What does the Olympics really mean for skateboarding?

It’s official.

Skateboarding is in the Olympics. Today – Wednesday 28th July 2021 – marks the halfway point, with Street events down and Park still to go. Tokyo is smiling, taking two home Gold medals for both Street finals. Congratulations to Yuto Horigome and Momiji Nishiya, and to all the other athletes who competed. You will go down in history.

Skateboarding may be an individual activity but it's a collective culture. So we have to ask what the Olympics really means for skateboarding as a whole? We know ‘Federations’ are popping up all over the world to help guide athletes into the Games. We know more and more funding opportunities are up for grabs to build skateparks. But what is the reality on the ground, and how will a sport which has always been dominated by wealthier countries and their industries level the ‘playing field’ for a competition like the Olympics which is supposed to welcome athletes from all over the planet?

With the help of some of our partners and friends in the social skate world, let’s investigate a little bit.

A change in the tide

Whatever you may think about skateboarding appearing on this global sporting stage, you cannot deny that two 13 year old girls (Nishiya & the Brazilian Rayssa Leal) standing on the podium is a truly historic sight. Not only are these among the youngest Olympians ever, but this marks a change in the tide for skating overall. These skaters come from the first generation of young women to be raised in an era of skateboarding that is willing to invest and support girls in the sport. There are still ways to go, of course. But the proof is in the performance: things are changing.

Has the Olympics had a hand in the promotion of young women in skateboarding? Naturally, it must have. But the tide of change for skateboarding extends far beyond this recent mainstream recognition. The tireless work of grassroots and womxn-led organizations, brands & competitions has cultivated this shift in the wealthier scenes for decades. We can thank the likes of Skate Like A Girl, Wheels of Fortune, Women Skate the World, and the many incredible “womxn skate” crews that have popped up in recent years. We can thank individual athletes and cultural actors too. There are far too many to name now, but follow those platforms and you’ll soon find them.

And looking beyond industries in the US and Europe, we can see a clear drive by the social skate movement for change which far predates the Olympics. The projects we support alone report an average of 40% female participation, across 28 regions. Over 7,500 kids of all ages, boys and girls, are empowered by skateboarding every week thanks to our partner organizations alone. The Goodpush Alliance (a centralized source for resources on the social skate movement) reports 21,000 beneficiaries and counting. It appears then, that on a global scale, the groundwork is well and truly there to receive the growth the Olympics is supposed to provide.

The reality on the ground

Speaking on behalf of the Goodpush Alliance, Rhianon Bader (Program Manager) notes the legitimacy that the Olympics gives to development plans. “It will help skaters to advocate for things like skateparks – or at least for public land donations to build on. It may also help social skate projects to access public funding to make their work more sustainable.” In essence, there will still be hoops to jump through, but there may at least be a leg up for many who wish to evolve their skateboarding scenes.

Rhianon and her team at the Goodpush Alliance arguably have the best overview of the social skate movement. The project, which is a spin off of award-winning NGO Skateistan (long term partner of THE SKATEROOM), has already observed some of these positives first hand.

“It has opened up opportunities for skaters to travel who may not get to otherwise – for example, a couple of skaters from Afghanistan traveled to a contest and training in China in 2019. The perceived legitimacy that comes with the Olympics may also help to get the support of parents who perhaps saw skateboarding in a negative light before.” - Rhianon Bader

Susie Halsell from Bangladesh Street Kids Aid agrees: “in Bangladesh, there has always been the stigma around skateboarding that it is not a profitable sport and that people will just get hurt. Now that it has become an Olympic sport, there is hope for skateboarders who want to take the sport to another level and make a career out of it.” How accessible will this be in reality, if the infrastructure of the countries of origin do not match that of the Olympic Games? Only time will tell.

“It may be a long time before you will see anyone from places like Bangladesh competing. Skateboarding facilities here might become too privatized meaning not everyone would have access to them. But by keeping any new skateparks under the ownership of the Youth and Sports Ministry and the Roller Skating Federation, I think this can be avoided. BSKA will be there to protest whenever needed.” - Susie Halsell

Certainly, some communities are yet to see any impact of the Olympics on skateboarding locally. Johnny K., who recently guided the construction of the new skatepark in his hometown of Mongu, Zambia, has seen a lot of growth around him in the past few years. But this has all been grassroots, supported by external projects like Wonders Around the World, Skate World Better, and partial funding from THE SKATEROOM. There is still a long way to go before certain communities in Africa are given the same opportunities afforded to others by the Olympics.

“My community still doesn't really know much about the Olympics, though some kids have heard about it”, says Johnny K. “My biggest concern is how selection is done with regards to African riders. It’s not as easy here. By building more state-of-the-art skateparks, like the one in Mongu, we can really make a difference and progress skateboarding here.” It seems that though there may well be added legitimacy and opportunities afforded to more developed skateboarding communities around the world, those which are still in the budding stages rely on grassroots and NGO collaborations to reach the next level.

The future of Olympic skateboarding

What do these incredible social skate activists hope to see in future editions of the Olympics? “Everyone would be so stoked to see Bangladesh represented at the games”, says Susie. “The Royal Bengal Skatepark for instance is surrounded by rice paddies and everything that comes with typical Bangladeshi village life (mud houses, fish ponds, home-grown fruits and veggies and livestock, tea stalls, and mosques). Imagine if these different traditions joined the global skate community and were represented at skate events like the Olympics.”

Rhianon continues: “The competitors list this year is pretty dominated by skaters from the USA, Brazil, Japan and Europe, which is not really a surprise given the size of the skate industries and the history of skating in these places. But it would be cool to see more people representing smaller and newer skate scenes in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.”

With the Olympics happening every four years, there are some clear milestones ahead. The hope is to see as diverse and representative a competitor list as possible going forward, and with it the standard and infrastructure of skateboarding being raised all over the world.

However, the Olympics is clearly not a golden ticket for all. And it’s early days. The work of the grassroots and non-governmental organizations, brands, and activists that are already changing the tide of skateboarding is crucial. As is the immense support that skaters and non-skaters have given them over the years. One thing is for sure, everybody who has a hand in this movement deserves a Gold medal.

We encourage you to explore all the projects you’ve read about in this article, and all those we support as part of our social entrepreneurship business model at THE SKATEROOM. You can, right now, make a difference by shopping our limited edition artworks – of which at least 10% of all revenue goes to these projects.

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