SKATEBOARDING IS A SPORT, SO NOW WHAT?

I Watched the Olympics and It Wasn't What I Expected.

After being announced in 2016 and delayed a year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, skateboarding made its official Olympic debut on Saturday, July 24, 2021. During the ramp-up, my skate-centric social media channels fell into three buckets: 1. Supportive 2. Dismissive 3. Ironically excited. I mostly landed in the third lane because I seldom enjoy modern skate competitions but was curious and also happy for all those involved, especially the athletes. It seemed like the opinion that skateboarding was not a sport and this inclusion was a bad thing was the minority take, mostly because it’s a jaded way to view things and we all need to be celebratory on social media… right? Also, skateboarding is a sport and a physical art at the same time and it’s malleable—you can skate in a contest but also film a VX part and be revered by the “core” community. 

If you’re an older person, you’ve seen different waves in skateboarding’s mainstream popularity so the Olympics? Is it really going to change that much and does it really matter? 

Think about the notable “big money eras,” such as the X-Games Tony Hawk 900 boom and later, the Tony Hawk Pro Skater video game boom. Both changed skateboarding by making it more monetarily viable while normalizing it to normies. Woodward Skate Camp enrollment grew due to the interest, there was more mainstream coverage and one could argue that board graphics and branding became safer and more homogenized once big-box stores started carrying “real” brands. 

We’ve been here before and that’s why most skaters don’t really care about what the Olympics will do for skating as it will probably be a boon for the industry overall and that’s cool—we all like money and new parks and shit.

But maybe that’s not only a naive view but a selfish one. Could skateboarding be an analog for capitalism and it fully becoming sport-a-fied isn’t a good thing?

It all starts at the new beginning I guess and for me and several Jenksters, that entry point was in the back of a bar in Brooklyn, New York. One thing stood out immediately. In Brooklyn at this bar, as we waited for the games to begin, Nyjah Huston was a villain. He’s probably not a bad guy in Orange County, California but he is here and it’s apparent by the laughter when he later falls or by the constant jabs people are making. The mainstream narrative was that this was Nyjah’s event to win but he didn’t. Instead, he looked rusty and somewhat gassed. He finished in 7th place and someone mentioned that Ty Evans was making a documentary about his road to the games and how the placing was going to be problematic. Everyone was mostly happy that Yuto Horigome won because he’s really good and he’s not Nyjah. He’s also Japanese and that’s a nice storyline. He genuinely looked overwhelmed when he became the first human to win a medal for skateboarding.

There was a moment of true sport where a group of people who cannot do these tricks—many of whom don’t even like hucking as a discipline—had a vested interest in the handrail showdown that ended the Men’s Street Event®. We all became armchair quarterbacks, arguing about the judges, shouting out what tricks needed to be done to win, talking shit, and acting like regular jocks unlike any Tampa Pro in the past.

I thought about this a lot and it was weird. It felt strange and different and that wasn’t just the effects of alcohol because that usually does the opposite. What if any of these people we were rooting against had real-life issues after “failing” in the Olympics on a global stage? That’s pretty awful, right? Then I saw this and it’s pretty fucking dark. 

Here’s a key section if you don’t want to click said link:

I’ve had a lot of high moments in my career over the years but I’ve also had some very low ones and It’s something I’ve always mentally battled and tried to be better at. I’m human and dealing with all the pressure and expectations really isn’t easy at times. I’m also just so damn competitive and the downside to that is me being really hard on myself when I don’t skate good. Like days after contests when I just don’t wanna talk to anyone and replay everything I did wrong over and over. Or chugging alcohol in the hotel room by myself after a loss thinking it would make things better.

Skateboarding is a sport and as innocent and normal as this all seems, it’s also the beginning of some potential problems. Check it out.

As successful as Street League has been in skateboarding, it lacks the media support to create rivalries or true competitions. No one hates Nyjah or Nugget or Kelvin Hoefler or Alexis Sablone or Leticia Bufonti because of Street League. Prior to the Olympics, we were free to choose who we liked or disliked in skateboarding because of their trick selection, style, sponsors, social media presence, or even their pant width but it’s not unified hate based on competition

I must qualify this a bit as I’m not a Nyjah Huston apologist. I wrote about one of his more problematic statements in 2013. Nyjah has done and has been alleged of doing things that warrant people disliking him and but analyzing him as a person is not a part of this exercise. Instead, we should be thinking about what happens when a true sports mentality enters one that previously lacked it on such a large scale and with corporate interests—why did we hate him more now?

Prior to this moment, I didn’t really give a shit about competitive skateboarding in my adult life. The competitive side of skateboarding was its own world—one that only crosses over with mine when I’m asked to write about it which isn’t often. But that’s a very isolationist view. I can choose to ignore competitions or watch them at bars but at this new level they are doing something that impacts more than my media diet and I think that’s worth exploring.

