Snowboarding has been established as a big hit in the Olympics. Yet the sport that’s been incredibly influential in the evolution of snowboarding, as well as global youth culture in general, is still left out in the cold.
Americans Sage Kotsenburg and Jamie Anderson are being given the superstar media treatment after winning gold medals, respectively, in the men’s and women’s slopestyle snowboarding competitions. Snowboarding’s biggest star—and one of the best-known American winter Olympians ever—Shaun White, was on the front page of the New York Times because he failed to get a medal in the men’s halfpipe.
Given the success and expansion of snowboarding in the Olympics, as well as the widespread popularity of action sports in general among the world’s youth, leaders in the skateboarding community feel that it’s a foregone conclusion that one day skaters will have a presence in the Olympics too. “I’m of the opinion that it’s not a matter of if, but it’s a matter of when,” says Mike Jacki, secretary general of the International Skateboarding Federation (ISF). “To disregard this sport is being beyond naïve.”
After all, skateboarding is often viewed as the godfather of snowboarding. Snowboarders share the culture and fashion largely created by skaters, and the tricks, courses, and style involved in snowboarding are essentially the offspring of skateboarding. To many, it seems bizarre and unfair that snowboarding made it into the Olympics before its older, more influential sibling. They’re hoping that the rise of skate-influence competitions in the Olympics, including snowboarding and slopestyle skiing, helps convince the powers that be that skateboarding belongs in the games.
The ISF’s Jacki is careful not to bash snowboarding, nor any traditional Olympics sports. He doesn’t want to see any sports kicked out of the games to make way for skateboarding. But he points out that skateboarding belongs in the games based on numbers of participants alone. The ISF estimates that as many as 12 million Americans, and more than 30 million people around the globe, ride a skateboard roughly once a week. Tens of millions more bust out the board on rarer occasion. By comparison, according to the Snowsports Industries of America, last winter there were 7.3 million snowboard participants in the U.S., meaning they got on a board at least once during the season.
Skateboarding is far more accessible than they average Olympics sport as well. “Anyone can buy a skateboard for $30 at Target and ride it almost anywhere,” says Jacki. No snow, pricey gear, or special venues are required. “How many people have been on a luge? Or a bobsled? Most people probably haven’t even seen a ski jump in person, let alone been on one. So many of these sports are prohibitive from an economic or availability standpoint, so the average viewer can’t relate to them at all.”
Skateboarding, by contrast, is highly relatable to the masses—the youth masses in particular. “The competitors dress just like the kids in the audience or watching from home,” says Jacki. “They wear the same sneakers, they’re wearing the same clothes, they’re listening to the same music.” And it seems like the Olympics is in need of more events to appeal to the young. According to research by Repucom, of the 65% of Americans who say they planned on watching the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the majority are over the age of 55. The smallest demographic tuning into the games is the 18- to 34-year-old age group.
Snowboarding’s biggest star, Shaun White, who is also a competitive skateboarder, is highly in favor of adding skateboarding as a summer Olympic sport. So are skateboard celebrity and mogul Rob Dyrdek and skateboard legend Tony Hawk, who has taken a few shots at how old-fashioned and uninteresting the Olympics are to kids today. “To be honest,” Hawk has said, “at this point the summer Olympics needs skateboarding more than skateboarding needs them.”
There is a sizeable faction of the skateboarding world, however, that disdains competition and wants no part of the Olympics. Some have even launched petitions arguing that it should never be in the games because it would fundamentally change skateboarding, and not in a good way—potentially killing the individuality, camaraderie, and fun that make skating what it is. The anti-Olympics posse also doesn’t want skateboarding to become even more of a corporate industry than it already is; tons of money stands to be made by skate companies, skate apparel makers, and skate celebrities if skateboarding hits the Olympics and stokes its popularity further around the globe. (It should be mentioned one of arguments to get snowboarding into the Olympics is that it was seen as an injection of fresh energy—and much-needed money—into the world’s mountain resorts, which had been struggling as interest in skiing had faded.)
At this point, it’s very unlikely that skateboarding would be added to the 2016 summer games in Rio. Beyond that, who knows? “I think if the IOC gets a clue they’re gonna put skateboarding in” by 2020, Hawk has said.
What’s encouraging to skateboarders and fans is that the IOC (International Olympic Committee) has been relatively open to making changes to the games. After all, 25 years ago, it seemed nearly impossible that snowboarding could ever be an Olympic sport. The 2016 games will welcome a few new sports, including golf, rugby, and kitesurfing.
The ISF’s Jacki fully expects that skateboarding will be in the Olympics sooner than later, perhaps alongside other emerging youth-oriented sports like inline skating and BMX. He’s especially hopeful because the current IOC sports director is Christophe Dubi. “His son is a skateboarder,” says Jacki. “He understands what this is all about.”
As for Dubi, he was recently quoted (by Reuters) saying, “There is a desire for more flexibility” in the IOC, and that, “There is consensus that things will evolve and evolve for the better… We need to preserve our history. At the same time we have to remain relevant and make sure that we capture new audience as well.”
Dubi was specifically addressing snowboarding slopestyle’s entrance into the Olympics. But he could have just as easily been discussing skateboarding or another aspiring Olympic event.