Why isn’t Cyclo-Cross at the Winter Olympics?

With less than 100 days until the Winter Olympics there’s one fast-growing winter sport that won’t be there: cyclo-cross. Should it be included for 2018? Could it be included?

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.

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 which serves as its scripture, its fundamental text. Here’s Rule 6:

That’s a pretty immovable object. Nothing’s impossible but this would involve overturning a fundamental element within sport.

But rules can be changed if there’s pressure. 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. The Olympics want to excite younger generations, in part because even sponsors want to reach these audience segments. There’s even been exploratory work to bring in skateboarding for the summer games… 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 few, often small, countries. At the last world championships the results where dominated Belgium and the Netherlands and the footprint doesn’t go to deep beyond, you see Germany, Switzerland, France and the Czech Republic up there, although there’s always the exception and the USA’s Katie Compton won a medal on home soil.

The Winter Olympics are already massively biased towards the northern hemisphere and then obviously towards those nations that endure icy winters. For example ski jumping is preserve of a few nations and until now, a male-only sport at the Olympics. But ski jumping benefits from inertia, it’s inside the games so it gets to stay there.

So what?
Ultimately it could be in the Olympics but does cross need to be? You can race this weekend, Sven Nys can race this weekend. There’s no need for a sport to seek Olympic validation and cyclo-cross is thriving 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 right now from the 2012 summer 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.

61 thoughts on “Why isn’t Cyclo-Cross at the Winter Olympics?”

  1. Great idea, INRNG.
    The geographic distribution can be overcome and cyclo-cross being part of the winter olympics could help this.
    The winter-issue can be overcome by the reverse logic: Quite a few of the so called “winter sports” can be equally done during summer nowadays although they inherently were winter sports.
    Basically all sports are more and more becoming all year events/options thus undermining the winter/summer sports argument.
    The question, whether or not a sport can be done “in the wrong season” thus becomes one of economics; building venues an so on…

    • Good point about the economics but infrastructure is not an issue for Cyclocross, it would be cheap to include and providing the course is not frozen, could be run in the valleys or near the host city which are often not snow-bound (remember Vancouver?). I can’t see ‘Cross being added to the winter timetable as Archery, Badminton, Basketball, Football, Handball, Hockey, Table Tennis and Volleyball are also technically winter sports too (please correct me if I am wrong on any of them).

      I reckon it more likely that ‘Cross could be run as a summer event – lay a course and pray for rain or at least keep parts of the course doused with water for practice and competition. Voila!

  2. I love 6.1 above, the olympics are not a competition between countries! I am very uncertain as to wheather any sports needs the olympics. It may give some minor sports global recognition but this usually only lasts a short while, like the wimbledon affect every summer in tennis courts around the UK.

  3. Nice idea, but I think you’re right in it doesn’t need to be in the Olympics for its continuation, it’s above that.
    Plus I’d rather it wasn’t as I’m not a big fan of the winter Olympics. I always seems very esoteric – the preserve of the privileged, white, few especially the representatives of countries like UK,USA where accessible slopes etc. aren’t so much available.

  4. Rule 6.2 says “only those sports which are practiced on snow or ice are considered as winter sports.” I don’t see that the rule means a sport has to exclusively be practiced on snow or ice. My interpretation of this rule would be that that cyclocross meets the rule because it is practiced on snow.

    • Exactly. If it said “…sports which are ONLY practiced on snow or ice…” then that would exclude CX, but it doesn’t.

      I’ve long said that CX should be in the winter olympics. First I’ve heard of XC running being added (below) but that sounds like a fair suggestion too.

      However, to retain balance, a complete programme of frozen lake open water swimming would need to be added…

    • I’d beg to differ, all the Winter Olympic sports need snow or Ice, you can ski in July but you still need snow to do it.
      Besides, every year ‘Crosses are cancelled or postponed due to cold weather making the ground too hard and dangerous. By default Winter Olympics normally take place in particularly cold conditions so although you can ride a cross in the snow if it is relatively mild it is not ideal or usual. What you really need is nice soggy Northern European weather, not a Scandinavian or Alpine climate.

  5. I’ve read this idea in the early ’90s for MTB.
    Cross country MTB was not an olympic sport back then, and there were few places for new sports.
    So the idea was that maybe it can be a winter sport then. But it was just a short article in the national biking magazine, much less researched like this blog post. They obviously didn’t read the Olympic Charter.

  6. Thanks for picking up on this issue. I personally think the Olympics should disappear, but if they are there, there should be as many varieties of cycling as possible, and cyclo-cross is wonderful, being the best way to keep cycling alive and burning during the winter. There could also be, but in summer, a cycling heptathlon, including road fondo, road TT, road uphill, cyclo-cross, keirin, pursuit, and MTB downhill.

