Seven years ago I launched an effort to convince Orienteering USA to get serious about supporting mountain bike orienteering (MTBO) in America.
The premise of this editorial was to urge Orienteering USA to start the groundwork needed to host the World Mountain Bike Orienteering Championships (WMTBOC) in the United States of America in 2018.
At the time, I proposed a three-phase plan:
- Establish an MTBO sanctioning committee that can officiate ranked events
- Promote local and regional events that feed a national circuit
- Create a National MTBO Championship
The entire idea of bringing the WMTBOC to America is why I built MTBO America in the first place.
So what happened to that plan?
Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
Not a damn thing.
Yet, in all honesty, it did teach me some very valuable — and often painful — lessons.
It taught me that national sports organizations have political agendas that seldom align with innovation.
It also taught me how small minded people with a little power can make building a new sport almost impossible.
But to really understand why MTBO has not flourished in the United States, you have to take a look at how that three-phase plan was shelved in favor of athletic tourism and the status quo.
Nobody Took MTBO Seriously
First, Orienteering USA never established an MTBO sanctioning committee that could officiate ranked events.
They did make some efforts to facilitate the creation of a US MTBO Team, however, that effort did not rise to the level of a real sanctioning committee.
Instead, the team was formed from a gaggle of orienteers and adventure racers that had once orienteered with a mountain bike.
The idea was to initially send a team to a WMTBOC with no expectations and we got our wish when the first US MTBO Team arrived in Hungary in 2012.
The first MTBO team in the World MTBO Championships was an exciting time for American MTBO.
Of course, everyone wanted the team to do well, but if they only came back with an understanding of how a World MTBO event worked, then it was a good step forward.
What happened next, however, was a complete departure from their purpose.
Not only did the newly minted MTBO athletes not come back and spearhead an American MTBO movement, but they started using each WMTBOC event as an annual vacation.
They helped pioneer the term “MTBO Tourists” by showing up only to get crushed by European athletes with twice their skill and half their age.
In the five times that Orienteering USA fielded a team at the World MTBO Championships, they never came close to a Top 20 ranking and often performed just above last place in most events.
The US MTBO Team — with no real effort by Orienteering USA to make them competitive — became an athletic novelty that nobody in Europe took seriously.
No MTBO Backbone Ever Materialized
Even more frustrating was how little interest each consecutive team had in building MTBO events back in the United States.
But was it really the mission of the US MTBO Team to build MTBO events in their own clubs?
Yes! A few tried to get small events in place after riding the high of their experience overseas.
Experienced MTBO athletes and MTBO enthusiasts did go back to their clubs and manage to direct “one-off” events.
In fact, there was a steady growth of MTBO events produced by a handful of orienteering clubs between 2012-2016.
There were over 22 MTBO events being held in the United States at its height in 2014.
However, nothing was every stitched together and any effort to build a national circuit from the top down never materialized.
I could give Orienteering USA the benefit of the doubt and sight funding issues as the reason why it never invested in a national MTBO circuit.
However, Orienteering USA didn’t really start having money issues until the 2016-2017 budget year.
Why did they not capitalize on this opportunity?
One possibility was their dedication to maintaining classic foot-orienteering as the priority.
Any move to support or grow MTBO would cause them to lose focus on existing foot-orienteering commitments.
Another possibility could be that there was no one dedicated at the Orienteering USA level to see MTBO grow.
Without someone steering the MTBO mission at the national level, it would be very difficult for them to see any opportunities emerge.
All the growth data was there, even if their interest was not.
I fear that the real reason, however, is that the organization just didn’t have any interest in creating a national MTBO circuit.
They receive all the same reports as all the other club members do and could make a decision based on all the same data too.
But sometimes taking no action is a decision.
Whatever the reason, the lack of national-level interest in MTBO does seem to be connected to a dramatic decrease in MTBO events across the United States after 2016.
The end result was a 70-percent reduction of MTBO events in over three short years, going from 22 in 2014, to a few as 6 MTBO events in 2017.
No Interest in Building an Environment for World MTBO in America
Consider what an American mountain biking (MTB) athlete has to do to become ranked internationally.
They have to race in enough locally- and regionally-sanctioned events to earn enough points to get invited to national-level events.
Additionally, before they can ever be considered for a US Olympic Team spot or to ride as a USA Cycling (USAC) professional athlete they have to rise to the category of Professional using a USAC licensing system.
Even most major Universities in the United States have collegiate mountain biking teams that have to earn their ranking in a very similar way.
However, if an American wants to become a World MTBO athlete, up until now, all they had to do was submit their name, buy a plane ticket and show up to the World MTBO Championships.
There are no locally- or regionally-sanctioned events, no points system, nor any need to qualify for any national-level events — because there are none to qualify for.
What are the consequences of not having any MTBO framework in place to prepare athletes for the brutal beating they will receive at the hands of the European MTBO teams?
Five straight years of last place finishes, last place rankings, and no up-and-coming prospects to work with.
The solution is simple: encourage orienteering clubs to host MTBO events by setting the example at the national level.
Just like the New York Yankees encouraged the development of Baseball athletes through the creation of the Farm League system, Orienteering USA could foster the creation of a localized MTBO network by creating a National race circuit.
Local clubs and mountain bike race promoters could see the advantage in developing local events if it could result in expert-level participants going to “the show” if there was a “show” to go to in the United States.
Unfortunately, there is no one at the Orienteering USA level pushing to establish a National MTBO Championship.
Additionally, there is no one at the Orienteering USA level even advocating for a few regional MTBO events.
After seven years of pushing, and five years of sending ill-prepared MTBO teams to World MTBO Championships, there is still no national framework for MTBO in America.
What has it accomplished?
A sub-par racing resume process that has yet to produce a single, successful American MTBO champion, and little else.
In 2018, the effort to build mountain bike orienteering as an up-and-coming orienteering discipline is all but dead at the national level.
Some grassroots efforts are still producing MTBO events here and there, and of course, Adventure Racing is still a dark horse in this effort.
But for now, it’s even questionable that there will be another American MTBO tourism group going to the World MTBO Championships… again, and getting crushed… again.
That being said, maybe having Orienteering USA not send an MTBO team this year would be a good thing.
Not that I want to stop seeing Americans compete on the world stage.
I’m just tired of watching Americans get beat by Europeans on the machine — the mountain bike — that Americans invented.
No, instead I think it is time to acknowledge the 500-pound gorilla in the MTBO room:
Orienteering USA’s mountain bike orienteering experiment has failed!
Not sending a team this year would show all orienteers that Orienteering USA is finally ready to admit it’s failure.
They need to be done subsidizing a cause that they don’t believe — that is UNTIL they ARE ready to believe in it.
And believing it would mean no more half-measures.
It would mean real attention, real funding, and a real plan to bring MTBO to the United States.
Then when Orienteering USA is finally ready to invest in American MTBO, it would find the right person — or team — to bring this vision to life.
I’m tired of seeing Americans get beat overseas.
I want to WIN!
So until that time — a time where Orienteering USA is done pretending and is actually ready to get serious about American MTBO — I would rather NOT see an American MTBO Team at the World MTBO Championships.
And now you know.
About MTBO America
MTBO America is dedicated to creating the framework, infrastructure, and governance required to develop a sustainable Mountain Bike Orienteering culture in the United States of America. The article “MTBO in America is Dead – Long Live American MTBO” by Kyle Bondo, originally appeared on MTBO America (mtbo.us) on July 17, 2018.