Why Isn’t Cyclo-Cross At The Winter Olympics?

Friday, 9 February 2018

With the 2018 Winter Olympics starting in Pyeongchang there’s one fast-growing winter sport that won’t be there: cyclo-cross. Why not?

Cyclo-cross is a winter sport. It began as a means for road cyclists to exercise during winter. But it’s become a sport in its own right, recognized by cycling’s governing body, the UCI, which holds an annual world championship every winter. Last weekend in fact.

The International Olympic Committee has a long list of criteria for sports to be included and cyclo-cross ticks a lot of the boxes. But there’s one massive obstacle. It might be practised in winter but cyclo-cross is not a winter sport according to the IOC’s Olympic Charter (PDF) which serves as its scripture, its fundamental text. Here’s Rule 6:

“Only those sports… on snow or ice are considered as winter sports”. Nothing’s impossible but including cyclo-cross would involve overturning a fundamental element within sport.

But rules can be changed if there’s pressure or demand. Cyclo-cross would be a candidate if the IOC and others felt they could gain from including it. Take the arrival of new snowboarding events into the winter games or BMX in the summer games. The IOC looks on with envy at events like the X Games and Red Bull’s marketing stunts as they bring in new, younger audiences. The Olympics want to excite younger generations, in part because even sponsors want to reach these audience segments. Skateboarding will be part of the 2020 Tokyo summer games (for a while they looked at including it under the umbrella of the UCI).

So could the IOC exploit cyclo-cross and gain? Probably not. It’s a fast-growing sport but remains restricted to a handful of small countries. It’s essentially a Belgo-Dutch competition where they took 10 of the 15 medals in last weekend’s Worlds and two others came from Britons a short ferry ride across the North Sea and another from France’s Yan Gras, a short car drive from his home in Eastern France. It’s hardly a big sport with a big following in China or India, the kind of event which could push the IOC into changing their statute. Now you might say “but only the Dutch seem to be into speedskating” or “only a handful of countries care about ski jumping“. Yes the Winter Olympics are already massively biased towards the northern hemisphere and then obviously towards those nations that endure icy winters. But ski jumping benefits from inertia, it’s inside the games so it gets to stay there and besides it’s on ice.

So what?
Ultimately it could be in the Olympics but does cross need to be? There’s no need for a sport to seek Olympic validation and cyclo-cross is growing in the UK and US without the Olympics. In fact one reason it’s doing so well is because it’s so simple to put on a race, it’s far from the committees and corridors of the IOC and UCI. As a sport that’s growing from the bottom upwards it doesn’t need Olympic patronage. Contrast this with track cycling.

But being part of the Olympic Games has its benefits, there is that validation and a global audience who can discover the sport. You might have your views on curling or ski jumping but if they were outside of the Olympics I suspect many would find them even more quirky and minority activities.

It it not just perception, the UCI is flush with cash thanks to the Rio Olympics. Get cyclo-cross onto the winter programme and the UCI would have more cash, a portion of which could be deployed to broaden the sport’s appeal around the world.

It’s a winter sport but because cyclo-cross is not run on snow and ice it cannot be part of the Winter Olympics. Changing the Olympic charter looks impossible and the UCI cannot crowbar the sport. Instead the IOC would have to feel an overwhelming need to include the sport but the sport is not there.

Eskerrik Asko February 9, 2018 at 11:56 am

It would seem to me that 6.2 is an unsurmountable obstacle in the way of cyclo-cross ever becoming a part of the Olympics. However, a spin-off sport could have a better chance than a snowman in hell. It would require two essential changes:

(1) the course: specifically prepared on and made of snow and ice.
(2) the equipment: studded tires obligatory.

The Inner Ring February 9, 2018 at 12:11 pm

That’s the way to get it included and how long does the ice have to be, the whole course or one metre? But then we run into the lack of pressure to include it, it would not get much support at the IOC.

Bilmo February 9, 2018 at 12:59 pm

I had thought about the idea of specific snow and ice tracks but would the existing cyclo-cross riders want this?

I saw some criticism of this world course being too muddy and hence to much running, but then also criticism elsewhere of the Las Vegas race being to dry and ‘basically as grass crit’. I’ve only really been aware of cross for a couple of years so no idea what a traditionalist would consider a classic cross course and would they call a deliberate snow and ice course too gimmicky?

Finally how good a living do current cross riders make? I ask because it would seam the Olympics could raise the sports profile and thus earning potential, but to get there the UCI/race organisers would have to start having races in new snowier areas away from the sport heartlands and would fans and riders want that (see road racing and desert races debate etc!).

The Inner Ring February 9, 2018 at 1:05 pm

A few men at the top make a very good living (Mathieu Van der Poel’s management company’s accounts are online, he’s making more now than he would on the road) but even within the top-10 for men and on the podium for women it’s seems hard going. You could sort of imagine a series touring around winter ski resorts but would it get traction.