  7. Probs should have extended that, I can practice running on an athletics track in the snow, does it count as a winter sport? Seems to be a big loophole in the word practiced

    • I remember around a decade ago, playboating (the BMX version of kayaking where you do tricks scored for points, have way more street cred than slalom kayakers and live off kababs, beer and RedBull with lashing of big drop trips away) had the thoughts of going for demonstration sport at the summer Olympics, possibly eventually going for full Olympic sport status. They would use a single feature of the slalom course and show the world “this is how cool and controlled we are!” However………

      Playboating has a very grass roots support approach. If you’re interested, you more than likely already have a boat and compete/mess around with mates. Joining the Olympics would have made the sport more competitive……….. and drug tests?? (n.b., playboaters are/were more like snowboarders – these would not be performance enhancing drugs…..)

      After a while the idea died a death as there was no justification. OK, the sport isn’t as lucrative or as competitive, as cyclo-cross but the distance from the Sunday session to the seasoned pro was much shorter and they had the same kit. It is/was far more about the Sunday league than the big league and the majority preferred that.

  8. I think “practiced” in this context is meant to mean “carried out” as opposed to its “training/rehearsal” meaning.

    For example a dental practice isn’t where a dentist practices his skills as part of training programme!

    • As a Dutchman I completely agree, although Marianne Vos might run out of space in her medal warehouse quicker that way.

      Another sport the Dutch would like to see added: marathon skating. Preferably the 200 K, but 100 K will suffice.

  9. Perhaps there should be a rule change to accommodate sports practised in winter but not necessarily on snow or ice – I heard a similar suggestion pushing for cross country running to be included in the winter games too.

  10. There is a similar debate going on in Athletics, where many people are pushing for Cross Country (running) to be included. The arguments for and against (“hypothetical” against, as no-one in the athletics world seems “really” against!) are similar those made in the post for CX – except one. A major “plus” for the IOC would be to open the Winter Olympics to African nations who would probably win the large majority of the medals.

    • I was just going to mention this too. The advantage XC running has over CycloCross is that more nations participate around the world and as you say, it would introduce African countries to the Winter Olympics.

  11. Looking at last year’s footage of Louisville I think Cross complies quite easily with the Olympic Charter, given an open interpretation. Like John S. mentions, the sport does go over snow, just not necessarily all the time. Similarly, ice could also include frozen soil or icy ground.

    Personally I’d love to see it included to get more diversity, to at least move away 95% only ice skating and skiing/boarding. I think the sport would fit in quite nicely, as there are some Cyclo-cross elements that you can also see in current Olympic Sports. Cross-Country is similar in the sense that it is practiced practically off-road, on a closed, hilly circuit and Biathlon has a similar element of carrying your rifle in the way Cyclo-Cross riders carry their bikes over obstacles.

    I did a quick comparison on nationailties between sports. The 2013 Cyclo-cross WC, had 9 nations in the top 15 of the Elite men & Women: Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Czech Republic, France, Italy, USA, UK.

    The 2013 Nordic World Ski Championships (Cross-Country skiing) had 10 nations in the top 15 of their main Mass Start events, 50k Classical Men and 30k Classical Women: Sweden, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Russia, Norway, Germany, Japan, Poland, Finland, Ukraine.

    As you can see there is a significant difference in terms of which nations (the Scandinavian bias shows), but overall the total number is quite even. I guess a considerable factor here is to what extent the Winter Olympics can be open towards winter sports from new regions.

  12. If it needs to be added, why not put it as a summer sport? What’s the hold back there? If there is to be a push for it, it makes more sense for it to be a summer sport.

  13. “fast-growing winter sport” Really? Where? Isn’t the US market already at saturation point and the industry on to the next-big-fad….like the so-called “gravel bike”? Reminds me of MTB, crammed into the Games around the height of popularity…and where’s it gone since? The Games need LESS sports rather than more. How much is being spent on Sochi? It’s obscene.

    • The amount being spent on Sotchi is surely proportional to President Putin’s propaganda plans rather than the actual contest? The games have become so big because of their symbolism, sponsorship and audience.

  14. Money aside, the Olympics are an irrelevance to bike racing – unless you come from GB.
    Best concentrate on resolving the sports current problems, and increasing the sports base, before becoming involved any further with one of the most corrupt sports bodies there is.

    • Cycling’s one of the sports where the Olympics are not the biggest event but it’s not just Team GB, it is still important for track cycling as a whole and to a less extent, the women’s scene on the road has an Olympic cycle with sponsors coming on board the closer the games get.

  15. I am in the against camp. I come from a ski racing background and got into cycling as a way to keep fit in the summer. I have since swapped ski racing for bike racing and love to do CX in the fall and winter.

