For decades skateboarders have tossed on a beat up pair of sneakers and hunted for their town’s best skate spots. This month, however, eighty of the world’s best skaters will don sleek Olympic uniforms and look for judges’ point totals as skateboarding makes its debut as an Olympic sport in Tokyo.
Some in the skateboarding community — including members of the U.S. national team — have mixed feelings about skating’s ongoing “sportification,” however, and have shared fears of further oversight and rigidity in a culture that values independence and self expression.
That dissonance echoes throughout skateboarding. Since becoming popular in Southern California in the 1960s, skateboarders have shaped film, fashion, music, video games, art, photography and writing. Tens of millions of skaters worldwide now make up a diverse and sought-after community — and a multibillion-dollar industry — while still remaining a counterculture powerhouse known for its rebellious inclinations.
“I think as a community, people were attracted to skateboarding because it was not part of something like the Olympics; it was not mainstream,” said Ian Michna, the editor of Jenkem Magazine, a skateboarding and culture magazine. “It was more of an artistic activity you could do on your own independently and shape your own way, be your own person and express yourself.”
This month skateboarding enters a new chapter when 80 skaters will represent 26 countries at the street and park competitions in Tokyo. All the while, some still question whether skateboarding is even a sport or should be governed by a body like the International Olympic Committee.
“Now with skateboarding becoming commodified by the Olympics and them turning it into a sport with numbers and statistics and putting values on ‘tricks’ and things that were genuinely once just movements of expression, some people are going to say, ‘This is not in the spirit of skating,’” Michna said.
Typically that feeling is expressed among the old guard of the skateboard world, but aspects of that perspective can be found among the 12 skaters the U.S. is sending to Tokyo.
Alexis Sablone, a member of the U.S. women’s street team, has been open about her view on skateboarding’s development.
A queer artist and architect with an MIT degree, Sablone, 34, gained much attention while still in high school in the skating world after appearing briefly in the 2002 video “PJ Ladd’s Wonderful Horrible Life,” an influential work in which she fearlessly kickflipped over gaps and stairwells and slid her board down rails to the pop song “Mambo Italiano.”
Despite a successful career as a contest skater, Sablone has been vocal about her dislike of competition in skating and even a discomfort that skateboarding might be called a sport.