Heimana Reynolds knows many people still have preconceived notions about skateboarding — that it’s a refuge for troublemakers, a way for delinquent teenagers to spend their time “when they want to trespass and vandalize stuff.”
He knows many parents would probably prefer to see their kids take up other sports. And he knows some people probably don’t even consider skateboarding to be a sport in the first place.
But Reynolds hopes this summer’s Tokyo Olympics will help change those perceptions.
“It’s really exciting for skateboarding to be kind of recognized as, like, a real sport,” the 22-year-old said in April.
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Skateboarding is one of four sports that will be contested at the Olympics for the first time this summer, stepping onto the largest stage in global sports. Surfing, rock climbing and karate are the others, while baseball and softball — which had previously been in the Olympics but were later discontinued — are also returning to the Olympic program.
Long perceived as the go-to sports for rebels and free spirits, the likes of skateboarding, rock climbing and surfing have long since gone mainstream. They have international federations, world championships and fans around the globe.
Their inclusion at the Olympics, however, serves as a key sign of legitimacy — and an opportunity for expansive growth.
“It will be broadcast to a bigger audience, so more people will see it,” surfer Carissa Moore said at Team USA’s media summit in April, when asked about the sport’s inclusion in the Olympics. “Hopefully more people will fall in love with it and actually tune in on a more regular basis. And maybe it will even inspire them to get out and try it.”
Yet in the tight-knit communities of each sport, there are also lingering concerns, particularly among veteran participants.
Some fear that the Olympics will co-opt or alter the unique cultures of sports like surfing, skateboarding or rock climbing. Others worry that their sports might actually become too popular — resulting in overcrowding at skateparks or popular outdoor rock climbing routes.
“It’s a little controversial, I think, for sure,” Kyra Condie, one of four U.S. climbers who will compete in Tokyo, told USA TODAY Sports. “We kind of love having this tight-knit, smaller community — especially when you’re going outside to these areas in the outdoors, that can get really crowded, stuff like that.
“But I think it’s overall going to be a really good thing for the sport. It’s a sport that a lot of people love and enjoy … And to have it get more exposure will be really cool.”
Going where the young people are
The overwhelming majority of climbers, skaters, surfers and karatekas bound for Tokyo this summer did not start competing with Olympic dreams in mind. They simply fell in love with their sports, and the Olympic opportunity later fell into their laps.
The International Olympic Committee voted to add the four sports to its Olympic program for Tokyo in 2016, while also adding a number of new events in existing sports, such as 3-on-3 basketball or mixed-gender relays in track and field. Another new sport — breaking, more commonly known as breakdancing — will make its debut at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
IOC president Thomas Bach framed the inclusion of the new sports as part of the organization’s broader agenda, and an attempt to connect with young audiences.
“Youth today has so many options for their leisure time that you cannot just wait for these young people to come to sport,” Bach said in 2016. “You have to go, and sport has to go, where they are. And with this organization, we go where the people are and where the young people are.”
Many athletes see the Olympic inclusion of their sports as part of a natural evolution. Though the likes of skateboarding and rock climbing might have initially been the hobbies of rebels — and, for some, still are — the competitive areas of the sports have grown exponentially, with worldwide competitions becoming more frequent.
“I mean, I think it’s about time,” American skateboarder Ryan Sheckler said during a news conference hosted by Red Bull in May. “Skateboarding’s cool, and it’s fun, and everywhere that I travel in the world, you can go find a skateboarding scene that is thriving and learning tricks. It’s a huge community.”
Many athletes see the Olympics as a massive opportunity to get more eyeballs on their sports, and all the benefits that come with it — from sponsorship dollars and training resources to new facilities or maybe college scholarship opportunities at some point.
“Coming from Hawaii, we don’t have the best skate parks,” said Reynolds, who grew up in Honolulu and is considered a gold-medal contender in the park skateboarding discipline. “And I’m really hoping maybe after the Olympics that the city will see that this is something that is a respectable sport, and we will build more skate parks, we will build better parks and places for people who want to skateboard.”
Sports see spike during pandemic
The debuts of skateboarding and surfing come on the heels of a boom in participation during the pandemic, as team sports gave way to individual sports and remote work gave many people more time to pursue new hobbies.
According to ActionWatch, which compiles market data in the skateboarding and surfing industries, there were about 8.87 million skateboarders in the United States in 2020 — a whopping 34% jump from the year before. Surfing participation also spiked by 28% in a single year, to 3.8 million.
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ActionWatch president Patrik Schmidle said the demographics of the two sports discount the notion that the Olympics could cause them to go “mainstream.” Both sports have already seen their participants getting older and more affluent, he said.
“If you walk up to any surf spot today, the number of Teslas and Land Cruisers and expensive SUVs that you see will tell you that it’s no longer this sort of rebel high-school kids that are the stereotypical surfers,” Schmidle said.
“(The Olympics) may just kind of continue that trend, but it won’t start a new trend. The concern that it’s no longer sort of the ‘outsider’ or ‘rebel sport,’ I don’t think that’s been the case for a while.”
Schmidle also said the pandemic had a greater influence on participation figures in those two sports than the Olympics will have. Historically speaking, he said, Olympic sports typically see a slight uptick in participation on the heels of the Games, but the increase is rarely significant.
Nevertheless, there are still those in the surfing, skateboarding and climbing communities who worry about an influx of novice participants — particularly with regards to outdoor rock climbing, where overcrowding can have an impact on the environment.
“It is exciting. I think it is also nerve-racking,” U.S. Olympic climber Nathaniel Coleman said at Team USA’s media summit. “I think that as the sport grows, and if it grows fast — faster than its community can teach the newcomers — then it faces a lot of challenges.”
Others, like U.S. skateboarder Mariah Duran, don’t share those concerns. She likened her sport to a tree. Skateboarding’s culture will always be its roots, she explained, and competitions like the Olympics are its branches.
“If you want to do contests, everything, you can do that,” she said at the media summit. “If you just want to cruise around the streets or (a) bowl, whatever. There’s really space for anybody. You can take it wherever you want, and I feel like the core of skateboarding will always be there.”