napa, Calif.) are both heavy favorites for the gold.
Bennett, 28, moved into the lead in the UCI world standings after finishing fourth in a World Cup race, held May 10, 2008, in Denmark. As the top-ranked U.S. rider in the international standings, Bennett clinched the first spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
Robinson-24, and known as Dr. Donny-showed he can win the Games by riding to victory at the official Olympic Test Event on the Olympic Track against a world-class field last August. He also leads the 2008 World Cup series after winning the World Cup race in Denmark. It is the last World Cup event before the Olympic Games, with the series resuming in September.
The U.S. women's team doesn't share the same depth as the men's team, considering three-time mountain bike "mountaincross" world champion Jill Kintner (Seattle, Wash.) was the only woman to qualify for Team USA. Kinter, is ranked number one in women's BMX Rankings in the U.S.
Since 2002, Kinter, 26, has competed in mountaincross (also known as four cross or 4X), a head-to-head mountain bike event that's similar to BMX racing. But now with her eye on the 2008 Olympic Games-and there is no 4X mountain bike event at the Games-she's once again racing on 20-inch wheels.
"I am putting all my effort into this goal of making it to Beijing and becoming the best bike rider I can be," she says.
Kintner's roots are in BMX racing. She has over 70 career wins in BMX and won the UCI World Championships in 1997 in her age category. "It's easy to switch from a BMX bike to a mountain bike, but it's tricky to go the other way," she explains on her Web site, jillkintner.com. "Mountain bikes are more stable and roll smoother; you can hit jumps without being perfect, but on a BMX bike you have to be perfect."
Helping the U.S. BMX riders in their Olympic quest is the new BMX track built at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. The course was built by Tom Ritzenthaler, who also built the BMX venue in Beijing. U.S. Olympic Team Trials for BMX will be held on this course June 14, 2008.
"The course is very challenging and very technical," Ritzenthaler said before the track opened in January. "It's almost the same course they'll see in Beijing, which is huge for the athletes. They'll be training and competing on a one-of-a-kind course and will be very comfortable with the obstacles. This course at the Training Center has an eight-meter start ramp-there are no other permanent courses with a start ramp that high in the United States."
"It's going to be such an advantage having this replica track in our back yard," Kinter says.
According to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), steeplechase was born out of a wager among Oxford students in 1850, with participants racing from one town to the next using each town's church steeple as a marker. The first events imitated horse racing and were held over a two-mile cross-country course with hurdles, other obstacles, and streams to cross.
Steeplechasing was brought to the track as part of the English championships in 1879 and became an Olympic Games event-for men-in 1900. In the 3,000-meter race-the same length that both the men and women will run at the Olympic Games-steeplechasers run 7.5 laps, hurdle four barriers (called steeples) and one barrier in front of a water pit per lap.
The steeple is a four-inch-by-four-inch wooden beam that does not tip over when hit like standard sprinters' hurdles. The steeple is 36 inches tall for men and 30 inches tall for women. The water pit for both genders is 12 feet by 12 feet.
Women's steeplechase was first included in the IAAF World Championship in 2005. That same year, the IOC Executive Board voted to include women's steeplechase in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
"It's funny that it took so long to add women's steeplechase (to the Olympic Games) when men have done it for so long," says Ann Gaffigan, who won the 2004 Olympic trials in the event (trials were held despite the fact that the event was not contested in Athens). Gaffigan, 26, is also Webmaster for steeplechics.com, a leading provider of steeplechase information for girls and women.
"I think the real reason they haven't added (women's steeplechase) until now is we use lower barriers (than the men), and it was too much of a pain to get adjustable barriers," she adds. "I don't think they wanted to buy new barriers. It's sad."
The U.S., however, is not a strong contender in the event. No American woman made the final at the 2007 IAAF World Championships last August, and the American record, set by Lisa Galaviz (Gilbert, Ariz.) at 9:28.75 in Belgium last July, is far from the world record of 9:01. 59 set by Russia's Gulnara Samitova-Galkina at in April 2004.
Leading contenders for the U.S. team include Galaviz, 28, and University of Colorado junior Jennifer Barringer, 21, who won the 2007 U.S. title with a time of 9:34.64. Barringer then went on to won the 2007 DecaNation Championships in Paris in 9:33.95, beating the woman who had finished fifth at 2007 Worlds.
Gaffigan (Lincoln, Neb.) says she has struggled since she won the 2004 Olympic trials (setting the American record at the time at 9:39.35) but is finding her form again this year.
Other contenders include 23-year-old Emily Brown (West Allis, Wisc.) and 24-year-old Anna Willard (Ann Arbor, Mich.). Brown is having a breakout season, says Gaffigan. Running in her first steeplechase of the year at the Drake Relays on April 26, 2008, the 2007 University of Minnesota graduate posted her personal best time of 9:45.38 to win the event.
