Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Leticia Bufoni of Brazil competes in the women's street skateboarding event at Ariake Urban Sports Park during the Tokyo Olympics, July 26, 2021.

When Olympic spirit meets the free spirits of skateboarding

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Alexis Sablone, a skateboarder with seven X Games medals to her name, came to Tokyo for a medal. But all the same, she doesn’t consider skateboarding a sport, at least not like other ones at the Games. At its essence, she says, skating is a form of expression. Scoring someone’s trick is almost like scoring someone’s voice.

To attract a younger audience, the Olympics added four new sports for Tokyo: skateboarding, sport climbing, surfing, and karate. But for some competitors, the Games present a dilemma. Skateboarding in particular has a distinct countercultural ethos. Does joining the Olympics sacrifice part of its identity?

Why We Wrote This

Skateboarding’s independent spirit runs deep. What happens when skaters participate in the most mainstream, institutionalized sports event there is? Some fans may scoff, but skateboarding and the Olympics could both benefit.

Maybe not. Skateboarding is so big now that “there’s a place for everyone,” Ms. Sablone said. “But it’s very important that the heart of skateboarding doesn’t die. And I don’t think it really ever will.”

Skateboarding’s appeal is evident in the lineup itself, dominated by teenagers. And with more and more women in the sport, perhaps the Olympics can help show off and diversify skateboarding.

“I’ve seen skateboarding through so many phases, and this is ... a historic moment,” said Ms. Sablone. “I’m just glad that I was able to overlap with this.”

In the last round of the street skating final, Alexis Sablone had a choice. Of the eight finalists last Monday, she ranked near the top. For her upcoming trick she could try something simple, earn near-guaranteed points, and probably leave with a medal. Or she could try something bolder.

Ms. Sablone went for it, attempting a kickflip backside 50-50, a reverse of her signature move. Jumping off a ramp onto a sloping stair ledge – known in skateboarding as a “hubba” – she misplaced her feet and fell to the ground. Receiving zero points for the trick, Ms. Sablone finished in fourth. 

After the match, though, she wasn’t entirely sure what a medal would have meant.

Why We Wrote This

Skateboarding’s independent spirit runs deep. What happens when skaters participate in the most mainstream, institutionalized sports event there is? Some fans may scoff, but skateboarding and the Olympics could both benefit.

A meticulous competitor and seven-time X Games medalist, Ms. Sablone came to Japan for a medal. But she doesn’t consider skateboarding a sport, at least not like other ones at the Games. At its essence, skating is a form of expression, says Ms. Sablone. Scoring someone’s trick is almost like scoring someone’s voice.

To attract a younger audience, the Olympics added four new sports for Tokyo: skateboarding, sport climbing, surfing, and karate. But for some competitors, the Games present an ethical dilemma. Skateboarding in particular has a distinct countercultural ethos. Joining the Olympics, critics say, may sacrifice part of the sport’s identity.

For these athletes, the Games are a cultural exchange of sorts. Skateboarding can help bring new fans to the Olympics. The Olympics can help show off and diversify skateboarding. Each side has room to benefit, which needn’t come at the cost of authenticity.

Ben Curtis/AP
Alexis Sablone of the United States competes in the women's street skateboarding finals at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, July 26, 2021. Ms. Sablone placed fourth overall.

Skateboarding is so big, now, that “there’s a place for everyone,” Ms. Sablone said. “But it’s very important that the heart of skateboarding doesn’t die. And I don’t think it really ever will.”

New direction

The International Olympic Committee stated its motives clearly when it added a tranche of new sports in 2016. 

“We want to take sport to the youth,” IOC President Thomas Bach said at the time. “With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.”

In skateboarding, the generational appeal is evident in its athletes. Ms. Sablone, considered an older skateboarder at age 34, competed beside a slate mostly made up of teenagers – a couple of whom still had braces. The three medaling athletes were all in their teens. 

“I made history at 13 years old,” said Rayssa Leal, who earned silver for Brazil at the July 26 event. “I hope I can be at many other Olympic Games.”

Skateboarding’s charisma brings a different competitive atmosphere to the Olympics. Success depends on the ability to fall and get back up, which could be maddening without the support of other skaters.

In her five attempts to land a trick in the street skating final, Margielyn Didal of the Philippines fell multiple times, scraping against the ground in her baggy orange pants. Each time, after a moment, she hopped up and extended a smiling thumbs-up to the crowd. The other skaters applauded. 

“It’s skateboarding; you cheer for everyone, for each other,” she said. “That’s how skateboarders share the love.”

The sport’s characteristic chutzpah was on full display, too. In the July 25 men’s street skating final, U.S. gold medal favorite Nyjah Huston finished seventh after refusing to attempt simple tricks, even after falling multiple times. 

“I would have liked to have landed a couple more tricks out there,” he said after the event. “But it’s still an honor to be out here skating at the Olympics. Still stoked to make the finals and be out skating with all these amazing guys.”  

Next generation

Even as skateboarding marks a shift for the Olympics, this Olympics comes at a moment of change for skateboarding, as well.

When Ms. Sablone came to the sport around the early 2000s, it was hard to find another woman who skated. Historically, skateboarding was heavily male, with a culture sometimes hostile to women’s involvement.

“To be a female skateboarder you kind of have to have thick skin,” she said.

Ben Curtis/AP
Alexis Sablone of the United States performs a trick in the women's street skateboarding finals at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, July 26, 2021. “To be a female skateboarder you kind of have to have thick skin,” she said.

In recent years that’s started to shift, as more women pick up the sport and athletes like Lizzie Armanto, competing in park skateboarding on Aug. 4, gain attention. With a host of role models for the next generation of skateboarders, the Olympics may accelerate the sport’s integration. In Tokyo, the number of male and female skaters is even. 

“Having guys and girls here on the stage is helping to bring some attention to [the sport’s inequality] and is starting to push the industry to change,” Ms. Sablone said.

The Olympic imprimatur, coupled with its spotlight on female athletes, makes competing in Tokyo a worthy bet, she added – one that doesn’t necessarily undercut the sport’s culture. 

This will be her only Games, she says, but not the end of her skateboarding career. She’ll continue walking through the streets near her home in Brooklyn, New York, with an eye for a nice rail to slide down with her board. There will still be nights when she spends hours attempting the same trick, to get it just right. 

She’s already passed the torch to a new generation, she says. It’s in good hands. 

“I’ve seen skateboarding through so many phases and this is ... a historic moment,” said Ms. Sablone. “I’m just glad that I was able to overlap with this.”

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