October 16, 2021

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Skateboarding’s long grind for Olympic recognition

7 min read

Goofy, nollie, fakie, switch.

Commentators have had their work cut out for them explaining the ins and outs of the Olympic Games’s newest entrant: skateboarding.

The world’s best street skaters have rocked the Tokyo Games with an escalating suite of tricks to deliver some of the youngest medallists in Olympic history.

It’s a watershed moment for skateboarding and a strange sight for many skaters, given the very look and feel of modern skateboarding was forged by its law-breaking heroes.

Act two of the skateboarding’s Olympic debut gets underway next week, when the men’s and women’s park skaters will drop into the Ariake bowl.

A man and a young woman sit laughing atop a skate park bowl.
Hagan McCreath is coaching skater Amar Hadid.(

ABC News: Jack Fisher

)

Amar Hadid, 22, has had the Olympics in her sights for years.

At the newly-opened Sydney Park skate park, Hadid makes light work of Sydney’s deepest park course, a 3.3 metre-deep flow bowl with features that sound like they’ve been plucked from a skeleton: plenty of spines, hips and gaps.

Watching her lines is Hagan McCreath, a veteran coach who has also trained Australia’s park skating frontrunner, Poppy Starr Olsen.

In the bowl, Hadid transitions from soaring airs over the park’s jutting concrete hips into grinds along the metal coping at the bowl’s edges.

“We just do small gains each time, maybe just adding speed, 5 centimetres at a time,” says McCreath.

“If you’ve done 10 attempts at 5 centimetres higher each time, then you’ve added half a metre, which is pretty good.”

Tricks in Hadid’s repertoire, which she planned to use at the Olympics, include inverts, Indy airs and feeble grinds.

An invert is a standard hand plant on the edge of the bowl.

Hadid plants her back hand on the coping so that she is balanced upside down on the lip of the ramp.

Her front hand holds the inside edge of her board, right between her feet, tucking it tight.

In competition, judges look for a quick pause of the trick at its apex to demonstrate style.

Some variations on an invert see the skater’s hand reach for different edges of the board.

To make her way down from the invert, Hadid aims back down to the bowl.

She finds the transition (wall) and rolls away.

The Indy air is a classic trick among Hadid’s favourites.

Here she ollies (jumps) over the bowl’s hip, reaching over her back shin to grab the toe-side edge of the board between her feet.

Judges look for height in the air and a solid grasp of the board, giving style points for a tucked back knee.

Here she reaches almost a metre above the coping line.

To perform a feeble grind, Hadid’s board must slide along the bowl’s metal edge using the metal trucks that hold the board’s wheels.

Only the rear trucks of her skateboard grind, while the nose and toe-side edge of her board extends over and above the coping.

Judges look for how long a skater can hold the grind along the coping while maintaining good body positioning, as well as how fast they can go in and out of the grind.

It’s important for a competition skater to have a number of grind variations in their run.

Skater Todd Swank pioneered this grind in 1986, thinking it ​​a “feeble attempt” at creating a new trick.

However, it’s a notch more difficult than the standard “50-50” grind, in which both front and rear trucks connect with the coping.

Road to Tokyo

All the action will take place at Tokyo’s Ariake Urban Sports Park next week. The venue has been built for the first Olympic skateboarding contest, featuring both a “park” course and a “street” course — two very different skate disciplines.

A computer rendering of a large concrete skateboard course.
The Tokyo 2020 park and street skateboarding courses.(

Supplied

)

On one side, the park course features a steep concrete bowl that recalls the drained swimming pools in which “vert” (vertical) skating was established in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles during the mid-1970s.

On the other side, the street course mirrors urban settings around the world — a playground of stairs, handrails, kerbs and benches to resemble a city streetscape.

Each course is almost twice the size of a standard competition course.

The park course bowl ranges from 1.5 to 3 metres deep in sections, with rails and hips for grinds and lip tricks, plus tall extensions for big airs.

In the middle, an “island” and a “volcano” offer skaters infinite possibilities to transfer walls, build speed and change direction.

Skaters under the age of 18 — and there are more than a few — will be required to wear a helmet.

Park skaters are allowed three 45-second runs to pull off a sequence of tricks above the edges and gaps of the bowl.

Five judges give each run a rank out of 100: the highest and lowest scores are dropped with the three remaining scores for a skater’s best run forming their final score.

