he debate over whether sports like skateboarding are worthy of a spot on an already bloated Olympic programme will no doubt roll on, but what is not up for discussion after witnessing its debut is that there is room for a bit of fun.
That is not to patronise, but rarely did this men’s street contest ever feel like an Olympic final, the competitors as relaxed as their clothes.
Frenchman Vincent Milou landed an outrageous trick and then proceeded to fall off his board while cruising leisurely along, drawing howls of laughter with a self-deprecating, slapstick, starfish roll. At one point eventual bronze medalist Jagger Eaton paused at the top of his run, took his phone out of his pocket, and changed the song playing through his headphones, like a man waiting for a bus, rather than a shot at gold.
The eight finalists, hailing from six nations, stood around the edge of the arena at the Ariake Urban Sports Park to watch each other’s runs, building a sense of playground one-upmanship, except with three Olympic medals – the first in the sport’s history – rather than dinner money on the line.
It is not only Olympic traditionalists who argue against the inclusion of what they deem a hobby rather than a sport, but plenty of purists within skateboarding, too, who feel a rebellious, counter-cultural art is selling out by attempting to reach the mainstream. But from the scrum of photographers around Japan’s hometown hero Yuto Horigome as he celebrated an historic gold, and the applause from volunteers and journalists alike as he entered a triumphant press conference several hours later, it was clear that, here at least, it already has. This was a crowning that will mean more than most to the hosts at these Games.
And sure, there were elements that will rankle with the grumpy sceptics, plenty of slightly cringeworthy hallmarks that seemed ripped straight from an American teen film. The stadium announcer insisted on describing one in every three occurrences as “insane” and elongated each boarder’s name as if his voice was being controlled by a man leaning on a piano key: “Nyjah Housstttooooooooooooooon”. Houston’s reaction to one fall was a particularly audible: “Damn it!”. Eaton said he felt “very stoked”.
But he also spoke of being inspired by the Olympic spirit and overwhelmed by the experience of mixing with the planets great athletes in the village, a complete sea-change from the environment of X-Games or on the circuit. “There’s nothing like the Olympics,” he said. And whatever was playing through his earphones, to the sizeable number of media, officials and athletes watching on, the backdrop to his run was A-ha’s ‘Take On Me’. Hardly fitting the mould.
For British watchers whose perceptions of skateboarders come from Tony Hawk Playstation avatars or stereotypes of pot-smoking teenagers, all fringes and My Chemical Romance, this was an eye-opener. Dismissing elite skateboarding on the evidence of ten minutes watching people fall over and rip their jeans in a graffiti’d cave on London’s Southbank would be rather like deciding football wasn’t for you because the standard on a Monday night at the local Power League wasn’t up to much, or switching off the golf because the last time you were at Puttshack you saw someone slide one past the cup from within a foot.
In the baking Tokyo sun, as temperatures soared above 33 degrees, the athletes – as they explicitly are – took fall after crunching fall in their stride with a range of tricks that simultaneously defied logic and yet looked so smooth, so easy, that you wondered if you might give it a crack yourself.
This writer won’t be, but if the stated aim of bringing new sports into the Olympic fold is to appeal to a younger, urban audience then skateboarding is surely the most worthy of those making their bows this time. How could Japanese children not be inspired by the story of their 22-year-old gold medalist, who was born in Tokyo and learnt to skate at the wonderfully named Amazing Square Murasaki Skatepark only seven miles across the city from here? Brazilian silver-medalist, Kelvin Hoefler, hoped the impact would be similar in his home city of Sao Paolo.
By contrast, how many young people around the world have climbing walls or mountains on their door steps? And, as for surfing, well, that sport is so accessible to Tokyo’s youth that organisers have decided the ideal to place to stage the competition is at Tsurigasaki Beach, almost 100km away.
The 3×3 basketball discipline, also new for the Games is, however enthralling, simply a diminished version of an existing – and immensely globally popular – sport, played on streets and in cages around the world by people who are, largely, inspired and entertained by watching the full thing in the NBA on their TVs. Presumably, it paves the way for Wembley Doubles or Headers and Volleys to become Olympic sports should London host again any time soon.
Karate, the fourth of the newbies, brought in for obvious reasons given its popularity and origins in Japan, has already been nudged off the programme for Paris in three years’ time but it is telling that, even before today, the decision had been made that skateboarding will be retained and, given the Games go to Los Angeles after that, you would imagine it is here to stay.
Sports like triathlon and taekwondo, now considered Olympic staples, have only been present since the turn of the century. It does not take long to become part of the furniture and with more days like this, skateboarding will be well worth its place.