Chris James February 9, 2018 at 3:47 pm

I can’t imagine who you have been listening to complaining about Valkenberg being too muddy! Cross riders normally live for the mud – the complaints about grass crits are usually because these are early season events and the roadies coming off their season do disproportionately well compared to the crossers just starting theirs. We can’t wait for a proper mudder to get our own back.

Valkenberg was hard because it was muddy AND very hilly, but part of the beauty of cross (as opposed to track cycling, for example) is that different courses favour different styles of riders – e.g. Koppenbergcross and Namur favour good climbers, whereas Koksijde favours those good at riding sand.

90% of a cross course should be rideable, according to the rules. It was noticeable that Van Aert, who is a very good runner, was able to ride all the course except the run ups.

Part of the ethos of cyclocross is that the race goes on pretty much regardless of the weather, but I think most traditionalists would frown on manufactured bad weather / course conditions. Deliberately planning to ride on snow and ice seems contrived to me. Like the inner ring said, cyclocross seems to be doing well without the IOC being involved, although I think most national federation funding is directed towards Olympic disciplines and cyclocross is definitely treated as a Cinderella pastime by British Cycling.

Ferdi February 9, 2018 at 8:38 pm

The Worlds’ course was ok. Not enough footing if you ask me. If snow is compulsory, the Czechs will celebrate. They’ve always been better than the Niederlanders on snow.

Nick February 9, 2018 at 1:05 pm

Cyclo-cross is not a winter sport as defined by the IOC. In fact, it’s not even a “sport”. It’s a “discipline” in the sport of cycling, like track, road, MTB and BMX, all governed by the same federation, the UCI. The sport of cycling is not a winter sport, practised on snow and ice, so its disciplines are in the Summer games.

Larrick February 9, 2018 at 1:11 pm

CX has is best chance via the IAAF who are pushing for Cross Country running to be included. That would need a change to the “snow and ice” rule that would give an opening to the UCI.

Sam G February 9, 2018 at 1:34 pm

Rugby and football are sports played in the winter, but in the summer games. I assume this is because they do not involve snow or ice and that they ‘can’ be played in the summer.

Surely you could make a cyclo-cross event in the summer by flooding the route. This would allow it to come into the summer games.

Chris James February 9, 2018 at 4:03 pm

Cycling through mud / thick grass etc. involves a lot of effort, and because you are travelling very slowly then there is very little cooling effect from the air. It is like doing a very hard turbo session with no fan. There were a lot of complaints by the top (European) riders about the temperatures at Iowa Jingle Cross and Crossvegas in 2016 and 2017 – despite them being held in September – as the temperatures are between 70 and 90 F, which is typical for summer racing, but hugely atypical for cyclocross.

Sam G February 9, 2018 at 4:08 pm

The heat would be factor. Imagine is someone organised a football tournament in the middle east in August. That would be equally as ridiculous 🙂

Jerome February 9, 2018 at 8:07 pm


Chris James February 12, 2018 at 12:02 pm

They’ve now changed the World Cup dates to November and December for this exact reason – although I can’t imagine it making too much difference as it will still be ludicrously hot. I suppose sacks of cash speak more loudly than common sense …

tedba February 12, 2018 at 2:28 pm

I thought this previously – but to be honest the winter olympics is becoming tired and could do with broadening it’s appeal (in fact I seem to remember a few stories about cities pulling out because hosting is no longer financially worth it)… whereas team sports like football and rugby such that they are in the olympics are all but drowned out by the individual events. I think there is plenty of capacity to move some across if you take the snow/ice requirement out.

Anonymous February 9, 2018 at 2:06 pm

If Cyclo cross were allowed into the Winter Olympics then I would like to see cross country(running) races in there too. Snow, ice, hail, rain and blow it didn’t deter our games teachers from sending us out. Mind you, were was hard in them days.

Richard S February 9, 2018 at 2:25 pm

If money and a world audience is what you/they are after then it would be better in the summer games. Outside of the Alpine nations, Scandinavia and USA/Canada the winter Olympics in general are a bit of a quirky backwater thing really. I like Alpine Skiing so I watch but I’d guess its viewing numbers are nowhere near the ‘real’ Olympics, no matter how many spurious events involving baggy trousered, tousle haired teens doing loop the loop off ramps they eventually to put in.

Jordan O'Driscoll February 9, 2018 at 2:29 pm

Rugby is a winter sport.
In summer the ground is considered is too hard to play on. This is because players can get injured if they are tackled onto hard ground. This is the same reason that American football is a winter sport and baseball is a summer one.
Therefore, while I am cycling fan, it can see why the IOC had to put that rule in, imagine rugby or American football being played in the winter Olympics?

Andrew February 9, 2018 at 2:43 pm

Having spent a fair amount of my youth being tackled onto the ground in the winter and in the summer, in both American football and rugby, I can assure you that the ground is softer in the summer.