Willard, who graduated from Brown University in 2006 but then attended the University of Michigan (to use her last year of NCAA eligibility), finished second behind Barringer at 2007 nationals in 9:34.72. The 2007 NCAA steeplechase champion, she's keeping pace this year, running a 9:37.73 at the Cardinal Invitational in Palo Alto, Calif., in April.
Three American "steeplechicks" will qualify for Beijing during the track and field Olympic Trials, scheduled for June 27-July 6 in Eugene, Ore. At the Olympics, these three will face a strong international field of "steeplechicks" who are capable of finishing the 3000m steeplechase in under 9:30. At 2007 Worlds, the top six finishers posted times under 9:30.
"Right now, I'd say the leading women in the world are Donna MacFarlane (from Australia) and Ruth Bosibori of Kenya," Gaffigan says, adding that Samitova-Galkina and her countrywomen, Yekaterina Volkova and Tatyana Petrova, are also leading medal contenders. "These three Russians are the only women to have ever broken 9:10 in the steeple. Only seven women in the world have ever broken 9:20."
But Gaffigan is optimistic about the Americans' chances. "Our top women are on the edge of competing with the best in the world," she says. "Anna Willard has already stated she is going after (the American) record this year."
"Once we have women running in the low 9:20s and even breaking 9:20, we will have women vying for medals on the Olympic stage."
Marathon swimming is not a new sport. In 1875, Captain Matthew Webb made headlines when he swam unaided across the English Channel. Gertrude Ederle managed the same feat in 1926-the first crossing by a woman. But to date, Olympian swimmers have not contested a race longer than 1,500 meters, and most of these races have taken place in pools with divided lanes.
Only in the early Olympic Games were swimming events held in open water. In 1896, the aquatic events were held in the Bay of Zea, where the water temperature was 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius). In the 1,200-meter race-the longest swimming contest at the first Olympic Games-the nine entrants were transported by boat to the start in the middle of the bay, then left alone to swim through 12-foot seas back to shore.
"I shivered from the thought of what would happen if I got a cramp from the cold water," Hungary's Alfred Hajos was quoted as saying. "My will to live completely overcame my desire to win."
Hajos did win however, in a time of 18:22.2. (By comparison, Australian gold medalist Grant Hackett holds the world record for the 1,500-meter freestyle in 14:34.56. Hackett is now trying to qualify for the marathon swim in Beijing but was disqualified in the 10km event at 2008 Worlds, held on May 3 in Seville, Spain, for interfering with another swimmer by making intentional contact. The top 10 finishers in this race automatically qualified for the Olympic Games.)
The 10-kilometer marathon swim, approved for inclusion in the Olympic Games by the IOC in 2005, brings swimming back to open water. Twenty-five swimmers will race four times around a 2.5-kilometer loop in the manmade Olympic Games rowing venue in Beijing.
"I have personally always viewed open water as swimming's corollary to what the marathon is to track and field," said Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming's executive director, after the IOC's announcement. "The event is unique, and it will offer up an entirely new side of competitive swimming to everyone who watches the Olympic Games."
Unlike in a pool, open-water swimmers often stay in a pack. And it can be a dog-eat-dog race.
"If the (Olympic) race unfolds as expected, the 25 athletes will swim in a large tight pack, each close enough to not only rip the goggles right off the heads of each other, but also to snatch the gel packs that swimmers use for nourishment during the race snuffed inside their competitors' swim suits," writes former professional marathon swimmer and USA Swimming national open water swimming team coach Steven Munatones on his blog, http://www.10kswimmer.com/.
The Russians, Italians, and Australians are the leading contenders in this event, including 2008 world champions Larisa Ilchenko and Vladimir Dyatchin. Both Russian swimmers won the 10km World Championship race in Seville on May 3, and earned automatic Olympic berths.
No American woman qualified in Seville, in part because the race was very fast and very aggressive, explains Munatones. But the Americans also struggled because of the course's two 180-degree turns around buoys, which the swimmers had to "wrestle their way around." Americans are better at flat-out speed than wrestling for position, he adds.
Chloe Sutton (Roseville, Calif.), however, earned her U.S. Olympic Team birth at the "Good Luck Beijing" marathon swim test event on May 31. Sutton is only 16 years old and despite her youth, is the two-time 10km national champion and the reigning Pan Am Games 10km champ. In Seville, she won the bronze in the 5km race.
Mark Warkentin (Santa Barbara, Calif.), 28, qualified in Seville by finishing seventh in the men's 10km race. He also scored a silver medal in the 25km race at 2008 Worlds.
"The Beijing course suits (the Americans) very well," adds Munatones. "The final straightaway is longer than 1,000 meters. The final sprint in Seville was under 400 meters. The Americans will do better in Beijing."
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.