Skateboarding In the Olympics | Not Jumping Through Hoops

We talk to a pro, an academic and a magazine editor about skating's Olympic prospects

Words by Sam Haddad | Illustration by Ross Holden

At the Olympics in Rio this August, the IOC will decide whether to introduce skateboarding, along with surfing, climbing, baseball/softball and karate, to the 2020 Games in Tokyo. It would be a big call for skateboarding and many skaters are pretty miffed about the decision, speaking out online about “compromising the integrity of an art form”, making video rants and starting petitions against its inclusion.

Will Harmon, the editor of Free Skateboard Magazine, tells me: “There is a slight worry that skateboarding’s Olympic inclusion will steal a bit of soul from the skateboarding world.”

To dig a little deeper into the issue I interview Iain Borden, a Professor of Architecture and Urban Culture at University College London and the author of the seminal 2001 book Skateboarding, Space and the City. He’s currently nursing a skate-induced broken wrist. I ask how he feels about the prospect of skateboarding being in the Olympics?

He says: “In many ways I feel ambivalent about it. I know if I watched it I’d get bored within five to ten minutes as I do with any competitive skateboarding, especially the more spectacular contests, such as the X Games, or Street League. I find them entirely inauthentic and I don’t care who wins. People I know get excited about the Vans Pool Party and stay up all night to watch it live, as it’s an amazing curated event. Maybe it’s a generational thing with older skaters where you care more about its authenticity rather than who wins.”

I tell him it’s funny to talk about Vans as authentic when they’re such a big corporation. He laughs. “Yes Vans are a company with a turnover of 2.2 billion dollars a year. They’ve not been family-owned for almost 30 years. They’re owned by VF corporation, they’re a mega brand who earn lots of money for their shareholders. But they have cleverly created a meaningful relationship with skaters.”

“Maybe it’s a generational thing where you care more about its authenticity rather than who wins…”

“They endorse things and people that skaters care about, be that providing a free skate space such as House of Vans in London, funding school initiatives, putting 300k into the Dogtown and Z-Boys film. Over the years they’ve been seen to put money back in, in a way other brands haven’t.”

When it comes to the Olympics Borden worries that: “The circuit of capital won’t be so evident. Where will the money from international TV rights go, will that flow back into skating? Skaters will need to be directly involved in the organisation of the event and not just leaving it to the rollerskate federation.”

Ryan Sheckler. Credit: Red Bull Content Pool/Mike Blabac

In March I was part of a group interview with the legendary pro skater Bob Burnquist (organised through Laureus) and he had this to say about the organisation in charge: “I’m always reticent [about skateboarding being in the Olympics] and I always want to make sure that it’s the right organisation. So it feels like ISF is the organisation for skateboarding being in there, and that’s who I am behind and I am supporting. Let’s make sure we take control of that because we don’t want it in the wrong hands.”

I ask Borden about the potential wider consequences of skateboarding being in the Olympics.

“The indirect effect is why I do support it as it will create more interest in skateboarding and more demand for products. There will be more people skating and buying product and reading websites and magazines, and their advertising will go up. There will be more money in marketing budgets to support art projects, to keep up the pressure on councils for parks and for schools to have skateboarding as part of the PE curriculum. The indirect benefits generally could be quite large.”

Harmon agrees: “More people in the world will get into skateboarding, more skateboards will be bought and hopefully more skateparks will get made. But he worries: “Many people will then consider skateboarding a “sport” where you compete and there are winners and losers, rules and so on.”

“There is a slight worry that skateboarding’s Olympic inclusion will steal a bit of soul from the skateboarding world.”

Borden doesn’t see that happening. He says: “The fears around wearing uniforms or being judged on how high their ollies are just won’t happen. That’s not how everyday skating is, if you don’t want to act like Nyjah [Huston] in a Street League Style contest you don’t.”

Nyjah Huston while not in a Street League contest. Credit: Nyjah Huston Facebook

“In other big sports which people do on an everyday basis, such as tennis, football, running and golf, you watch people and they’re not pretending they’re Nadal, or Messi. Well an 11-year-old might run around fantastically pretending they’re Messi but most everyday sport is not simulation of professional sport. You don’t see fisherman along a river desperately trying to catch as many perches as they can in an hour.”

“And it won’t happen in skate for that same reason and in any case skate is inherently divorced from that organised structure anyway, we’d all resist the policing.”

