Skateboarding, a sport all about getting air, is about to enter rarefied air. But not everyone is stoked on it.
In certain sports, every four years an exclusive medal shines bright, gold in color, and bears five interlocked rings. From hockey players to snowboarders, surfers to swimmers, some athletes will never be fulfilled until they can add an Olympic medal to their stash.
In the 2020 Tokyo Games, skateboarders can ollie their way into the Olympics for the first time. Part of a stated effort by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to make the program “more gender balanced and more urban, and offer the opportunity to connect with the younger generation,” skateboarding will no doubt shake up a Summer Games traditionally headlined by more conventional events like swimming or track and field.
The Olympics continue to bring new sports into the mix and give even more diverse athletes the chance to represent their countries on the world’s biggest sports stage. It’s also no secret they’re trying to woo younger viewers; the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics saw a 6.9 average rating in coverage, dropping 27% from the 9.5 for London 2012, per data from Nielsen.
But how adept will the IOC be at bringing its stated mission to fruition in a way that honors skateboarding, which at its core is a celebration of the counterculture? How can arguably sports’ most rules-focused governing body honor a sport that has a distaste for rules in general baked into its DNA?
Though there are certainly communities of skaters who reject anything that reeks of the mainstream — reject the very idea of skateboarding as a competitive sport — if you’re talented and want to make big money doing it, the getting is good. The global skateboarding market is expected to be valued at $2.4 billion by 2025, according to a July 2019 report by Grand View Research.
All sports must figure out how to balance the integrity of the athletic pursuit with earning a living. But few have the history steeped in anti-corporate sentiment skateboarding does. Even so, kids as young as 11 are joining their country’s national teams in preparation for the Olympics; some of them have never known a world where skateboarding isn’t a viable (and potentially cash-flush) career.
“Contests are not a necessity in skateboarding, but they do aid in some areas of progression,” says pro skater Clay Kreiner, who took first place in the Vert World Championships in 2017 and has won four X Games medals. “For me, it’s about trying to find a happy medium between chasing goals and wanting to aspire to be better and still having fun on my skateboard and keeping it what it was like when I was eight years old.”
Not every skateboarder who wanted to compete in the Olympics would find his or her discipline offered in 2020. In the Tokyo Summer Games, Park and Street will be the two competitions included for both men and women. Not included are Longboarding, Vert, or Big Air, which you’ll find at other popular competitions like X Games or Dew Tour.
Some prominent Park and Street skaters have jumped at the chance to participate in the qualifying events that could land them a spot on their countries’ Olympic teams. It’s a rigorous, points-based process unfolding over the course of this year; 80 skateboarders in all will qualify globally, 20 in each competition, with no nation able to send more than three athletes of each gender for each event.
Kreiner, who skates Park and Big Air in addition to Vert, attended the first Olympic qualifier, and elected not to attend more after that. “I felt like the first one that I went to was a bit demeaning, in a way, to skaters and skateboarding and what has been in the past,” says Kreiner, fresh off winning bronze in Vert at X Games this August. Unlike other skateboarding events like Dew Tour, the International Skateboarding Open (ISO), and the World Skate/SLS World Championships, X Games has elected not to be sanctioned as a qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Games — which may help it retain some of its shred cred as the Olympics loom closer.
Mariah Duran, a member of Team USA’s women’s Street roster, welcomed the opportunity to take a breather from her Olympic qualifying events at August’s X Games, where she took bronze in Street.
“This was just really more for myself, for building my self-confidence and enjoying it,” Duran said after her event. “I’m skating with people I really enjoy skating with.”
“X Games, as much as it is a TV show and as much as it is corporate, has been able to hold their ground on keeping it real and keeping the athletes as happy as could be and holding true to the sh*t that we grew up on and the reason we all love this sh*t,” says Kreiner. “It’s helped attract so many new skateboarders.” Just as legends like Tony Hawk and Bob Burnquist got him into skateboarding, Kreiner says, he hopes he and the current generation will do that for kids today. He allows, however, the Olympics have the potential to do that on a more widespread scale.
When it comes to developing the next generation, it’s clear that the Olympics will forever alter the footprint of skateboarding. Since August 2016, when the IOC announced that skateboarding would be added to the program for 2020 (and, provisionally, the 2024 Paris Games), nations around the world have been supporting the development of young skateboarders in order to send them to their national teams. The Olympics will likely result in “more public skate parks and more skate parks in less fortunate areas,” and “help get skateboarding to the eyes of people who have never shown interest in it,” Kreiner says.
Mitchie Brusco, a Vert and Big Air skater who made history at this year’s X Games when he became the first-ever skateboarder to successfully land a 1260, agrees that the Olympics will change skate culture, but “there are two sides to it,” he says.
“The Olympics aren’t going anywhere, in terms of whether the Olympics need skateboarding more than skateboarding needs the Olympics.” But when it comes to the sport’s culture, “It’s not their job to tell people what skateboarding is. It’s my job.” Though neither Vert nor Big Air are currently on the program at the 2020 Olympics, if they do get added down the line, Brusco says if he feels comfortable competing in his discipline, he’d like to represent his country “the way he knows how.”
“It’s pretty cool just to be a part of it, you know?” said Team USA’s Alex Sorgente after winning bronze in this year’s X Games men’s Park contest. “I would be stoked to represent my country, and to take down the other countries, I guess!” he added with a laugh.
NBC has made skateboarding one of its coverage priorities for the 2020 Tokyo Games. Around the world, skateboarding is about to reach a new level of exposure … for better or worse. However, one thing is certain: Some kids who pick up a board in 2020 will develop a dream of repping their countries in the Olympics. And some will never want anything more than hitting the streets with their friends. From Southern California to the Southern Hemisphere, skate culture exists in an authentic way that took root long before the Olympics came knocking. Despite millions in sponsor dollars pouring into the sport in the last decade and widely televised contests, it has persisted. The same will be true regardless of how skateboarding is received in the next Summer Games.