At 10.30am on Wednesday morning, Sky Brown, 13 years and 28 days old, tipped forward on her board and dropped into the scalded concrete bowl of the Olympic skate park.
As she did it, the stadium DJ started to play the Stone Roses’ She Bangs the Drums, released 19 years before she was even born, so as she carved down, across and up that first curve the driving bass line thumped around the empty grandstands. “Kiss me where the sun don’t shine, the past was yours but the future’s mine,” sang Ian Brown as she shot off the lip, far and high across the sky, then landed, and raced away down and on to the next slope.
Maybe you already know Sky Brown, have read or seen one of her interviews, maybe you saw her on Dancing With the Stars: Juniors, or you, or more likely your kid, are one of her million Instagram followers, or the millions more who have seen her viral videos. Maybe you already know what the rest of us are only just discovering, which is what a glorious thing it is to see her skate, a mind-boggling, eye-popping, head-spinning trip, a 45-second whirlwind of handplants, nose grinds, aerials, leaps, twists, spins, and flips. It’s acrobatics at a hundred miles an hour. Brown is so wildly talented that it was immediately apparent, even to these blind eyes, that she would win a medal.
In the end, she won the bronze. Which makes her the youngest medallist in British history. She would have been the youngest from any country since the 1930s, but the athlete who finished one place ahead of her, Japan’s Kokona Hikari, is six weeks younger again. The winner, Hikari’s teammate Sakura Yosozumi, was all of 19, which pretty much makes her a veteran in the skateboarding game.
Brown put on such a good show in the final that it could almost have been scripted for TV. Or YouTube. She was in fourth going into the last of her three rounds, because she had fallen twice attempting the very same trick, a kickflip indy, on the first two. Third time around, she landed it, and moved up into third place.
There was one skater left to go, the 15-year-old Misugu Okamoto, who was trying to finish a clean sweep for the Japanese. But midway through her run, she crashed, collapsed on the floor of the bowl, and burst into floods of tears. Good as Okamoto, Brown, and Hiranki are, it’s hard not to feel a little uneasy watching children this age compete on such a big stage.
In some other sports, they wouldn’t be allowed to. Gymnastics has age restrictions: you need to be over 16 to be in the Olympics. It’s not because there aren’t 15-year-olds out there who could do everything the older athletes do, it’s to protect their bodies and their mental health.
Steve Brown, Sky’s father, touched on this when he explained why they had decided that she should compete for Britain, where he grew up, rather than Japan, which is where her mother, Mieko, is from. “We chose Great Britain because we felt that there was no pressure and they didn’t ask us to commit,” he said. “They made it very clear that if she wasn’t happy or wasn’t feeling good at any time we could pull out.”
Just last year, Brown had a bad crash when she was attempting a trick on a mega-ramp. It left her with multiple fractures in her skull, lacerations to her lungs and stomach, and a broken left arm. And it all ended up as more content for her social media feed. After that, her parents tried to persuade her to give up skateboarding, but she says she knew she was always going to be competing here in Tokyo regardless. She feels invincible.
This week, Steve Brown was clearly doing his best to protect her. When she fell in the second round, he told her: “It’s just a contest, what happens here doesn’t define you.” And after she succeeded in her third, he tried to shelter his family from the media. No, he didn’t really want to talk to the press himself, he said, because he didn’t want to take attention away from her, and no, he didn’t want to say whereabouts in England her grandparents live, because he wanted to protect their privacy. He’s doing his best to navigate his family through his daughter’s teenage celebrity, while allowing her to take advantage of the opportunities her talent has opened up for her.
Brown is already sponsored by Nike, has a deal with Barbie and one with Claire’s Accessories, and has been doing TV adverts for Visa and Samsung. Those last two are both official partners of the International Olympic Committee, who must be delighted with how this event played out. The whole reason the IOC brought skateboarding into the Olympics was to make the Games more appealing to young people. In return for their image and commercial appeal, the skaters get more exposure, more money, and more fame. That may turn out to be a mixed blessing, but for the moment, at least, they still seem to be mostly unaffected by their sport’s decision to come inside the IOC’s big top.
When Brown was asked what it was like to meet the IOC president, Thomas Bach, she looked confused and said: “Who?”
Out in the arena too, she and Yosozumi and Hiraki and Okomoto and the rest of them were cheering and laughing and hugging and consoling each other the whole way through the event. After Brown’s crash, Yosozumi spoke to her too, and told her: “You got this, we all know you can do it.” They were just a bunch of kids at play. You have to hope it always stays that way. – Guardian