TikTok stars on the Olympic debut of BMX Freestyle in 2021

Technical Operation Manager UEHARA Hiroshi (centre) with the duo, Ibuki and Yohe
Technical Operation Manager UEHARA Hiroshi (centre) with the duo, Ibuki and Yohe

Popular Japanese TikTok influencers Ibuki and Yohe speak to Tokyo 2020 Technical Operation Manager UEHARA Hiroshi on what makes BMX Freestyle such an exciting sport to watch at the Olympics in 2021.

BMX Freestyle is a cycling discipline that will debut at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

To learn more about the sport, Ibuki and Yohe - the hugely popular video creating duo with over a million followers on TikTok - spoke to UEHARA Hiroshi, the Technical Operation Manager for Tokyo 2020, at Ariake Urban Sports Park, the venue at which the competition will make its Olympic bow this summer.

READ MORE: Cycling BMX Freestyle | BMX Freestylers defy gravity in Tokyo test

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♬ オリジナル楽曲 - TOKYO 2020

Taking charge of all aspects of the competition

Ibuki: Mr Uehara, what kind of work do you do at Tokyo 2020?

Uehara: Right now I’m the Technical Operation Manager for BMX Freestyle. I know the title is difficult to understand...

Yohe: It sure is!

Uehara: Well, we will build an FOP [field of play] course at the competition venue, and there will be various installations such as a ramp for jumping. The ramp will be built by a foreign company, and I have to communicate regularly with them. Basically, our team handles everything related to the BMX Freestyle competition.

Ibuki: So the operation is carried out in cooperation with companies overseas?

Uehara: There’s BMX Freestyle and BMX Racing. BMX Racing made its first Olympic appearance in the Olympic Games Beijing 2008. BMX Freestyle was added to the Olympic programme of the Tokyo 2020 Games. We chose to use a foreign firm that has experience making these ramps for major BMX competitions because there are very few Japanese companies that can produce a ramp this size, and also because the surface of the ramp requires a lot of details and skills.

Yohe: Which country is best known for BMX?

Uehara: BMX originated in the USA, and it’s still very popular there.

An athlete competes at the READY STEADY TOKYO BMX Freestyle test event in May 2021.
An athlete competes at the READY STEADY TOKYO BMX Freestyle test event in May 2021.
Hikaru Funyu

What is BMX Freestyle like? Where did it originate?

Ibuki: Mr Uehara, have you taken part in the sport?

Uehara: I still do BMX Freestyle. I started when I was 16 years old, so I’ve been doing it for about 27 years.

Yohe: Wow! Do you do both freestyle and racing?

Uehara: No, I only do freestyle. Actually, freestyle is categorised into different events: there’s ‘park’, there’s ‘street’, which takes place in urban settings; and there’s ‘flatland’. During the 1970s, BMX became popular in the US. In the beginning, racing was the mainstream. When the riders were taking a break during the races, they used to play with their bicycle, spinning the handle and doing tricks. Eventually, that became a separate event and developed into ‘freestyle’.

Ibuki: Really! The tricks they used to do with their bicycles during break time became an official event. That’s interesting.

Uehara: BMX Racing has many competitions that take place around the world, but BMX Freestyle was adopted as a new Olympic Cycling discipline of the Tokyo 2020 Games, so we’re really excited.

Ibuki: I see. What’s so exciting about this new Olympic Cycling discipline, BMX Freestyle?

Uehara: For example, it’s easy to determine the winner in racing because the fastest rider wins. In freestyle, though, each performance is rated by the judges just like in figure skating, and the rider who earns the most points from the judges is the winner. I think it’s fun to watch the unique tricks and stunts of the different riders. At the Tokyo 2020 Games, there will be nine riders each competing in the men’s and women’s freestyle event. Each of the 18 riders have a different riding style. Some have speed, some jump high and some have exceptional spinning skills. You’ll see that it’s really fun to watch.

Five judges and one head judge rate each performance

Ibuki: The performance is rated solely by a panel of judges? So the crowd’s reaction isn’t reflected in the points given to the riders?

