The Latvian machine
The only Latvian to win two Olympic golds, Maris Strombergs has thus far enjoyed a monopoly in the men’s BMX, which made its first appearance at the Games in 2008.
A tearful start
“When I had my first go on a BMX, it left me in tears to be honest,” Maris Strombergs told the press after retaining his Olympic title at London 2012 and maintaining his status as the sport’s only gold-medal Olympian. “I was five years old when my father took me to the BMX track and when I saw all those big guys jumping those big doubles, I started crying. I said ‘No way dad’. But after another month I said to him, ‘OK, I’ll go again’ and that’s how I started. It was my dad who kept me going, firing me up and bringing me out to the races. I won my first world championship when I was nine years old – that was the UCI’s first official BMX World Championship in England in 1996 – when I won the category for boys. After that, naturally, there was no turning back.”
An inexorable rise
Strombergs starred in every age group at national, European and world level before the IOC decided in 2003 to add the sport to the programme for the Beijing Games in 2008, a year in which the Latvian turned 21 and won the European title and then the UCI World Championship crown in Taiyuan, China. A little over two months later, he was back in China, sporting the No1 on his star-spangled shirt in the Olympic BMX final at the Laoshan circuit. He flew off the start ramp and surged away to win gold in a time of 36.192. In becoming the first ever BMX champion in the history of the Games, he earned the nickname of ‘The Machine’, one he was to do full justice to in subsequent years.
In a class of his own
In 2010 the Latvian machine won the BMX World Cup and a second world title in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, but failed to make it a hat-trick at the 2011 Worlds in Copenhagen, where he finished second to France’s Joris Daudet. That defeat did not stop Strombergs from starting as favourite in the BMX competition at London 2012, though he came mightily close to elimination in the heats. Explaining his close shave, he said: “I wasn’t feeling myself. I was finding it hard to handle all the expectation and the pressure of heading into the competition as the defending champion.” Yet when the final came around, there was no stopping him. Leading right from the start ramp, he showed his rivals a clean rear wheel and safely negotiated the course to win in a time of 37.576. “I’m just happy I managed to get everything together when it really mattered,” said BMX’s one and only men’s Olympic champion.
A national icon
Stombergs was given a hero’s welcome on his return to Latvia, with thousands lining the streets in his hometown of Valmiera. As the Baltic republic’s only double Olympic champion, he is well aware of the influence he can have on young people, and regularly visits schools to tell children about the benefits of leading a healthy life. His message to the country’s youngsters is a simple one: “Eat healthily, stay active and behave.”