BEIJING, Aug 22, 2008 (AFP) – Maris Strombergs of Latvia held his nerve in the face of a two-pronged American challenge to win gold in a crash-marred Olympic Games BMX final on Friday.
The silver medal went to Mike Day of the United States and the bronze to his compatriot Donny Robinson.
Strombergs, a 21-year-old from Valmiera who has been racing since he was five years old, staked his gold claim when he sailed through qualifying and won all three of his semi-final runs.
In a tense finale that saw two potential medallists crash out of the race, Strombergs took a slight lead at halfway and managed to avoid the pitfalls before riding comfortably to gold.
“It’s great. I come from a country where we only have 120 BMX riders,” said Strombergs.
“I hope this achievement will make people sit up and take notice of us – and help us to get better.”
After the first bend and first jumps took an early toll on the field, Strombergs pushed ahead of Day and Jared Graves of Australia before the crucial big jump leading into the penultimate straight.
It was there that Graves saw his chances bite the dust when he was brought down by the flying bike of South African Sifiso Nhlapo.
Graves was angry at what he deemed was “stupid” riding on the part of some of his rivals.
“I was just trying to lean into the corner to hold on to third and guys are just riding stupid, trying moves that weren’t on,” he said.
“I’m pretty disappointed about how some of the other guys rode. I know they’ve got to be aggressive, it’s the Olympic final, but they took themselves down in the process.”
Both Day and Robinson had been among those to have benefited from practicing on replica tracks of the Olympic course, in their case thanks to the American federation.
That strategy worked for some, but failed for others.
Australian Luke Madill, who had famously built a replica on his parents’
property, crashed out in the quarter-finals. In the women’s race Britain’s Shanaze Reade crashed out on the final bend while in a duel for gold.
Despite being beaten to gold, Day – one of the most impressive riders in the seedings, quarters and semis runs – was delighted to be on the first Olympic BMX podium.
“I’ve spent three and a half years just trying to get to the final, so to get the silver medal … it’s exciting,” he said.
Day’s highly-fancied teammate Kyle Bennett failed to make the final, having bravely decided to race the semis despite dislocating his shoulder in a crash on Wednesday.
Robinson admitted that in the unforgiving world of BMX, just getting to the last eight is a feat in itself.
“To get to the final in an amazing accomplishment,” said Robinson, who grew up racing BMX bikes around the Napa Valley in California.
“Any one of us could have won gold.”
Paying tribute to the “trooper” they saw in Bennett, and acknowledging the pitfalls of BMX, Robinson admitted that in BMX you don’t just have to be fast.
“Sometimes the fastest rider doesn’t always win,” added Robinson, who secured his place in the final despite crashing on his third, semi-final run.
“More than 90 percent of the battle (in BMX) is how you bounce back from the mistakes.
“We can’t regret anything. We’ve been preparing for this day all our lives.”