Skateboarding and the Olympics: Where’s the Creativity in Winning and Losing?

Although logistically impossible for the 2016 summer games, it seems inevitable that skateboarding will someday be an Olympic sport. With the Games looking to expand their youth audience, skateboarding offers a unique, youthful, and alternative hook. Tony Hawk, the world famous skateboarder, video game namesake, and corporate entity branded all over shoes and clothes at major big box retailers, famously told Larry King, “To be honest, I think [the Olympics] need skateboarding more than we need them.”

Hawk’s quip highlights skateboarding’s enormous growth in popularity in the last decade. It is now almost as common to find a skateboard in any given suburban garage as a baseball bat and glove. With snowboarding already in the winter Games, it seems almost natural to include skateboarding into the summer program. However, in spite of this widespread embrasure and seeming inevitability, cultural complications persist.

All over the world skateboarding is generally understood as either a sport or an artistic physical expression. In the last two decades, it has been awkwardly cast into the ESPN cable sports mold through competitions such as the X-Games, which began in 1995 and Street League Skateboarding in 2010. Such events consist of professional skateboarders performing practiced runs on obstacle courses built in stadiums. Their runs are then assigned point values correlating to the difficulty of the maneuvers and overall execution by a panel of judges.

In short, skateboarding-as-competition is not all that different from figure skating, or the slope style snowboarding and skiing events, seen at this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. This iteration of skateboarding inspires consistency, repetitive practice of selective tricks, and performance under pressure from a live audience and a group of judges. It is a world of rules and standards that rewards the skateboarder who performs at the highest level within their boundaries. However, from the perspective of the street, where most of the skateboarding world exists, these competitions amount to odd and conflicted spectacles.

Outside of the major competitions, there is no set of rules or standards in skateboarding as a practice or a culture. Everyday skateboarding happens in common urban spaces. It requires no special field or even other people. You simply get on your skateboard and do what you want. Certainly, there are cultural norms of what constitutes good and bad skateboarding, style, and levels of difficulties, but at the end of the day there is no right or wrong way to skate. Rules, regulations, and rigid standards of judgment are foreign concepts to most of the world’s skateboarders.

Practiced in urban public space, skateboarding is in direct conflict with the larger physical world around it. Skateboarding has been, is, and will remain an illegal activity everywhere outside of specifically designated skateparks. Skateboards interact with obstacles they are not supposed to, usually to the effect of mild damage in the form of scraped paint and chipped surfaces. “No Skateboarding” signs brand countless public squares in countless urban areas. Moreover, L-shaped pieces of metal called “skate stoppers” adorn the edges of an unknowable number of benches, ledges, and hand railings to prevent skateboarders from using them.

Skateboarding is defined by its interactions with a physical world not built for skateboarding, not by contests and competitions. In other words, it is defined by its appropriation of everyday objects as spaces for opportunity and creative physical expression. This can be seen in public skateparks and televised contest courses that, when looked at closely, are nothing but commonly seen urban obstacles, objects, and furniture like those benches, ledges, and handrailings. The appropriation of such obstacles of the public landscape is precisely why skateboarding is often hailed as more of a creative endeavor than a sport. It is a pursuit of discovery, opportunity, and interpretation of built space.

For the skateboarders who see the practice as more an art form, the X-Games, Street League, and the Olympic destination are a mixed bag of good and evil. On the positive side, these contests help funnel a solid supply of corporate cash to individual skateboarders that in turn allows them to fund themselves. For example, professional skateboarder Pontus Alv, has used money from Carhartt clothing and Converse shoes to fund his artistically driven skateboard company, Polar Skate Co. “Without a basic paycheck from Carhartt and Converse,” Alv said in a recent interview with the skater-owned and operated Jenkem magazine, “Polar Skate Co. would never have been what it is.”

Most importantly, Alv’s corporate sponsorship has allowed him to completely control his non-corporate skateboard company himself, thus funding his core belief and commitment to skateboarding culture: “I think it is important that a skateboard company is run by skaters and that’s it.” Carhartt and Converse make a buck off Alv representing their brands, but Alv also makes a buck and pumps original art and creativity in the core skateboarding subculture outside of nationally broadcasted competitions. Popularization through contests and corporate involvement can indeed be beneficial to the core skateboarding world.

On the downside, however, corporate cash comes with corporate contracts and, at times, the dictation of sterilized corporate behavior that is inconsistent with the subversive roots of skateboarding. Less than a year ago, a skateboarder sponsored by Nike was let go of his sponsorship because he mentioned he bought medical marijuana in an interview. In effect, Nike, using the power of the paycheck, revealed how they can decide what is okay and not okay for a their skateboarders to publically say. Nike sponsors over 25 skateboarders of a professional or amateur status, more than any other skateboarding shoe company, skater or non-skater owned. In most professional skateboarders’ careers, their shoe sponsorship is their biggest paycheck, perhaps rivaled only by an energy drink sponsorship if they have one.

In this sense, non-skater-owned corporations have the power to shape the culture however they–not skaters themselves–deem fit. In the case of Nike, they exercise their economic power to uphold a clean-cut sporting image void of medicinal drug use they deem inappropriate. As competitions like Street League, which has recently been subtitled the Nike SB World Tour, push skateboarding further towards the Olympic world, the threat of corporate cultural control encroaching on core skateboarding grows.

Still, it is hard to not agree with Pontus Alv’s astute and realistic observations of corporate involvement and the Olympification of skateboarding. “The more they push Olympics kind of thinking into skateboarding, ESPN, and Street League, more people will be like fuck this shit, and look to the other side of the coin,” says Alv. The other side of the coin happens to be small, skater-owned brands that operate outside of the competition culture they indirectly benefit from. In the last few years, numerous small skateboarder-owned companies have sprouted up, in part from the flow of cash from outside corporate sponsorships. Such companies, like Alv’s own Polar Skate, Welcome Skateboards, Magenta, Hopps, and Raw (to name only a handful), are pushing the boundaries of skateboarding as an artistic subculture. With unique board shapes, original artwork, and the sponsoring of skateboarders who have no intention to skate in contests of any form, these companies foster innovation in on a creative and non-competitive level.

This flowering of small board companies keeps the idea that you cannot win or lose at skateboarding alive. While they indeed benefit from the heightened popularity of skateboarding derived from international competitions, they produce products that speak to the street-level of skateboarding culture — a sort of grassroots urbanism.  They operate outside of Olympic-level competitions, keep the subversive and artistic aspects of skateboarding alive, and encourage riders to express themselves in the street, not in televised arenas of formulaic judgment.

Skateboarding, however, does seem to be headed to the Olympics, towards the uncreative formula of winning and losing. Outside corporate sponsors want those wins and losses because they’re good for gathering viewers and consumers from outside of the subculture itself. Winning and losing is understood by sports fans all over the world. Winning and losing is good for business. Winning and losing is the Olympic paradigm.

The Olympics, corporate skateboarding sponsors, and even many skater-owned brands want skateboarding to flourish as a sport. It means growth. But sports–winning and losing–involves assigning rules, standards, and codes of conduct, which are all inherently antagonistic to where skateboarding happens the most: in the street.

For every gold medal won in a competition, there will be hundreds of neighborhood skate-rats destroying some schoolyard bench with their trucks. For every silver medal, there will be thousands of punks bombing the steepest hill in any given town. For every bronze medal, there will be millions of skateboarders putting wheels beneath their feet simply because it makes them feel free from rules, standards, and codes of behavioral conduct.

Corporate dollars and Olympic competition will never be able to give a medal for that.

photo credit: John McClumpha, Creative Commons/flickr