The Olympics Needed Skateboarding; But Skaters Got More Out of The Olympics

Skateboarders have a bit of a problem with gatekeeping; though I have been interested in Skating culture for a long time, I was never ‘part of the club’. Rather than joining forces with the Street heavy scene of the late 90s and 2000s, I waited past adolescence before actually pursuing the practise of skateboarding itself. So to hear it would now be an Olympic sport, it seemed a great opportunity for me to actively tune into the games for the first time ever; I already spend enough time watching videos of people skating so I was hopeful to at least get that much out of it.

Despite my relative comfortability with ‘handing the culture to the corporations’, I did share the near universal negative perception of the commentary. This obviously varied by region (as does commercial break interruptions), but it was painfully obvious that most of the Skating commentators were not familiar enough with the sport; often mis-naming tricks or having nothing to say. For me a mild inconvenience was trying to keep up with live proceedings by listening to the coverage as I drove; however the visually impaired need not apply at all as it was rare to actually have completely described tricks, scores or leaderboard changes. Another failure was the mis-gendering of nonbinary competitor Alana Smith, who even had their pronouns displayed on their board; still proudly representing their demographic just being content to participate visibly than to compete aggressively. These issues with commentary and representation are to me the biggest slights against Skateboarding from the IOC and therefore are the biggest points to learn from if it is to be included in the Olympics. If Tony Hawk can get this right in his Skating media and brand material, then the IOC can get it right for the Olympics.
Minor discussion stirred around the much lower scores awarded to the women’s divisions compared to men’s; however applying the same scoring was done by request of the competitors in an effort to even the playing field. Yes, women’s Skating is newer and less established than men’s so we aren’t yet seeing feats of the same level of difficulty. But no, women are not physiologically ‘worse’ at skateboarding, the heritage of Skateboarding is famously dismissive of women so with that to work against, the highest level of female skating is fresher, but also has more exciting potential. I am very keen to see how things have changed by the next Olympics because of factors like scoring women’s and men’s the same, on top of the already clear level of talent and dedication in the women’s events.

What could be a better symbol for the new balance between athletic strategy and art in Skateboarding; than Andy Anderson not even qualifying for the final? Of course with his highly idiosyncratic and indiscriminate mixture of Skating styles and eras, it was predictable that Andy was there to express himself enough to get in the way of qualifying for the final. But I was as surprised as everyone else when all the most marketable faces in competitive Skateboarding or favourites to win: Nyjah Huston, Leticia Bufoni, Lizzie Armanto, and Zion Wright, never even made it close to the podium.

In hindsight it feels obvious that they wouldn’t, with the two oldest medallists by far being 26 and 27; it is now clear that the younger more athletically inclined were going to win. One commentator took a moment before the final to ask competitor Aurelien Giraud if they consider themselves athletes, who brushed off the suggestion quickly, saying ‘no, we are skaters’. Nyjah has always insisted on the distinction between not just skating competitively, but also going ‘full send’ in the gnarliest street spots Laguna Beach has to offer. Lizzie having miraculously just recovered from one of Skateboarding’s biggest ever slams, practices mostly surrounded by her garden in a wooden Vert Halfpipe that has pool tile coping. Perhaps Zion only fell victim to the format, his random drawing to qualify in the first heat meaning he had to set a bar for the next 15 competitors, who then knew exactly what they needed to achieve. All he had to worry about were the likes of Andy, the single skater in the whole competition to use a manual in their line, with as much emphasis placed on his between-run freestyle tricks as his very respectable mid-run flip trick grabs. Zion was able to phone in the top spot in his preliminary heat, but after fifteen more skaters, his 67.21 was significantly behind the Top 8 spot scored by Cory Juneau.
While Nyjah did make it to his final, he appeared to let his ego get the better of him. Going from one of the most exciting moments of the competition, putting down the first 9 of the final, to multiple failed attempts at a top scoring flip+rotation into a difficult grind down the big rail in the best trick section, where he finished in front of only the injured Gustavo Ribeiro. Rather than throwing down a more simple trick that he could probably do with his eyes closed and comfortably scoring himself a medal, he ended up later apologizing on Instagram for ‘needing to express myself on this one’ (The first thing he publicly said after the competition). A similar trap fell on Netherlander Roos Zwetsloot in the women’s Street final who just couldn’t put down enough best tricks to set off her gold winning runs. Nyjah respectably kept it real in the following days with a lengthier write up openly discussing dealing with pressure and the mental health struggle of losing a competition; also awarding proper congratulations to the winners and expressing thankfulness and happiness to represent the most important core motivation, skating itself.

No, this is the era of Brazilian Rayssa Leal, who’s first big skating career moment was going viral on TikTok at age seven, in five short years to become the youngest Olympic medallist in over 8 decades with her Silver in women’s Park.

On the topic of Brazil, the first true international skating competition was a great place for the country to assert dominance over U.S.A., the birthplace of Skateboarding. For decades Brazil has produced skaters among the world’s best, and now we also find out so has Japan, if not for quite so long.

