Bicycle Motocross - or BMX - is making its debut as a full medal sport at the Beijing Summer Olympics.  The United States is sending four elite BMX cyclists to compete in the inaugural men's and women's individual racing events.  As VOA's Teresa Sullivan reports, BMX has come a long way over the last 30 years - from kids doing tricks on bikes, to earning a place on world sports' most prestigious stage.

The cycling sport of BMX has been called "edgy," "explosive" and "extreme" - and with good reason.

A bicycle motocross race consists of two or three rounds with eight racers per "moto" or heat.  The fastest four cyclists advance to the next round.  Riding only several centimeters apart, the racers explode off the starting line and pedal furiously down a steep ramp to gain enough energy to blast over a dirt course of treacherous jumps and obstacles.  There are no points for style or artistic expression.  Only speed wins.  Each moto is only about 40 seconds.  U.S. Olympic BMX racer Mike Day says the race is usually won in the first 10 rotations of the pedals.  

Elite BMXers can reach speeds of more than 60 kilometers per hour and jump nearly 2.5 meters - and they enjoy it.   

Three-time men's BMX world champion Kyle Bennett is excited about going to Beijing as a member of the U.S. Olympic team.

"I did not really think it would happen," said Kyle Bennett. "It was something I had dreamed about since I was little.  Being in the Olympics is amazing.  It is the highest our sport can go.  We are seeing a lot of changes.  As far as where it will go as a sport, I see nothing but positive things coming out."

Day and Bennett's BMX Olympic teammates are Donny Robinson and Jill Kintner.  All four athletes are considered medal contenders.  

Robinson says he hopes, that as an Olympic sport, BMX will show others that its competitors are great people as well as great athletes.

"BMX racing and BMX riders are wholesome characters," said Donny Robinson. "We know exactly what it takes to make our dreams come true.  And, I think we are a good breed definitely for the Olympics.  BMX is our passion. Now that we have an opportunity to obviously do what we love on such a huge world stage and have that chance of doing something great is an amazing opportunity, and we are definitely going to make the most of it."  

BMX originated in the United States in the late 1960's and early 1970's.  Youngsters in California used their push-pedal bicycles to copy the tricks performed by older motorcycle racers.  As its popularity spread, this type of riding became known as "bicycle motocross" - or BMX.  

It was eventually recognized as a sport of its own, with official BMX competitions, rules, specialized bikes, safety equipment and culture.  It was further legitimized in 1981 with the founding of the International BMX Federation.  In 2003, the International Olympic Committee made BMX a full medal Olympic sport for Beijing in 2008.

There will be 48 BMX racers competing in Beijing - 32 men and 16 women from at least 17 countries.

BMX racing is not the first American-made sport to be elevated from the fringe status of "extreme" to the pinnacle of Olympic respectability.  Snowboarding made the transition (with half-pipe and slalom events) at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games in Japan.  Then in 2006, snowboard cross was added to the Turin Olympics in Italy.

U.S. team member Jill Kintner believes the Olympic debut of BMX is changing the culture of cycling at home and abroad.

"Nationally, you do not notice it as much, but when you go overseas it is pretty stiff now, and everyone is cruising around with their national governing bodies," said Jill Kintner. "It was never a sport like that from when I remember.  People were riding for fun, and whatever, and it has gone to the next level now."

The only permanent super-cross BMX structure in the United States is the new BMX facility at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California (near the city of San Diego).  It includes a near-exact replica of the Olympic super-cross course in Beijing.  Kintner describes the atmosphere at the center.

"We are all pushing each other to get better, and we understand that," said Kintner. "We are a team, but we are a team to get to the Olympics, you know. It is not like we are going to work against each other. But it is definitely a new experience. This whole Olympic thing has brought people together that would not normally live together in any normal situations."

USA Cycling chief Steve Johnson says the new BMX training facility highlights the importance of the close partnership between the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Cycling in the continued development of international BMX racing.