GingerTart February 13, 2018 at 11:34 pm

Sorry, but that’s nonsense. Don’t assume that every rugby playing nation has soggy wet winters and hard dry summers – in some countries it’s just the opposite.

Andrew February 15, 2018 at 11:42 pm

I couldn’t for love or money figure out what he was talking about. But dry (hard) summers and soft (wet) winters must be the norm in NZ and Australia, I bet. Definitely not in North America!

Andrew February 9, 2018 at 2:37 pm

I vote for fat biking. A bunch of guys going 12kph through the snow while arguing about tire pressure and boot choice would be “must see TV”.

Matthew February 10, 2018 at 1:28 pm

A really long, self supported fat bike race with laps that go through the village, starting at the opening ceremony and ending at the closing ceremony with a delirious, bearded and half starved loon staggering over the lin.
That’s what the olympics needs to capture the imagination of the youth market, maybe….

Andrew February 10, 2018 at 2:21 pm

If you can promise hand ups of Korean BBQ, I’m in.

Ecky Thump February 9, 2018 at 9:03 pm

A slightly ironic point – the snow and ice is increasingly artificially manufactured in these days of growing global temperatures!

E_Pi February 10, 2018 at 1:45 am

This is an admirable attempt to be topical, but the fewer sports the better. I’d rather spend the next 2 weeks watching S Korean cinema, which is fantastic by the way.

Larry T February 10, 2018 at 10:08 am

“Winter” sports include basketball, volleyball, football (soccer) and one could argue that anything that can be played indoors could/should be included in the Winter Games.

TourdeUtah February 16, 2018 at 12:36 am

Basketball would not fly at winter games because teams do not want to shut down or lose their top players during the season. It’s all about the $$$. See NHL, soccer etc. World Cup played in summer because it does not interfere with euro or South American season.

Anonymous February 10, 2018 at 10:27 am

In the last couple of years, I often see ski jumping if I turn on my Eurosport in non winter times. They jump nearly all year now, on mats, fully absence of snow or ice. Ski jumping yet has a longer season than cyclocross and could be added to summer games 😉

Kjetil Haaland February 10, 2018 at 12:02 pm

If “are” is replaced by “can be” in 6.2 in the faximile in inrng’s entry it would be possible to include Cyclocross, fat bike events (the first UCI sanctioned event happens these days, so I would’t call it ripe for inclusion just yet), and cross country running.
Ah, the politics of words.

ShortsNL February 10, 2018 at 1:39 pm

Oh yes, I remember this article 🙂

It’s been almost 5 years already… wow I’m getting old.

Chris James February 12, 2018 at 12:05 pm

I remember it too – it’s even got the same picture 😉

I like that articles are republished occasionally where relevant, as I’ve caught up with quite a few over the years where I had missed the original article.

The Inner Ring February 12, 2018 at 5:37 pm

It’s also adjusted and updated, I thought of copy-pasting it from the past but wanted to add some more current things, like check the current Olympic charter, the impact of the Rio games on the UCI finances etc

Perhaps people will be asking the same question in 2022? Most probably in fact.

STS February 10, 2018 at 11:14 pm

Thanks for bringing this up (again).
As someone who really likes to ride my CX bike and mountain bike on snow I imagine it would not only make for a very demanding discipline with regards to the skill level but also for some interesting watching. You could include different sorts of snow and ice into a, of course, totally men-made race track making sure riders had to run, power through soft snow, handle high speeds through turns on packed snow.
I’m of course very biased but there are many sports at the Winter Olympics which are much less interesting to watch than what I envision for a CX-snow competition. And by totally taking the mud and dirt out of the equation – a thing nobody wants to see when watching winter sports I guess – I figure it would appeal also to guys like our highly esteemed host who don’t like to watch mudfests like the one we saw last week-end. Fortunately it had a happy ending with Wout taking one of the most dominating wins in recent CX World Chamipionship history.
Racing on snow would also enable athletes of other nations – with more snow days than Belgium & The Netherlands – to excel since it takes a lot of practice to hone this very special skill set. But once you do it’s such a great experience. Right now we have perfect conditions for this discipline.

Chris February 12, 2018 at 5:20 pm

It should be in the summer if anything. The general Olympic watchers would be more likely to understand the sport if it were on grass then on snow just because.

Track is a “winter” sport by calendar same as cross.

CA February 12, 2018 at 7:01 pm

Now, if track cycling was on snow and the racers wore full body armour, then I’d watch!

Anonymous February 14, 2018 at 7:25 pm

Keirin on ice, ftw!

Joe Saroni February 18, 2018 at 4:23 pm

Well, if global warming continues at its current pace, the Winter Olympics may need to include Cyclocross for it future viability. The NYT ran an analysis of all the past Winter Olympic venues, and many would not have adequate temperatures and snowfall to reliably host the games in the future.

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