So I started with a bookmark I set at the recommendation of Kim Woozy. Woozy and Skate Like a Girl started a podcast called Making Moves to explore these very dynamics and Episode 2 of the podcast is extremely relevant:

Episode 2, we further explore the future of sports and social justice, with a panel of guests: Professor Jeffrey Montez de Oca and coaches Christina Rodriguez and Sophie Goethals, led by Kim Woozy and Kristin Ebeling. We take a moment to hear from professor Aaron Miller and how he uses meditation to take a break from technology and improve mental performance. Funding for Making Moves was provided by California State University East Bay and the Center for Sport and Social Justice.

The entire episode offers some excellent analysis but Professor Jeffrey Montez de Oca’s commentary was not only enlightening, but it was also lowkey terrifying. You should listen to the pod but I’m going to paraphrase some of Montez de Oca’s key points:

  • Commercialization creates a structure in sports and its performance principle and that creates a value structure. 

  • Organization changes how we think about skateboarding, how we build institutions, and what people do inside them. 

  • Organization and commercialization create a pyramid. At the bottom are youth sports where everyone is involved, as you go up, it gets less inclusive as athletes are groomed to make money and people fall out by design. There are more coaches, managers, contracts, etc. as a result but it often leaves out any ethical balance.

What he’s saying is that this shit is rigged to get people to the Olympics and make them stars because it makes corporations—not necessarily the athletes—money but they don’t care about the athletes. They aren’t concerned about mental health, wage equality, or inclusion because that’s counter to the process. For that to happen, like other sports, the “players” need to unionize and do all that shit themselves. This has been discussed ad infinitum in skateboarding but it might not only happen now but it probably needs to happen.

Part of the discussion centers around what is actually unique about skateboarding—its competitive edge exists without teams or any structure at all. You’re competing against yourself and that alone is more useful than entering a sports funnel designed to only serve the gifted and profitable.

Think of a young Tom Brady throwing a football through a tire hanging from his tree for hours in his backyard. Sure, he can get really good at it and maybe enjoy it but it’s not going to make him a better football player as there’s nothing stopping him from hitting the target other than his skill. Conversely, a new skater immediately has all the tools to challenge themselves to skateboard the moment they own a board. That’s it. You can push yourself to learn slappies or huck down things as you see fit and as you age, the competition becomes not what you can do but adapting to what you can’t do. So by nature, skateboarding doesn’t need leagues or rules or corporations to be competitive let alone exist because it began on DIY “boards” fashioned from homemade scooters. Yes, the “S-Word.” 

Listening to the episode reframed what I saw over two nights and put everything through a critical lens. It was obvious that there was more money being generated with every country having its own media squad and coverage? How many of them were skaters? If you heard a 50-50 and a 5-0 being confused or no regard for frontside or backside, you could surmise not many. All those mainstream full pieces? I’m sure plenty were written by people who “used to skate” and some were well written but did they add anything? Yes, Tony Hawk was there and he is skateboarding’s ambassador but did my Mom learn anything about skate culture in Japan other than the fact that the skaters were dominant? Takahiro Morita and the legends before him? Nah. Do we think Yuto or Momiji Nishiya will make more money in the wake of the Olympics (they made zero at the Olympics of course) or Cariuma whose bold branding was incessantly shown on the feet of skaters in slow motion?

Lastly, was it disturbing that many of us were actively rooting for 13-year-olds to bail tricks and possibly get injured so that Alexis Sablone could secure a medal for no actual reason before shifting gears once she was knocked out and suddenly caring which one of them got the Gold? It’s fucking weird. 

The Skate Like a Girl podcast panel pointed out that many organized sports are actively dismantling competitive structures that create toxic environments. Skateboarding is just starting the journey up. With all the new interest brings new people. Does that look promising or does skateboarding end up like gymnastics, rife with abuse, sexual assault, body dysmorphia, and other problematic behavior?

Skateboarding’s already had issues within its core structures, most notably with Neal Hendrix so there’s precedent for concern. The thing is, this all feels really abstract and distant—it’s hard to really think how it relates to “us” but that’s the danger. As we’ve seen with Black Lives Matter, when we wait until something impacts us personally, it’s already negatively impacted millions of people, and dismantling those structures is not only difficult, it takes massive global protests to move the needle. 

As The Birdman once told CNN “They need this to get the excitement level that we have at skateboard events. I don’t think we need their validation because we’re already validated. And I mean really, how many more swimming events can you watch?” The validation is here, the games are in progress, and we’re all watching.

What’s next? That’s up for grabs but unlike the NFL or NBA, skateboarding’s “fans” have actual sway because skateboarding is an interactive community, what we do with it could be more critical than we think.