LONG BEACH, Calif. —
The action can be dizzying — young athletes flying through the air, spinning, grinding, ripping — so it’s no wonder the crowd’s oohs and ahhs could be heard echoing over the nearby beach as the world’s best skateboarders began jockeying for position.
The rebellious street sport is headed to the 2020 Olympics and this week’s Dew Tour stop marks the first qualifying event in the United States. But even as some 370 athletes from 45 countries try to make their case by sliding on rails and launching themselves skyward, an existential dilemma looms in the background: Is skateboarding about to flip the Summer Olympics end over end? Or will the Olympic rings change a sport that was born in the streets, that grew up on sidewalks, in parking lots and urban settings, and that thrived as a counterculture activity that proudly bucked authority and detested conformity?
Skateboarding is a culture, a lifestyle and a big business, already mainstream in so many ways. The International Olympic Committee, desperate for a younger audience, saw an opportunity to inject something fresh in its summer lineup, a decision that was embraced by some skaters but cursed by others. What they mostly agree on: Good or bad, the new platform could bring big changes to the sport.
“Honestly, I think skateboarding would be just fine if it wasn’t in the Olympics,” said 29-year-old American Ryan Sheckler, a Tokyo hopeful and one of the sport’s most accomplished skaters. “But now it’s here and I think it can open the eyes to a whole new generation. People are going to see it’s not something to be frowned upon, it’s not a crime. It’s in the Olympics now. It’s like super official.”
When the news became public in August 2016, it spread quickly through the skateboarding community. Just 14 years old, Brighton Zeuner is one of the sport’s brightest young stars, already discussed as a podium favorite in Tokyo. She recalls first receiving word via skateboarding icon Tony Hawk’s Instagram account.
“I remember thinking, ‘OK, that’s pretty cool. The Olympics — I guess that’s what I want to do now,’” said the Californian, who was named to the inaugural U.S. team in March.
Others were not as sold. Consider what Tony Alva, the skateboarding legend and one of the original Z-Boys skaters, told the culture site Highsnobiety: “Skateboarding as a creative art form needs to disassociate with political corruption and a greedy IOC association. … The athletes are the only people that really have any soul. They too are being exploited for all the wrong reasons. Keep it real, boycott the Olympics. Unless they clean up their act.”
Therein lies the dilemma: Does skateboarding have to change in order to grow? Can it retain its authentic, carefree sensibilities while also gussying itself up for prime-time TV cameras and a mainstream audience?
“I think some people are scared it’s taking away the identity of skateboarding,” said Sheckler, a three-time X-Games champion with 2 million Instagram followers, “kind of that renegade, go out, skate where you’re not supposed to skate, have fun with friends and party. But it’s not going to take anything away from that. The sport is about freedom. No one is forcing anyone to go to the Olympics or skate in contests.”
There is already a divide of sorts in the skateboarding community between those who compete and those who prefer to hit the streets, often recording their tricks and sharing them online. Both groups attract sponsors and have massive followings.
“Overall what the Olympics will do for skateboarding is just blow up every part of it,” said 18-year old Jagger Eaton, a skate prodigy from Arizona who has been competing in the X-Games since he was 11. “The people who want to compete, we’ll be able to make a living off just doing what we want to do. And then the other part — the outlaws, the rebels who push away the Olympics, or whatever — they’ll still do their thing. Overall, I really think it promotes every part of skateboarding.”
The fraught soul-searching is something sport organizers have carefully considered. They say they do not want to water down the sport or strip skateboarding of its unvarnished character. Kit McConnell, the IOC’s sports director, says, “We want to keep that spirit of skateboarding.
“It’s not just about taking skateboarding and making it feel like another Olympic sport,” he said. “It’s about taking what’s very special about skateboarding and adding that onto the Olympic stage.”
Gary Ream, the commission chair for World Skate, the international governing body for roller sports, says he was never under the illusion that the skateboarding community would universally embrace the Olympics. “That’s never going to happen,” he said. But that was also never really the goal, and he said he thinks the whole universe of skateboarders stands to benefit from the exposure the Olympics will bring.
Sean Malto is one of the most recognizable skaters with a long list of sponsors and nearly a million Instagram followers. He says there are some who do not even like identifying skateboarding as a sport. For them, the idea of competition, rules and prizes runs counter to skateboarding’s free-range, no-holds-barred origins. “Of course I hear people talk about the Olympics and if that’s going to change things. It definitely will,” said Malto, who was born in Maryland. “It makes things a little more regimented. But I also think you get eyes on the sport, you get people involved at another level.”
More eyeballs means more participants, more sponsors and more opportunities. It is a familiar blueprint. Skateboarding gets ready to make its big move more than two decades after snowboarding made the leap from X-Games to the Olympics platform. That move was not universally celebrated either, as snowboarding at the time was still banned at some ski resorts. And in the snowboarding community, there was tension. The world’s top snowboarder at the time, in fact, was among those who boycotted the Winter Games.
But both the sport and the Olympics have benefited from snowboarding’s inclusion. It made its Olympic debut in 1998 with just two events but now features five disciplines. The competition is spread out over two weeks, giving young viewers especially something to watch nearly every day of the Winter Games. Snowboarding is not just a staple of the Winter Games, it also provides some of the highest ratings every four years.
Olympic officials have tried to bring the same jolt of energy and interest to its Summer Games. They are also adding surfing and rock climbing to the Tokyo slate and are close to finalizing the inclusion of break dancing for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Skateboarding will start with two events: street, an obstacle-filled course that includes rails and stairs; and park, giant concrete bowls that allow skateboarders to catch air and perform tricks. Both are on display this weekend at the Long Beach event, where skaters have come from all over the world to begin compiling points and building their Olympic resumes. The sport’s organizers hope that by the time the Olympics come to Los Angeles in 2028, there will be even more skateboarding events offered, though the sport has no Olympic guarantees beyond 2020.
The IOC’s McConnell calls the unique relationship a win-win: Skateboarding gets a bigger, global platform, and the Olympics gets its coveted younger audience. For their part, skaters can sense the landscape shifting and more changes looming. The sport might inspire young people to hop on a board, but veterans such as Sheckler can see young skaters increasingly relying on personal coaches, sticking solely to contests and skate parks and focusing more on perfecting tricks than having fun — in short, moving away from skateboarding’s lawless roots.
“It’s the streets, man. That’s how it started,” he said. “We’ll see where it all goes. I think it’s exciting either way. It’s new, so of course it’s scary. Everything new is scary. Everything you don’t understand is scary at first. But let’s see. It could be really gnarly.”