How Mountain Biking Became an Olympic Sport:
My Interview with Gilbert Felli
Although the sport of mountain biking is relatively young, it has accrued a bit of history that is of importance to aficionados. I have therefore pulled the following interview out of my “lock box.” I now share with you, dear readers, the story of how Cross Country Mountain Biking came to be an Olympic sport.
On a brisk June afternoon, during Lausanne, Switzerland’s Annual Bicycle Day back in 1994, I spoke with Gilbert Felli. He is one of the people instrumental in introducing the sport of mountain biking into the Olympic program. The interview was conducted in a field of wildflowers fringed by mountain forest.
Q: Tell us who you are and what is your occupation?
A: My name is Gilbert Felli. I’m the Technical Director of the International Olympic Committee. My work is facilitating all relations of the International Federation and with the national Olympic committee in each country.
Q: Do you ride a bicycle?
A: Due to my occupation, I don’t have much time to do it, but I enjoy it very much.
Q: How about mountain biking?
A: I just did the ride today, and I do quite a bit when it’s possible.
Mountain Biking in Lausanne
Q: What is your observation regarding the sport of mountain biking here?
A: I would say the mountain bike made the bicycle change its face. And a lot of people who didn’t do any biking before started to ride the mountain bike. Even people on the road ride with a mountain bike. A lot of young people are practicing it, and of course we see it even more up in the mountains.
Q: Tell us why and how you introduced the sport of mountain biking into the Olympics.
A: We did it because it’s a sport practiced by the young people, a very fast-growing sport. We believe in the sport; we believe it’s a good activity to practice. And the Olympic program should follow what people like to do. But it’s not always easy to introduce a new discipline into the Olympic program. Some sports have been waiting for a long time to be in the Olympic program. And we have been surprised at how fast mountain biking happened. It was possible to introduce mountain biking in the Olympic games, partly because the Cycling Union just had a new President, a person with vision, who realized he had to do something for this sport and to bring mountain bicyclists, who are not exactly like the other cyclists, into the federation. We discussed it together, and realized we had to find a solution. One of the events quite complicated to organize and not too many countries are practicing it was the 100-kilometer team trial. So we withdrew it from the Olympic Program and introduced mountain biking.
1996 Atlanta Olympics
Q: How do you envision the introduction of mountain biking in the upcoming Olympics?
A: It’s difficult to tell. Since it’s the first time, we are quite limited; it’s going to be one event, Cross Country. We believe it is important that the show is good for the future of the sport. So all the people from mountain biking have to stick behind that and try to make it as popular as possible. I hope we will have a lot of spectators, to show it deserves to be in the program.
Q: Is mountain biking an actual official Olympic sport this coming Olympics, or just an exhibition?
A: No, exhibition does not exist anymore. Mountain biking is going to be an official sport in Atlanta. Probably it’s easier to do this sport for the first time in the United States, because we know mountain biking started there. And it’s well developed. And we have many hopes that it will be well supported.
The Future of Mountain Biking in the Olympics
Q: What is your vision of the future of mountain biking as an Olympic sport?
A: It all depends on how the International Federation Cycling Union handles it in the future, how it develops, how the game will be in Atlanta. And the biggest concern about mountain biking — and everyone has to be concerned about it — is the ecological side. In many countries some criticize it because people are not behaving properly with their mountain bikes. And we have been speaking with the Union to try to educate people because it could be bad for ecology. If we all love it, so we must be careful and try to keep it on the track.
Q: Is land access an important issue here in Switzerland?
A: No. If people behave and remain on a forest road or pass dedicated to mountain biking, no problem. The problem is when people start to go off trail and then it could be very bad for a forest. Because you kill the little starts of the trees and so on. People don’t realize because they say, ‘We are not hurting anything.’ But many people going off track, it will start having effects.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say about mountain biking?
A: I would like to say that I hope this sport will remain a big sport. And people will behave properly so that it remains in the Olympic program.