Opinion: The most refreshing sport at the Tokyo Olympics: skateboarding
Skateboarding made its Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games this year, bringing a refreshing change of pace to the world’s biggest competition. Unlike most other Olympic events, the culture of skateboarding is based not in winning but in joy and individuality.
Since its inception, skateboarding has defied conformity. Born in California in the 1950s, skateboarding became synonymous with the counterculture of the ’60s and served as a safe haven for society’s outcasts. Considered more of a lifestyle than a sport, skateboarding offered an escape from the mainstream and a platform for people to be themselves.
Skateboarding’s global popularity launched it onto the Olympic stage, but its counterculture roots remain alive and well. Other Olympic events exist within a clearly established structure, but skateboarding has been anti-establishment from the start.
“Skateboarding presents so many more options than you typically have in sports,”said Neftalie Williams, a visiting fellow at Yale University and postdoctoral scholar at the University of Southern California, who studies the interplay of diversity, identity and skate culture. “You have an entire sporting culture that’s marginalized, that has placed less emphasis on competition and focused more on expression, and has learned that that’s the vocabulary.”
In this way, skateboarding is nearly impossible to define. But ask a skater at any level what skating means to them, and you’ll get a similar answer: What attracted them to the sport was freedom, community and creativity, not competition or being the best.
“There’s no other sport in the world, no other art in the world, no other culture in the world that transcends boundaries in the way that skateboarding does,” said sponsored Los Angeles skater Ethan Singleton, who’s worked on research with Williams at USC.
Skateboarding doesn’t quite fit into any traditional sports box, much less the ultra competitive and highly polished spirit of the Olympic Games. But its presence in Tokyo brought a playfulness and individuality to the sport world’s biggest stage.
“I was having an absolute blast,” American bronze medalist Jagger Eaton said about competing in the street event, where he nodded his head to music and laughed with his fellow competitors at the top of the course. All 20 skateboarders competing there were friendly with one another, he said.
“Growing up, skateboarding was my freedom and my creative outlet,” Eaton said. “Skateboarding is an art form, and every one of us does it differently. Name another sport like that in the Olympic Games.”
Every skateboarder has their own unique style, revealed in the way they approach obstacles, pop tricks or grab their board midair. There are no rules in skateboarding, no standards, no rigid structure — even at the Olympics. According to Mimi Knoop, professional skateboarder and head coach for the U.S. Olympic skateboard team, judges score the athletes based on trick progression, difficulty level and originality.
“We don’t have points for certain tricks because we wanted to stay away from that to keep it a little more creative,” Knoop said. “It comes down to little subtleties that aren’t really written down or necessarily defined in our sport. It makes things a little subjective, but that’s just how we do it.”
In the midst of tense competition and mental health struggles, skateboarding was like a beacon of light as I watched the Olympic Games.
“Skateboarding is where I feel I can express myself and let my own creativity play out,” American Olympian Alana Smith said. “At the Olympics, I definitely feel like it freshens up the environment and shows that it doesn’t have to be such a stressful time.”
While skateboarding allows an athlete’s individuality to shine through, the community is cohesive as well. “I feel like we’ve always been looked at as the outcasts,” Smith said, referring to the societal stigma pinned on skateboarders, “and we’ve all become a really big family.”
If you watched the Olympics, the way the skateboarders interacted with each other was often in stark contrast to other athletes. Competitors at some events, like gymnastics or swimming, typically didn’t stray far from their teammates. But skateboarders were enjoying each other’s company and lifting each other up regardless of country affiliation.
“From my point of view, we’re having a lot more fun than everyone else,” Knoop said. “There’s an unspoken understanding between skaters and a bond that’s there.”
Not everyone agrees that skateboarding belongs in the Olympics. Some say the Games represent a commercialization that strays too far from skateboarding’s counterculture roots. But skateboarding never really needed the platform of the Olympics in the first place.
Sports agent Yulin Olliver, who represents Olympians like Mariah Duran and Bryce Wettstein, said that skateboarding as a sport and lifestyle is inherently self-sufficient. There’s no need for coaches, teams or organized competitions. Those things exist in skateboarding, of course, but not out of necessity. As long as there are individuals who skateboard and find joy in doing so, the culture of skateboarding will remain strong.
“It’s almost like the Olympics needed skateboarding,” Olliver said, “not the other way around.”
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