Well, it’s finally official: skateboarding is a sport.
Though skaters have long resisted such categorization – even during the 90s when the energy drink-fueled qualifier “extreme” was clumsily appended to lump skating, snowboarding, BMXing and even Rollerblading into one big commercial for the then-newly formed X Games – it was inevitable. Skateboarding just got too big to stay gnarly, and earlier this month came the final bolt: the International Olympic Committee voted to include skateboarding as an Olympic event beginning in 2020 in Tokyo.
What we could consider the first generations of skaters – which consisted of misfits, weirdoes, and loners, like, the now famous Z-boys of Dogtown – were adamant regarding skating’s status as an anti-sport, their identity was connected to the dropouts and burnouts who spent days surfing, not to golden-haired quarterbacks and big league pitchers. For guys like Jay Adams or Ty Page, skating was a lifestyle, an identity, an art form, an obsession – anything but a sport. Skating encouraged individualism, creativity and a DIY sensibility – as an artist develops a style or a mode so too does a skater, via trick and spot selection, establish an aesthetic for which they will be primarily known. You don’t have to have win anything to be a great skater. You just do it.
Despite that sense of individualism, contests have long been a part of skateboarding, from the slalom races in the 60s to the “freestyle” events in the 80s that Rodney Mullen always won to the Tony Hawk and Christian Hosoi battles on vert that first popularized skating in the 1980s. Then the dry period came, skating fell off the cultural radar in the early 90s, suffering a major fall in popularity. To try to get people in the door, parks like the Skatepark of Tampa launched contests that became more like traditions than actual competitions, holding out just long enough for the launch of the X Games, the ESPN-aired mega-event that many skaters thought would be the end of skating as they knew it. Instead, Tony Hawk landed the first 900 during X Games V in 1999, and instead of the death of skateboarding, the X Games (at least in part) contributed to its resurgence. Since then, skating has gone global: thousands of local skateparks have popped up around the world from Copenhagen, Denmark to Kabul, and the number of young kids buying decks grew exponentially. Ryan Sheckler and Rob Dyrdek both starred in reality shows; Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater made millions for Activision (as well as all the pros featured in the game); somehow Bam Margera and his hairy pranksters got paid by MTV to reproduce and expand on their underground CKY antics, turning it into Jackass; and by 2002, there were 12.5 million skaters worldwide, and in 2009, skating’s global revenue was estimated at 4.8 billion dollars.
Capitalizing on all of this, in 2010, Rob Dyrdek created Street League Skateboarding, a contest series organized around two principles that separated it from the X Games (and every other contest thus far). First, the design of the park would be plaza-style, which architecturally mimics the most venerated spots in America’s streets, like, the recently demolished Love Park in Philadelphia. Second, the judging would be instant and based not wholly on runs but also on individual tricks. Both measures make SLS more like the ways kids actually skate, as opposed to the ever-growing (literally) events of the X Games – with its vert ramps and, now, its mega ramps, the X Games have real Evel Knievel vibe. In Street League, the park designs resemble those perfect street spots that actual skaters flock to because of the good curbs, and the single-trick strategy of the contest recalls the way skaters will try the same trick over and over until they get it. Landing that one trick – and getting all the applause and lauds from your friends – is enough to make your week.
But there was an unforeseen consequence of Street League: its inadvertent emphasis on consistency. In a conventional contest, a skater has only a run to earn points, and thus will limit the number of difficult tricks in it. In Street League, pros only have to land the one trick, so the difficulty level can greatly increase. To win, then, you must be able to not only land some super hard shit but do so consistently – and in such an environment those who can fulfill both requirements will rise to the top, like Nyjah Huston, the 21-year-old who has made more money in skate contests than any other skater in history.
