Connor Fields Crashes in BMX Racing, a Blend of Danger and Drama
TOKYO – Perhaps it was a worrying sign, or maybe just a normal sign, when BMX races at the Olympics began on Monday with a collision between a top cyclist and a marshal roaming the track.
When competition began on Thursday, a Japanese rider knocked over her handlebars in the first heat, ending her Olympic experience in less than a minute and sending her off with a broken collarbone.
Friday, the day the medals were handed out, began with a thunderous downpour, which seemed fair as BMX is so full of drama. Water slipped the course, just adding to the danger factor. Reasonable minds delayed the start and sent workers down the cobbled course and steep bends with brooms and dryers.
Yet it was just off the track that there was something more revealing: five teams of medics, each armed with a stretcher, spread across the course. Behind the main instrument panel, three ambulances were idling.
The danger inherent in the sport, part of its appeal and part of why it’s here at the Olympics, became most evident in the semifinals, when Connor Fields of the United States, a gold medalist in the Rio de Janeiro Games 2016, crashed in the first round of a semi-final. In a split second, two runners fell on top of him.
Fields was swept off the track after several minutes still. His jersey was torn from the fall, and his hip and shoulder were bloodied with a rash on the road. The race was delayed for about 30 minutes as he was taken in an ambulance and eventually taken away.
“We can confirm that Connor Fields is awake, stable and awaiting further medical evaluation,” US team chief medical officer Dr Jon Finnoff said through a spokesperson. of American BMX. “Additional updates on his condition will be shared as they become available.”
BMX is part of the growing X Games-ification of the Olympics, perpetually looking for sports that might appeal to young viewers in ways that, for example, modern pentathlon or dressage does not. The freestyle discipline of BMX was added to Tokyo, along with skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing.
But BMX racing is nothing new; the event has been part of the Olympics since the 2008 Beijing Games. It’s a captivating sight: about 40 seconds on a temporary paved track featuring helmeted cyclists on low bikes pedaling like crazy, soaring jumps and leaning into turns. It’s a contact sport – contact with others, contact with the ground.
About half of Friday’s rounds featured bodies on the sidewalk, and sometimes several. It’s the allure, the frenetic unpredictability of BMX: the expectation of chaos, the hope that no one is seriously hurt.
Team USA Alise Willoughby, 30, knows the fine line as much as anyone. Under the name Alise Post, she finished 12th at the London Olympics in 2012, then won a silver medal in Rio. She continues with two world titles and hopes to win gold in Tokyo.
Her husband, Sam Willoughby, was once the best BMX rider in the world. He also has a silver medal, won in London and was sixth in Rio.
But his career ended with a head injury suffered in a training accident in 2017. It crippled him from the chest down. He now trains Willoughby in a wheelchair.
On Friday, Alise Willoughby advanced to the semi-finals, but failed in the first of three sets to finish last. She finished third in the second run and near the lead in the third, believing she was close to qualifying for the gold medal race.
But that’s where her wheel cut off that of Australian Saya Sakakibara, leading in the third straight. Both have fallen.
The stretcher teams got down to work. Sakakibara was taken in a medical cart near the ambulances. Willoughby got on his bike, sped to the finish about 52 seconds behind the leader and failed to reach the final.
She found herself trying to explain why someone would go through such drama and trauma.
“Obviously I have come across things along the way,” she said. “But you know, you can trip and fall while walking down the street and cause something bad to happen. So it’s a calculated risk.
But accidents happen without warning, and Friday was a reminder that the Olympics are fraught with risk. The Winter Olympics, in particular, accepted that. More than the summer version, they are full of high speed, high flight and high danger events, from alpine skiing to bobsleigh to snowboarding.
The Summer Olympics have less experience in this area. Their dances with danger tend to be slower, less busy. But by adding a lot of sports that mix air, speed, and the real possibility of head injury – things like BMX, mountain biking, and skateboarding – the line is pushed back.
“Chance things happen,” said Alise Willoughby. “We all train and prepare for these things not to happen, and it’s unfortunate when they do.”
The runner who collided with the Wandering Official on Monday, a wreckage on the track as unexpected and unsettling as a driver hitting a deer on the highway, was Niek Kimmann of the Netherlands. He injured his knee and feared he would not be able to compete.
In another BMX twist, he won the gold medal four days later in a one-run, all-or-nothing final.
This final did not include Connor Fields, the three-time Olympian, the reigning gold medalist, although he had enough points in the first two semi-finals to qualify.
Fields was in the hospital. The BMX race final took place without him.
And the stretcher crews were back in place, now with just two idling ambulances behind the dashboard.
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