Rob Dyrdek may have sellout status to the purists, but his brainchild, the highly sanctioned Street competition format SLS doesn’t (at least no more than the typical complaints of poor scoring and soullessness). It urged the process for any skating competition to become refined enough for the Olympics while supporting international competitors, and with Rob personally funding the early winner’s prize money, quickly gave rise to Skating’s youngest-highest prize money earning competitor Nyjah Huston. Nyjah was so poised to give Olympic Skateboarding the SLS tick of approval in exchange for a gold; but before we all knew it, the younger generation pulled the rug out from under the millionaire.
Of course Rob himself was never that certain of Nyjah’s success, posting this screenshot of his extremely bold 5 year old prediction on Twitter shortly after the result:

It took me to about halfway through the final to make my mind up that Yuto winning would be my favourite success story, so I was very pleased watching him slowly build the difficulty of his best tricks to his absolute signature Nollie 270 Noseslide (having to clear the rail over the top during a full rotation, then shifting weight back behind his direction of motion in the air to touch the slide down), followed only by a Nollie 180 Fakie Nose Grind, twisting the 180 back in the opposite direction before he landed. A truly deserved historic Gold medal, and textbook example of not needing flip tricks in a Street competition by perfect execution of strategy that everyone else lacked. In his hometown and only kilometres from his home park no less.

Some lay people complained that it simply didn’t look very impressive as Street skaters frequently fell, and when tricks were landed the action was always over so fast. The difference between Street and Park formats really shows the balance between opportunities given and difficulty of tricks executed. While Street allowed five of seven scored attempts in total, with more leeway to risk high difficulty tricks; Park’s single highest score of three runs format leaves little room for error, and ultimately has more safe plays with less dramatic interchange of leaderboard positions. Indeed this is proven by both Park Gold medallists scoring their win with their very first attempt, though Australia’s Keegan Palmer managed to outdo his already winning first run. By substituting in the Kickflip Body Varial 540 to an already 90+ scored run, during a victory lap nailed down the most difficult and impressive feat of all the Olympic Skateboarders; no less than the highest expectation of Nyjah, only 8 years older who probably made his first million around the time Keegan first started seriously practising skating. While I’m happy to accept bails as all part of the drama, I had hoped that Park would be most visually exciting; while the Golds were locked in early I was happy to see highly dramatic battles for the Silver and Bronze positions, particularly Sky Brown’s clutch 540 just squeezed into the end of her very last attempt.

However the comment I see most from non-skaters, is that their favourite part was the camaraderie between competitors, many even citing this as the best part of the entire Olympics. Personally I have only watched the full events for Skateboarding and Freestyle BMX, but it was a surprise for me to hear that Skating is perhaps unique in that the competitors openly support each other, more often than not someone would be waiting on the edge of the course to celebrate with their competitor after a run. Even BMX, culturally one of the most similar pursuits to Skateboarding present at the games, clearly has a few extra years of hardcore competitive scene as anything but a gold medal seemed like a disappointment.

Photo credit: Jean Catuffe
Misugu Okamoto is lifted onto shoulders after a heartbreaking fall in the last seconds of her last run. Just missing out on a medal.

Of course Skateboarding’s designation (not invitation) to be in the Olympics was always controversial at best. It was no secret that it was chosen explicitly to attract a fading younger audience; and those opposed or indifferent to the idea would often remind us all that the IOC needs Skateboarding more than Skateboarding needs the Olympics.
Save yourself the numbing discussion of defining what makes Skating a sport or not a sport; with one sports journalism editor asking:
“Can it be an Olympic sport if you do it in khakis with your phone in your pocket?”, counterpoint: who cares? I prefer the broader picture appreciation than the semantics. Skateboarders were able to carelessly show the world that we have some of the most exciting, most good-sporting conduct of the whole games, so maybe uniforms are not the problem there.

The IOC thought they needed Skateboarding to freshen up the stale Olympics, and they clearly got more than they bargained for with Bryce Wettstein’s sideline Ukulele or Kieren Wooley’s knocking down of a camera operator; but no matter, as early reports suggest that these new inclusions failed to draw in the younger audience they were meant to, at least not as much as hoped. So what of value has this event left us with?

I hadn’t got a sense of The Olympics’ impression on my community until I made it down to my local park for my first proper session since our landmark Gold medal, then a couple of weeks previous. I was observing between warm up runs when a kid less than half my age sat down next to me, clearly wanting to see what’s up. He turned out to have been skating only a couple of months longer than I have, and in typical hyper-active twelve year old fashion was already working on his bowl line for the upcoming local competition. While his concern for the day was locking down airs over the spine transfer, he asked me what I was working on and as soon as I said I just wanted to get comfortable flowing around the bowl being able to pump carves in both directions, he urged me to follow him over so we could run together and compare notes. This was his approach for the rest of time I was there, obsessed with who had sponsorships, who had been skating for how long and what we were all working on, naturally creating a group mentality between those of us just pushing around the bottom and those dropping in the deep end working on mid run tricks alike.
Another topic he didn’t stop mentioning was Kieren Wooley, who less than a year previously had won the very same local competition the kid was now working on, but of course more recently had placed 5th in the Olympic Park final. He’d heard Kieren would be back for this year’s comp in a few weeks, and was beyond excited to see him skate; hoping to meet him or even get the opportunity to skate in front of him and get the validation he was desperate for to pursue sponsorship and maybe a career.
If the magnetic positive attitude for skating in this child had been expressed and even enhanced by Skateboarding’s inclusion in the Olympics, what possible problem could be had with that?
Not even the IOC managed to dampen this timeless aspect of Skateboarding.
He was probably the youngest, most talented present at a busy day at the biggest local park; taking the time out of his practise insisting that he follow me to my car to get a Skate tool so that we could adjust and compare truck tightness; casually representing the best of Skateboarding. The IOC have failed aspects of this culture and missed out on their benefit; but you can be certain that with grace and world-class athleticism, easily and on their own terms, Skateboarders outdid themselves representing pure Skateboarding.

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