Huston epitomizes this new high-level consistency game. During SLS events, he throws out tricks like a backside 270 to noseblunt down a handrail—and he makes it look super easy. The effect seeing Huston land incredibly difficult tricks as if they were basic ones has an impact on younger kids, and that is how skateboarding progresses. Because those kids don’t realize just how hard Huston’s tricks are, they become the standards on which skaters will judge their skill level. With each new generation, the difficulty grows exponentially. And this is true of other aspects of skating, too. Take, for instance, the expansion from vert ramps to mega ramps, the latter of which was initially only ridden by the best vert skaters like Danny Way and Bob Burnquist; now it’s a category of contests in the X Games. The adjective “mega” will probably be dropped from the name in the near future – imagine what they’ll think up next.
Which brings us back to the Olympics, and the probable effect its inclusion will have on skateboarding. Consider the way that skaters view Nyjah Huston’s extremely high-level tricks in Street League as the new standard, and recall that this perception is only among skaters, who can all get just as inspired by Chris Cole, Luan Olivera, Chris Joslin, or Tommy Sandoval by watching their video parts. A major component of a truly inspiring skater is their sensibility – not just in trick selection or spot choice but in the music they pick for their part, the clothes they wear, the way they act. It is, in other words, a nuance relationship, not unlike that of a burgeoning artist’s love for one of the great masters: it isn’t just about greatness; it’s also about style.
But the Olympics seem to only venerate greatness – moreover, it does so on a global scale. Who will really remember, for example, who else ran against Usain Bolt these last few Olympics? How many swimmers will remain influential besides Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel? If we know any of the answers to these questions right now, just a few days after the closing ceremonies, we probably will not in a year. But we won’t forget Bolt, Phelps or Simone Biles, even though the rest of the time track, swimming and gymnastics don’t pop up in daily conversation. The Olympics popularity can make stars out of athletes who compete in major team sports like baseball or (American) football. So when skateboarding makes it first appearances to an enormous global viewership, will it too extol and reward only the gold medalists? Will it reduce an artful activity into statistics? Will style no longer matter? Will winning become the primary criterion for greatness?
In the skateboarding world, opinions abound as to the Olympics’ impact on skating’s future. The Berrics, a website based around a private indoor skatepark (plaza-style, natch) in LA, run by Steve Berra and Eric Koston – asked a bunch of pros what they thought, and the results vary. Berra himself said, “I just look at it this way; it’s one event every four years, Archery certainly doesn’t seem to be effected with its inclusion into the Olympics, but I’m not someone who is into archery so I can’t say that for a fact, but things change.” Sean Malto, a pro for Girl, Nike SB, Fourstar, et al, embraces the news, “I’m just trying to skate and have fun whatever setting I am in. You want to put me in the streets? Awesome. If I so happen to go to the Olympics, I am just going to skate and have fun. I don’t think you should let the Olympics ruin whatever you’re doing. I think it’s all just personal.”
Braydon Szafranski, a rider for Baker, takes a somewhat different view: “Gang of misfits… not athletes!! Skateboarding is a crime, not a sport.”
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Meanwhile, over at Thrasher, the skate-bible magazine that most closely keeps the spirit of skating’s past, on their weekly “Skateline,” show, host Gary Rogers expressed what most aptly articulates how I feel about this whole thing: “I’m for growth, okay? Don’t get me wrong. I wanna see skaters live the life they’re supposed to. This is the hardest, most amazing, beautiful shit on earth – it is. It’s the most fun. I don’t want to see us not being recognized by the planet. There’s just better ways.”
Indeed. Skateboarding should be recognized, and it should afford the kids who skate opportunities beyond their neighborhood parks, but the skating world has always been populated by misfits kids who spurn conventional sports – it’s been a long and beautiful legacy of rejects and artists and weirdoes. And those types of kids are still out there – young, pissed off and full of creative energy. Skating used to be a perfect outlet for those kids. After the torch is snuffed in Tokyo in 2020, will skateboarding continue to be an alternative for them? And if it doesn’t, who – or what – will carry the torch of the ones left behind?