'Rebel' Skateboarding Is Ready For Its Olympic Debut in Tokyo

Jul 24, 2021
Originally published on July 24, 2021 5:02 pm

Skateboarding is ready for its time to shine at the Tokyo Olympics. Competitors will show off the skills they developed in the streets and skateparks around the world, and the hope is that they attract younger fans to watch the Games.

It's been an interesting ride for the sport that has rebel roots in southern California.

The skatepark on the beach in Venice, Calif., is a mecca for the sport. For decades, the area was known as "Dogtown," with skateboarders coming there to show off their skills, doing acrobatic flips and tricks.

"They would build homemade ramps and just do sort of like hard-core shredding, and it was just their getaway," says Ruby Molina, whose family owns a nearby skate shop. "And all the kids would just come, and like it was their getaway."

Back in the day, skateboarding was an offshoot of surfing, another sport making its Olympic debut. In fact, it was first known as "sidewalk surfing" — with kids on long wooden boards with metal wheels, riding on cement as though they were riding waves.

Skateboarding has deep rebel roots

The pioneering 1970s skateboard crew Zephyr, known as the "Z Boys" from Dogtown, boasted of sneaking into and draining backyard swimming pools to skate inside them. Skateboarders looking for off-limits locations would get stopped by police. Sometimes they still do.

Legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk told NPR in 2006 that skateboarding always had a bit of an outlaw street culture with a bad reputation. And it received a lot of negative labels: "It was a kid's fad, a waste of time, a dangerous pursuit, a crime," he recalled.

Tony Hawk, shown here during a competition in 2003, helped popularize the sport of skateboarding.
Chris Polk / AP

Skateboarding became popular around the world and Hawk turned his childhood hobby into a career. He's always talked about how the Olympics need skateboarding to attract young fans. Now that day is here, and Hawk, now 53, is in Tokyo as an official Olympics commentator.

"We used to see ourselves as a family of misfits," Hawk said in a promotional video. "But now the world will call us Olympians."

At the Games, street skaters will compete on a course that includes stairs, handrails, curbs, ledges, and benches. Park skaters will try to outdo each other's mid-air tricks on a course with steep slopes and deep valleys.

Before coming to Tokyo, Team USA skateboarders rode in formation past American flags in downtown Los Angeles. Among them was street skater Nyjah Huston. The tattooed 26-year-old from Laguna Beach, California is already the top-ranked, highest-paid skateboarder in the world. He's been a pro since he was 10.

"I love skateboarding because it's the funnest thing on Earth," he told friends and fans at the L.A. event introducing the team. "That goes for not only if you're one of us, about to skate the Olympics, or just a kid out there skating in a skate park, just having fun. It's the freedom, the love it brings us all together and the non-stop challenge and the progression."

Nyjah Huston is a medal contender for the U.S. in the men's street skateboarding event.
Charlie Neibergall / AP

The sport moves from the street to the world stage

It's that free spirit that first attracted 34-year-old Olympian Alexis Sablone. She's a New Yorker, an artist and architect with a masters from MIT who grew up skating in Connecticut.

"You didn't call skateboarding a sport," she recalls. "It was like the anti-jock thing to do."

Sablone says skateboarding for fun has always been about self expression, creativity and style — not the pressure of winning an Olympic medal.

And she says skating on the street has a different vibe than high-stakes competition.

"You only get one try, you know it's like you're almost a machine in a way," she says.

Alexis Sablone of the U.S., shown here in 2018, will compete in the Olympic debut of skateboarding.
Speed Media / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

"At the end of the day, it's still skateboarding, but there's the nostalgic younger part of me that kind of wants to rebel against this new format of skateboarding," Sablone added. "The thought that people will grow up skateboarding in the future with an Olympic gold medal in mind is so foreign to me, you know?"

As strange as it feels to her, Sablone says it's still an honor to be competing at the Olympics. Here in Tokyo, Sablone and her U.S. teammates face rivals from Brazil, Japan and the U.K — including young star Sky Brown. The 13-year-old X-Games champ is here to grinds rails and do kickflips with the best of them.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, skateboarding - it makes its Olympic debut on Sunday in Tokyo. Competitors will show off the skills they developed on the streets and skate parks around the world. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on the sport with rebel roots in Southern California.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The skate park on the sand at Venice Beach is a skateboarding landmark. The area is known as Dogtown, and for decades, skateboarders have come here to show off their skills doing acrobatic flips and tricks. Ruby Molina, whose family owns a nearby skate shop, says this is where the board sport got its start

RUBY MOLINA: And they would build homemade ramps and start, like, hardcore shredding. And all the kids would just come and, like, that was their getaway.

DEL BARCO: Back in the day, skateboarding was an offshoot of surfing, another sport making its Olympic debut. In fact, skateboarding was first known as sidewalk surfing, with kids on long wooden boards with metal wheels riding the cement as though they were riding the wave.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIDEWALK SURFIN'")

JAN AND DEAN: (Singing) Grab your board and go sidewalk surfing with me.

DEL BARCO: The pioneering 1970s Zephyr skateboarding crew was featured in the documentary "Dogtown And Z-Boys." They boasted about sneaking into backyard swimming pools, draining them to skate inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS")

TONY HAWK: The Zephyr scene really sparked a revolution.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Once poolriding came in, that's, like, all that we wanted to do.

DEL BARCO: Skateboarders looking for off-limit locations would get stopped by police. Sometimes they still do. Legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk told NPR in 2006, it was always a bit of an outlaw street culture with a bad rep.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HAWK: It was a kid's fad, a waste of time, a dangerous pursuit, a crime.

DEL BARCO: Skateboarding became popular around the world, and Hawk turned his childhood hobby into a career. He's always talked about how the Olympics needs skateboarding to attract young fans. Now that day is here, and Hawk, now 53, is in Tokyo as an official Olympics commentator.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAWK: We used to see ourselves as a family of misfits, but now the world will call us Olympians.

DEL BARCO: At the games, street skaters will compete on a course that includes stairs, handrails, curbs, ledges, benches. Park skaters will try to outdo each other's midair tricks on a course that resembles halfpipes for snowboarding. Before coming to Tokyo, Team USA Skateboarders rode past American flags in downtown Los Angeles. Among them, street skater Nyjah Huston. The tattooed 26-year-old from Laguna Beach, Calif., is already the top-ranked, highest-paid skateboarder in the world. He's been a pro since he was 10.

NYJAH HUSTON: I love skateboarding because it's the funnest thing on earth, and that goes for not only if you're one of us about to skate the Olympics or just a kid out there skating your skate park, just having fun. It's the freedom, the love - it brings us all together - and the non-stop challenge and the progression.

DEL BARCO: It's that free spirit that first attracted 34-year-old Olympian Alexis Sablone. She's a New Yorker, an artist and architect with a master's from MIT. She grew up skating in Connecticut.

ALEXIS SABLONE: You didn't call skateboarding a sport. It was like the anti-jock thing to do.

DEL BARCO: Sablone says skateboarding for fun was always about self-expression, creativity and style, not about the pressure of earning an Olympic medal.

SABLONE: There's the nostalgic younger part of me that kind of wants to rebel against this new format of skateboarding and say, well, I never thought - I never - you know, the thought that people will grow up skateboarding in the future with, like, an Olympic gold medal in mind is so foreign to me, you know.

DEL BARCO: As strange as it feels to her, Sablone says it's still an honor to be competing at the Olympics. Here in Tokyo, Sablone and her American teammates are facing off against rivals from Brazil, Japan and Sky Brown, the 13-year-old U.K. skateboarding sensation. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.