eneath the wave of euphoria that swept through British tennis this week in the wake of Emma Raducanu’s unfathomable US Open triumph, ran an undercurrent of relief.
After they largely squandered the successes of Andy Murray, Britain’s first female Grand Slam champion since 1977 has provided the game’s authorities with another, most-unexpected, opportunity, not quite a silver bullet but certainly a golden ticket, in their mission to increase participation, bolster facilities and, ultimately, produce a more consistent stream of future Major contenders.
Born in Miyazaki and based in Japan and the US, however much the nation was enthralled by the 13-year-old’s gutsy final run to clinch an historic Olympic bronze for Team GB earlier this summer, her route to Tokyo does not exactly stand out as replicable for those it might have inspired to grab a board and head out into one of London’s skateparks or to the Southbank of the Thames.
The sport, then, has work to do if it is to capitalise on the Sky Brown-effect and make the most of its post-Olympic debut glow. Unsurprisingly, the wheels – four of them, attached to the underside of a plywood deck – are already in motion.
Iain Borden is a Professor of Architecture and Urban Culture at UCL and an avid skateboarder. Having first started skating in London in the late 1970s, he has lived through the evolution of the capital’s skate scene, watching the numerous commercial parks built in that era go bust or decay, and then enjoying its regeneration over the last decade to a point where now “pretty much every borough you go into has skateboarding parks”.
He recalls a brief altercation, at a planning meeting for the Crystal Palace Skatepark, opened in 2018, as a moment when the power of the Olympic rings became clear.
“One of the councillors said what a councillor always says,” he explains. “‘Why are we spending all that money on a skatepark? It’s a phase, it’s a fad, it’s a craze, it’ll disappear, it’s not a proper sport. Why don’t we spend it on tennis courts?’
“One of the other councillors said: ‘Oh come on, don’t be stupid, it’s an Olympic sport’. End of conversation, immediately. The Olympics completely helped legitimise skateboarding as a sport.”
Today, there are roughly 1,700 skateparks in the UK, around 100 of which are in London. (That not one of them is of Olympic-standard is a gaping hole in the portfolio, but conversations between Skateboard GB, UK Sport and the DCMS are well underway to fill it, even if a solution is likely still some years away).
The sport is also finding its way out of the parks and into mainstream showcases; Vans have cordoned off a section of The Strand for use as a pop-up facility, Samsung’s KX experience at Coal Drop’s Yard has hosted a basic ‘kick-flip’ tutorial for beginners, and a free gallery exhibition, No Comply, has been running at Somerset House, well worth a visit whether you turn up in Janoskis or boat shoes.
Increasingly, facilities, platform and accessibility are not the primary barriers to talent production, but nor are facilities alone enough. As Borden says: “It’s like building a 5-a-side pitch and saying you’re going to produce the next Cristiano Ronaldo. You might, but there’s an awful lot of other steps in between that need to come with it.”
Earlier this month, Skateboard GB launched its new ‘Pipeline Pilot Project’, designed to support athletes aiming for Paris 2024 and, more crucially, establish a clear ladder from grass – or concrete – roots to international competition for generations beyond that.
“There’s never been a pathway as other sports would understand it,” James Hope-Gill, the body’s CEO, tells Standard Sport, a revelation that is hardly surprising given Skatebord GB was not even formed until the year after the sport it oversees had been granted Olympic status. Talent ID was largely the work of a guerrilla web of independent skate shops at the hub of their respective communities and those riders good enough to earn entry into invitation-only elite events represented themselves and their sponsors, rather than flags and nations.
That a sport often thought of as anti-establishment should have such thing as a ‘governing body’ is a quirk in itself, and Hope-Gill is reluctant to simply overlay the structures that have brought Olympic success in established sports such as athletics or rowing, determined that a more tailored approach is the right one. Ostensibly, the Pipeline Pilot Project is a pathway to a pathway.
“We’re spending the next three years really trying to work out what a talent pathway for us as a governing body should look like,” he explains. “It won’t look like Taekwondo’s, it won’t look like badminton’s, it won’t look like hockey’s.
“By Paris, we should have a pretty good idea of what post-Paris looks like in terms of identifying talent and supporting that talent.”
But scratch below the surface and there is something more at play. The combined age of the six male medalists in Tokyo was 135 years, with an average age somewhere in the early-to-mid twenties; young, but not wildly so in comparison to, say, swimming.
Only in the women’s events (medalists combined age 86 years, including three 13-year-olds and a 12-year-old) did we see freakish, juvenile dominance.
Stefani Nurding, a Brixton-based skater with Paris 2024 ambitions of her own, has been banging the drum for women’s skating ever since she first stepped onto a board, having grown up watching her brother skate while her own indoctrination was delayed by the idea that the sport “wasn’t for girls”.
“In the Olympics we were seeing a generation of girls who have grown up with it being normal that they see women at that level,” she says. “You can see what’ll come out of it now, with people like Sky being able to grow up in a world where skateboarding is for women.”
As it made its Olympic bow, skateboarding was indeed presented as a gender-equal sport – same number of participants, same number of medals, same disciplines – and if that sounds like it should be a given, consider that it was only this summer that Olympic staples such as cycling and swimming finally carried identical programmes for men and women.
“It had always felt like, with any event, the women’s was pushed to the side a bit,” Nurding adds, having seen her own competitions shunted to awkward early times to leave the men prime slots, or separate days entirely with fewer press in attendance. “It didn’t feel like it this time.”
Prof. Borden agrees. He has long thought of London’s skateparks as being like village greens, places for communities come together, where sport happens to take place, rather than the other way around, but, he admits, their inclusivity only stretched so far – until now.
“Imagine your village green is only occupied by teenage boys and old men like me,” he says. “If you’re an eight-year-old girl or a 35-year-old woman, you might think: ‘Do I have the right to be there?’
“Sky’s given them the enthusiasm, the confidence and the right to step into skateparks.”
In this, and so many other areas, Sky Brown has given her sport a springboard to a future of which she is very much a part; we are talking about an athlete that, in the relatively safe assumption that skateboarding is still on the programme, will still be just 24 by the time the 2032 Games in Brisbane come around.
The challenge for skateboarding between now and then is to grow a sport as big as its star.