In each discipline, judges watch for a skater’s elevation, speed and distance, as well the difficulty and creativity in their runs and the style with which they can pull it all off.

Australia’s skateboarding stars have faced a tough road to Tokyo. The team missed a qualifying event in the US in May after several members of the delegation contracted COVID-19 during their trip to compete in Des Moines, Iowa.

A young woman sits smiling on a skateboard.
Poppy Starr Olsen, 21, is Australia’s best female skateboarder.(

Supplied

)

In the end, five skaters were picked to represent Australia in skateboarding. Top-ranked female skater Poppy Starr Olsen, 21, will compete in the park discipline alongside Keegan Palmer, 18, and Kieran Woolley, 17.

In the street discipline, Australia’s top-ranked male skater Shane O’Neill, 31, joined rising star Hayley Wilson, 19. Neither, however, made it to the finals.

Street skating poster boy Yuto Horigome, 22, landed a quartet of best tricks to claim gold for Japan, with Brazil’s Kelvin Hoefler placing second and the USA’s Jagger Eaton claiming bronze.

But it was the women’s street finals where two of the youngest competitors in Olympic history had big wins.

At just 13 years old, Momiji Nishiya became Japan’s youngest gold medalist while Brazil’s Rayssa Leal, also 13, took home silver. Japan’s Funa Nakayama, 16, won bronze.

Skateboarding’s new age

For the International Olympic Committee, there’s been an urgent need to make space for a younger sport like skateboarding.

Tony Hawk, history’s most famous skateboarder, said of the Olympics in 2014: “I think they need skateboarding more than we need them.”

But translating skateboarding for the clean-cut Olympic Games isn’t entirely straightforward.

Since the announcement in 2016 that skateboarding would be added to the Olympics, much has been made of the threat that the games would emphasise rote skill over creativity and even sanitise skateboarding counterculture.

San Francisco-based Thrasher magazine, the bible of skating, put it bluntly at the time of the announcement: “Like many skaters, we have mixed feelings about skateboarding appearing in the next Olympics. And by mixed feelings we mean disgust combined with a headache.”

It’s a concern understood throughout the skate community, even amongst those who embrace the Olympic inclusion.

“People feel like as it’s becoming a competitive sport, it might lose its backstory, where it came from in the streets,” says Amar Hadid.

“It was really raw and seen as something that not everyone appreciated. I think that made a lot of what skateboarding is known as today.”

Hadid and her coach agree the games pose no threat to skateboarding at large.

“The culture is so inbred in skateboarding,” says McCreath. “The Olympics aren’t going to change that culture, you know that culture will still exist.”

“​​The holy grail is still to get the cover of Thrasher magazine. That’s every skateboarder’s dream and I think it’ll continue to be that way.”

But despite the misgivings, skateboarding’s Olympic moment is already triggering change.

American street skater Alexis Sablone credits the Olympics for an increase in sponsorship dollars for female skateboarders that has only happened in recent years.

“Everyone likes to go on and on about how skateboarding’s for everybody but the industry hasn’t properly supported that idea,” Sablone told Thrasher in 2019.

A young woman looks down from atop a skate park bowl.
Amar Hadid says it was once rare to see other girls at the skate park.(

ABC News: Jack Fisher

)

There’s little room for unfairness in the Olympic format.

To look at the nearly symmetrical street and park courses, it’s clear the competitors should have no advantage whether they assume a “regular” skate stance with their left foot forward or a “goofy” one with right foot forward.

The same goes for gender. The Olympic spotlight will be shared evenly by the 20 male and 20 female competitors in each of the street and park events.

McCreath says the level of talent and interest in women’s skateboarding has risen sharply in the last few years.

“I’ve seen tonnes of girls coming into the sport and really feeling comfortable there and enjoying it. For sure, equality is going to change with the Olympics.”

“I never used to see girls at the skate park when I first started skating. If I saw a girl, I’d be over the moon,” says Hadid.

“Six years ago when I saw my favourite female skateboarder, Lizzie Armanto, at Bondi Bowlorama, the female division was really small. But just being able to see her competing made that a reality for me as well. You see it and you realise you can dream it, too.”

Credits:

Reporting: Jack Fisher
Photography: Jack Fisher
Design: Jack Fisher and Alex Palmer

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