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Bethany Shriever was crowned the women’s BMX racing champion in an unexpected victory that Britain hopes will lead to more golds in the cycling events at Tokyo 2020.
The 22-year-old from Manchester beat Colombia’s Mariana Pajon, the two-time defending champion, by a tyre’s width in a thrilling final at the Ariake Urban Sports Park on Friday.
After realising she had become Olympic champion, Shriever collapsed at the finish line. But she was soon picked up off the ground by compatriot Kye Whyte, who had just won silver in the men’s event behind Niek Kimmann of the Netherlands.
“I had nothing left at the end,” Shriever said. “I left it all on the track. It was the hardest lap of the day and I knew Mariana was coming and I just had to keep smooth and pedal to the line. I had nothing left in my legs, I couldn’t even walk.”
Cycling is typically one of Britain’s strongest sports at the Olympics, with the country spending two decades ruthlessly targeting funding towards training its elite riders. That focus is because there are 22 cycling medal events, among the most available in a single sport at the Games. BMX was the last cycling discipline in which Britain had not yet won a medal.
“We’ve got two now,” said Whyte. “History has been made.”
British Cycling, the national governing body, received £24.6m in public funding and National Lottery proceeds in the four years running up to the Tokyo Games, making it the country’s second best-funded elite sports programme after rowing.
BMX racing joined the Olympics at the Beijing 2008 Games. The event features a series of 45-second races between eight riders on a track featuring bumps, slopes and steep banked turns. The nature of the course results in frantic riding and frequent crashes.
US rider Connor Fields, the reigning Olympic champion and favourite coming into the competition, was stretchered off during the semi-finals after being involved in a brutal collision.
Television pictures showed Fields being loaded on to an ambulance to be taken out of the arena. US officials said his condition was not life-threatening, although his medical status was unclear.
In the women’s event, Australia’s Saya Sakakibara required medical support after crashing while leading the last heat and being in a good position to reach the final. The Australian Olympic Committee said she had suffered a mild concussion from which she had recovered, as well as “bumps and bruises”.
The physical risks are well-known to BMX riders, who say they thrive in the test of speed, skill and sheer bravery. Alise Willoughby, the US rider involved in the crash with Sakakibara, said: “I don’t think you can ride with any hesitation out there, that’s when things go wrong.
“You can trip and fall down walking on the street and have something bad happen. [The sport] is a calculated risk.”
Sunisa Lee won the women’s all-around gymnastics final on Thursday night. A flawless performance on the final floor apparatus saw the American edge ahead of Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade, who won silver, and the Russian Olympic Committee’s Angelina Melnikova. The competition opened up after Simone Biles, the American who is widely considered the world’s greatest ever gymnast, pulled out of the event citing mental health issues. Biles enthusiastically cheered on her teammate, the first Hmong American to win gold. “I had to switch gears because I came in competing for second place,” she said. “When the opportunity was there, I knew I had to do what I normally do, because this whole season I was second [to Biles].”
The first day of athletics kicked off at the National Stadium on Friday, beginning with the heats of the women’s 100 metres. Marie-Josee Ta Lou of Côte d’Ivoire set a personal best of 10.78 seconds. She leads one of the deepest fields for the event in a generation, which includes Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson-Herah, the defending gold medallists from 2012 and 2016, respectively. At heats for the men’s 400-metre hurdles, the Financial Times asked new world record holder Karsten Warholm of Norway if he would lower his mark of 46.7 seconds. “Maybe someone else can do it. I’ve already done my job,” he replied. The first medals will be awarded on Friday night in the men’s 10,000 metres.
New Zealand won the men’s eight to end the Olympic rowing regatta. In the marquee race of the Games, the Kiwis held off Germany and Britain. In the women’s eight, Canada claimed the gold, ahead of New Zealand and China.
New Zealand won three rowing golds this week, more than any other country. Britain, which had dominated the sport for the past three Games, did not win a single race.
But British medals have continued to flood in at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Duncan Scott won a silver in the men’s 200m individual medley, behind China’s Wang Shun and ahead of Switzerland’s Jeremy Desplanches, who claimed bronze. It was Scott’s third medal of Tokyo 2020 and he has a chance to be the first Team GB athlete to win four in a single Games in Sunday’s 4x100m medley. Luke Greenbank won bronze in the men’s 200m backstroke Olympic medal, collecting Britain’s sixth medal in the pool.
On the back of a rush of medals for Japan, several athletes have confessed that they have been viciously attacked on social media. Mai Murakami, who finished fifth in the all-around gymnastics competition on Thursday, told reporters that she was saddened to be criticised by those opposed to holding the Games during a pandemic. “I realise, of course, that there are people who are against the Olympics. But I wanted to show them how much I worked hard over the past year,” she said. Others who have been targeted include Daiki Hashimoto, who tweeted that he believed the judges objectively scored his performance after winning a gold medal in the all-around gymnastics event.
On the podium
“My mum’s going crazy!…It looks like half of Maidenhead were there!”
— Dan Roan (@danroan) July 29, 2021
Earlier this week, we posted a clip of the friends and family of Tom Dean, as they raucously celebrated the British swimmer winning gold in the early hours of the UK morning. BBC sports editor Dan Roan showed that same video to the new Olympic champion, who was clearly taken aback by the level of support in his home town of Maidenhead. “I could watch this video so many times,” said Dean. So could we.
Click here to see the FT’s “alternative medals table”, which ranks nations not just on their medal haul but on how they should be performing against economic and geopolitical factors.