“You don’t see fisherman along a river desperately trying to catch as many perches as they can in an hour…”

Borden also says skateboarding has always had comps and it’s not affected its essence thus far. He says:

“Skating has always had big level comps, from the Zephyr team shown in Dogtown in Z-Boys invitational, to the Hester Gold Cup Series in the 80s and the X Games and Street League the Vans Tours. We’ve always had these comps, and they haven’t destroyed the soul of skateboarding before. There’s a rich panoply of things that that make up skateboarding.”

“The other thing that rankles me in terms of the very negative stuff is that skaters like to thing they’re a welcoming broad church, so they should welcome different people and let them do different things. Some skaters like that competitive organised regimented side and that’s fine, we’re strong enough men and women to have all different ways to approach skateboarding. And being in the Olympics doesn’t destroy that richness, we shouldn’t be intolerant or have this self-ghettoisation of skating.”

“We shouldn’t be intolerant or have this self-ghettoisation of skating…”

I ask what he thinks the Olympics inclusion could bring to the women’s side of skating. He says: “One of the things I found interesting compared to parallel activities, such as skiing and say parkour is that they have a much bigger take up by women than skating. There’s some academic research, which has shown that’s precisely because they have more structured ways of access of reaching them than skate does. If you offer skate lessons the take up will be 50 per cent women of all ages, but in an open session, that would just not be the case.”

“Where as in parkour classes the organised training makes it easier for someone unsure of entering a male-dominated environment to partake. Girls only skate sessions show the same thing. In the Olympics, where I presume they’d have the same comps for men and women, it could create an atmosphere where skateboarding was as accessible to women as it is to men.”

Lucy Adams in Littlehampton. Credit: Jenna Selby

“Will more women sign up? I don’t know. Academic research shows in part that the way street skating is presented is very hyper-masculine, you see the lone male tackling the dirty dangerous city. And that trope puts off different models of masculinity as well as women, the different gender identities are not well represented so perhaps this would potentially encourage a better gender range.”

“The Olympics could create an atmosphere where skateboarding was accessible to women as it is to men.”

We chat about the lack of gay male pro skater role models and how surprising that is in 2016. Borden says: “You’d have thought it would have been a massive brand advantage, why not? There are two NFL footballers out. Perhaps it’s because skateboarding’s main market is teenage boys, and their views on girls and LGBT rights isn’t always well formed at that age.”

Back in the early 00s Borden first wrote about how skateboarders subverted the intended uses of the city turning them into places of play and “taking over adult space physically and conceptually.” Does he feel the battle for skateboarding to be taken seriously by society is won now with its potential inclusion in the Olympics?

“Skateboarding is more accepted but you still get new buildings with skate stoppers and find it frequently banned in public spaces. Though there are signs it’s becoming more accepted, such as South Bank, where all that argument was never about getting rid of skateboarding or telling them to go away, the discussion was about where to put the skateboarders.”

South Bank Photo: iStock

“It’s on the school curriculum, you’ve got Vans paying for free access skate parks in central London, social enterprises using skateboarding to help hard to reach youth. It is being gradually integrated into the mainstream [but not in a way] that destroys its essence.”

“It’s encouraged in ways that were unimaginable 30-40 years ago and we need to further continue that process, as you can still be sitting in a council meeting where they’re talking about it as if it’s still a craze. Putting skateboarding in the Olympics will help make that point more and help with better facilities, that would be one of the great advantages of being in the Olympics.”

Harmon reminds us of the genuine concern that: “Corporate sponsors in skateboarding at the moment will change their behaviour and solely sponsor skateboarders that compete on the Olympic level. This might make it hard for pro skateboarders, who rely on video and magazine coverage and not competitions, to make a living.”

Bob Burnquist and Tony Hawk skateboard with local children at the Laureus visit to Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images For Laureus)

But Burnquist overall sees the upside. He says: “I think just the fact that it’s being thought of for the Olympics means a lot. It means that, hey, this is a sport and this is an activity that a lot of the young guys do, so we need that audience and we need to tap into that generation, because times change and sports evolve and people’s activities grow. So it’s great to see skateboarding where it is, and it helps so many kids around the world finding something positive to do.” As the charity Skateistan continues to prove.

“For a long time, I was very against it, and then for a while I was on the fence. But I think there’s a time for everything and there’s an evolution.” Maybe skateboarding doesn’t have that much to be scared about after all.

Skateboarding and the City: A Complete History by Professor Iain Borden will be out in 2018

To read the rest of the May ‘Fear’ Issue head here

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