Uehara: Basically, the crowd’s reaction does not directly influence the points. However, any performance that the crowd loves is no doubt a great one that included difficult stunts. So you will never think, “Why did that rider win when the crowd wasn’t very impressed?” The crowd’s reaction won’t affect the technical points, but I think it could influence the judges’ impression.

Yohe: Where do the judges watch the competition from?

Uehara: The judge panel comprised of five judges and one head judge watch from the judge tower, which is located right next to the ramp. The five judges rate the performance and the head judge checks that there are no unusual differences between the ratings. If there is no problem, the average is calculated and it becomes the point earned by the rider.

Yohe: The judges have a huge responsibility! Are the judges all former BMX riders too?

Uehara: Yes. The judges usually have over 20 years of BMX experience. They come from different countries too.

Some riders jump almost 8-metres high

Ibuki: I watched a BMX performance on video and I was surprised to see that some riders could jump very high. From this position where I’m standing right now, how high can they jump?

Uehara: Let’s see. For example, let’s assume that there is an 80-centimetre high base here and on top of it is a 4-metre high jumping board. The rider would jump about 3 metres above the jumping board. So that means they can jump about 7m 80cm high from the ground. Probably as high as our eye level right here.

Ibuki: They can jump nearly 8 metres... Awesome.

Uehara: Especially NAKAMURA Rim, who is a promising contender for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Games, is famous for his high-air tricks. He considers his high jumps as his signature too. He can really fly.

Yohe: Maybe we should also include ‘height’ in the video content we create!

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♬ オリジナル楽曲 - TOKYO 2020

A one-year postponement allowed us to learn what’s not needed and what should be improved

Ibuki: What did you find most difficult in dealing with the one-year postponement?

Uehara: There are many things, but our job is to prepare everything so that the Games can take place. We had already started the venue overlay construction when the postponement was announced. If we were told that the Games would be postponed in the middle of our preparation, it’s not easy but all we have to do is suspend the work and reschedule. However, if we’re told to host the Games when we’re not ready, we wouldn’t be able to organise the competition. So we have to continue preparing. After the Games were postponed, we had to take down what we had built at the BMX venue and find a storage site to keep all the material. That was a lot of work.

Ibuki: You couldn’t just keep it the way it was, partially constructed, for a year?

Uehara: The material would deteriorate over time. If we were to keep it like that for one year, we would have to make sure it was maintained properly. We compared the costs and decided to tear it down.

Ibuki: When you say ‘deteriorate’, what exactly would happen?

Uehara: Because the competition takes place outdoors, the metal parts of the competition course would be affected by the rain and wind. The surface could become rusty or degraded.

Yohe: Was there anything good that came out from the postponement?

Uehara: This is my personal opinion, but we were able to review the plans and we noticed some things weren’t really needed and some aspects needed improvement. Also, the solidarity of our team grew stronger because we share the same pain and challenge. By putting everything on hold, we were able to see things that we hadn’t noticed before.

An athlete competes at the READY STEADY TOKYO BMX Freestyle test event in May 2021.
An athlete competes at the READY STEADY TOKYO BMX Freestyle test event in May 2021.
Naoki Gaman

A new discipline, a new experience for everyone

Uehara: BMX Freestyle makes its debut in the Tokyo 2020 Games, so nobody has ever organised BMX Freestyle at the Olympic Games. Of course, many people have been involved in the operation of international BMX competitions, but the operation of BMX Freestyle at the Olympic Games is unchartered territory for us all. We turned to the team in charge of BMX Racing for advice. For example, after the athletes complete their ride, which route should we take to guide them out of the competition area? And what can we do to help the athletes concentrate on their performance? The athletes are the top priority in everything we do.

Yohe: You have to consider so many things in the preparation process.

Uehara: We create the environment so the athletes can perform comfortably. That’s our mission. I hope you’ll support BMX.

Yohe: Maybe I should try BMX!

Uehara: You can do it! People say that it’s difficult to stay on the board in surfing, skateboarding or snowboarding, but a lot of people can ride a bicycle. BMX uses a bicycle so you will be able to ride right away.

Yohe: Before we came to do this interview, we watched a video of Mr Uehara in a BMX competition. You were spinning the front wheel like “Zoom!” I don’t think I can do that right away, but BMX seems really fun and I feel like I want to try it!