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Japan’s teenage skateboarders continue to dominate the Olympic competition to the delight of the host nation. But their performances mask a debate between skaters over whether the sport should even feature at the Games.
Sakura Yosozumi, 19, won the women’s Park competition on Wednesday, following her compatriots who claimed two golds in the sport’s Street discipline last week. Japan’s Kokona Hiraki, 12, won silver and Britain’s Sky Brown, 13, claimed bronze, in one of the youngest slates of athletes ever fielded at the Olympics.
Skateboarding made its Olympics debut in Tokyo, alongside the likes of surfing, BMX freestyle and climbing.
The International Olympic Committee’s aim is to appeal to younger people. The Games’ organisers believe the traditional Olympics events — from athletics to modern pentathlon — struggle to capture the attention of viewers who have a greater range of entertainment options, from YouTube to Netflix.
Any failure to keep the Games relevant would impact the IOC’s broadcasting rights, which made up the bulk of its revenues worth $5.7bn in the four years running up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“It’s so cool to be here,” said Brown, who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and British father. “I’m really honoured. I’m also kind of sad though, because it’s the end of skating with all the girls at all the contests to get here.”
Skateboarding’s inclusion in the Games also highlights the sport’s shift from a counterculture into the mainstream. The practice emerged in the drained swimming pools of California and the first purpose-built skate parks were developed in the 1960s and 1970s.
Skaters roll down and back up curved, bowl-like structures, creating enough speed to perform spins and tricks with their boards while in the air. A panel of judges scores the difficulty of these tricks based on “originality, execution and composition”.
Joining the Olympics programme means national committees will dedicate millions of dollars to professionalise the sport, training the best skaters in the pursuit of medals. That process will, in turn, ensure more government and commercial funding.
Sponsors will also likely want to be associated with the sport’s fresh-faced stars. The women’s Street contest last week was won by Japan’s Momiji Nishiya, 13, in a rousing victory that catapulted the schoolgirl to fame in her home country.
Japan’s victories have even led to uncertainty over the future of the waterfront Olympic skate park in the Ariake district of Tokyo, with local authorities considering whether to keep the venue open for local skaters rather than allow property developers to bulldoze it.
The sport’s transformation, however, has split the global skating community, with many believing its very nature is to stand in opposition to authority.
“Skateboarding is divided,” said Finland’s Lizzie Armanto. “Some people think skateboarding is changing . . . [and] change is scary. In the end, I feel skateboarding going to the Olympics is going to bring so many opportunities to other countries that don’t have a huge skate scene. That means more skate parks and more skaters.”
Sydney McLaughlin of the US broke her own world record to win gold in a thrilling 400-metre hurdles race, finishing in 51.46 seconds a day after the men’s record-breaking final. Fellow American Dalilah Muhammad, the defending Olympic champion and former world record holder, also finished under the previous mark of 51.90 seconds, claiming silver with 51.58. The Netherlands’ Femke Bol set a European record of 52.03 to win bronze, while others in the field set personal bests.
Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Herah became the second person after compatriot Usain Bolt to win the 100-metre and 200-metre sprint competitions at consecutive Olympics, running the second-fastest time in women’s history in the longer race to clinch gold on Tuesday. Her finish in 21.53 leaves her trailing just Florence Griffith-Joyner, the US athlete who set a world record of 21.34 seconds at the 1988 Seoul Games. Thompson-Herah was joined on the podium by Namibia’s Christine Mboma, who won silver and American Gabrielle Thomas, who took bronze.
Mboma’s performance was particularly notable as she is a 400-metre specialist but was forced to drop down to the short sprints because of new rules that restrict female athletes with “differences of sexual development” from middle distance competitions. DSD athletes, also known as intersex athletes, are women with XY chromosomes who naturally produce levels of testosterone in the range of men. Asked about the circumstances that led to her change of event, Mboma said she was simply focused on the 200-metre and winning a medal.
It was another brilliant morning for Brazil, as 10km marathon swimmer Ana Marcela Cunha won gold on Wednesday, a day after the women’s sailing pair of Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze successfully defended their title in the 49er FX class. The results followed a victory by the men’s football team, which advanced to the gold medal match after defeating Mexico on penalties 4-1 on Tuesday night. The Brazil national team is the defending football gold medallists and will face Spain in the final on Saturday.
Britain enjoyed its best haul of medals of the Tokyo Games on Tuesday, securing eight. In sailing, Giles Scott won the team’s sixth consecutive Olympic gold in the Finn class, while Dylan Fletcher and Stuart Bithell won the men’s 49er.
Later, there were silvers for 19-year-old Keely Hodgkinson in the women’s 800-metre in athletics and Pat McCormack in boxing, and silver medals for Jason and Laura Kenny, the married couple who competed in the men’s and women’s cycling team pursuit, respectively.
On the podium
Into the second week of the Olympics, the potential headliner of the Tokyo Games could be Sifan Hassan. The Dutch distance-running phenomenon is attempting an unprecedented athletics treble, contesting the 1,500-metre, 5,000-metre, and 10,000-metre races in one week — a brutal feat of strength and endurance that would require 24,500 metres of racing for her to win.
Hassan has admitted the attempt is “crazy”, so the World Athletics federation made light of the fact she had a rare day off on Tuesday.
— World Athletics (@WorldAthletics) August 3, 2021
Click here to see FT’s “alternative medals table” which ranks nations not just on their medal haul, but against how they should be performing against economic and geopolitical factors