    Winter Olympics are about ice and snow, not about a time of year. While CX and cross country running can be held in cold weather they are not defined by ice and snow. By opening up the Winter games to sports practiced during the “Winter” season will change the tone of the games. Winter is different in all parts of the world. Why not add swimming to the Winter games, it is practiced indoors during the winter. That sport could use a couple of more medals anyways.

    • …or outdoors in a frozen lake. Break your own hole, jump in, climb out and run to the sauna.

      I’d predict lost of gold medals going to the Finns!

  16. “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 which serves as its scripture, its fundamental text”

    There’s an even bigger obstacle: cyclo-cross isn’t a “sport” at all, as far as the Olympics are concerned. Cycling is a sport. Cyclo-cross is a “discipline” of cycling, like road, track, MTB and BMX. The sport of cycling, as a whole, is not really practised on snow or ice.

    Also, look at byelaw 46.3. The core sports of the Winter Olympics are those governed by the Biathlon, Bobsleigh/Tobogganing, Curling, Ice Hockey, Luge, Skating and Skiing federation. For cyclo-cross to be admitted as a winter sport, it would probably need a separate federation (UCCI?), so it could be run as a separate sport.

  17. This post is highly relevant, despite being Summer Olympics focused:

    It’s a plot of sports, both included in the Olympics and not, on a plane with one axis measuring the greatness of the sport/game and the other axis measuring the extent to which it should be in the Olympics. Of course, both measures are silly and totally subjective. That doesn’t stop them from being good fun to argue about.

  18. Interesting article. The comparison with track cycling is an good one, and it’d be good to compare the way the two have developed in ten years time; one with Olympic and official involvement, and one with much less.

    Also I hate to pick up on syntax and so on given the incredible quality of the blog, but I think the sentence “It began as a means for road cyclists could exercise in during winter.” should read “It began as a means for road cyclists who could not otherwise exercise during winter.” or similar.

    Great blog, as usual!

  19. I agree with your self-counter: “There’s no need for a sport to seek Olympic validation and cyclo-cross is thriving without the Olympics … As a sport that’s growing from the bottom upwards it doesn’t need Olympic patronage.”

  20. Given that CX is most similar to cross country skiing. With similar terrain, distance and training regiments, oh and least we forget drugs do make one more competitive given both are endurance sports.
    Perhaps the Olympic committee might allow bikes vs skis? Your choice race on skis or a bike?

    Then we all might on a warmer day have a chance to bet the Nordic countries and the Russians!

  21. The Winter Olympics is dominated by a handful of countries, so if the argument is that cyclo-cross is not global enough to be included in the Olympics, then why the hell are ski jumping, luge, bobsled etc included as they are the preserve of a few wealthy European nations that have cold, snowy winters. I say drop sports like tennis, soccer and basketball from the summer Olympics and bring in cyclo-cross. It’s fits far more with the Olympian ideal than these highly paid professional sports, where the Olympics is simply another tournament.

    • While I agree with you about those other sports being dropped I heard a quote once that said “the Olympics should be the pinnacle of your sport, if it’s not then it possibly shouldn’t be in the Olympics” . This includes the sports you mentioned but also includes Cyclocross as surely the World Champions jersey is the highest prize?

  22. “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”…..as much as I would love to see cross in the Olympics I wouldn’t exactly call curling a quirky sport. Here in the wintery nation of Canada there are over 650,000 active participants and the stars of the game make a good living at it and it’s regularly on national TV. Cross participants probably number in the hundreds for the whole country.

  23. I would argue ‘cross IS a winter sport in terms of it’s practise – races can be and are run on snow and ice if those conditions are apparent at the time. In the Czech Republic where ‘cross is popular, much of the later part of the season can be spent racing on those surfaces and the riders from that part of Europe are particularly adept at racing in those conditions.

    One of the reasons ‘cross might benefit from Olympic status is that currently in the UK at least, it is still seen as minority sport in terms of investment from cycling bodies because it does not have the all-important Olympic status. This despite large numbers of individuals participating in ‘cross every weekend (contributing to levies for British Cycling), many more than compete on the track or road both of which enjoy much greater backing, financially or otherwise.

  24. The only cycle sport close to the requirements of the Winter Olympics is endurance Fatbike racing, we’re bikes are designed around 4 ” tires for floatation for loose surfaces especially snow. Very popular in Alaska for many years .

  25. The IOC should create a “MODERN GAMES” or alike. Different marketing focus possibly. Direct to Puberty marketing, or to hippies or ferals OR whomever they think enjoy sports like that. A games that includes Skate boarding, surfing, para sailing and kite surfing. Rock Climbing is looking for a spot and so could a lot of other fledgling or expanding sports. What better way than to differentiate between the old world of pre-War sports associations and those of the 21st century, than have it’s own games.

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