Tokyo 2020: Skateboarding arrives to shake up Olympic traditions

Yuto Horigome takes the gold medal in the park where he first took up the sport

Yuto Horigome of Team Japan competes in the skateboarding men’s street finals on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Urban Sports Park. Photo: Martin Bernetti/Getty Images

Yuto Horigome of Team Japan competes in the skateboarding men’s street finals on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Urban Sports Park. Photo: Martin Bernetti/Getty Images

 

There wasn’t quite the smell of weed. But it had you thinking. Maybe, another time, another place. This week the Olympics brought skateboarding to Tokyo without the spliffs. The brash upstart has forced its way through the five-ringed door.

Up on the pink launch ramp is Brandon Valjalo. Brandon takes the ties from his hair bun, bends forward, shakes his long, bleached South African mane and turns to camera. Ivory pearls for teeth. He smiles sideways and gives a two-fingered V from each hand.

French boarder Vincent Milou is dressed all in white in a buttoned up to the chin short-sleeved shirt, pants and white shoes, an industrial painter except for the designer cut of the clothes, more urban graffiti artist than two coats of magnolia.

The USA’s Nyjah Huston is in shorts and is nodding his head to the music thrumming through his wireless earphones. He looks out to the stylized playground of steps and rails and smooth white concrete shimmering in Tokyo’s 31 degrees, an empty blue-seated Ariake Urban Sports Park to one side.

Huston is a canvas for tattoos that rise from his feet and travel over almost all of his body beneath his clothes and emerge above his neckline, stopping just below his ears, a Nike swoosh on his US top.

Raised as a vegan by Rastafarian parents, he grew up in Fiji and on a farm in Puerto Rico, where the family lived off the proceeds of marijuana sales.

Yuto Horigome was born in Tokyo but spends much of his time in California. He looks 11 but is actually 21-years-old. As Ireland slept he, not Huston, the one America was gunning for, was crowned the first Olympic skateboarding champion in history.

Where skateboarding began is not where it has ended up. But a fitting pause, as it races on, would have been if the six-time world champion Huston, who placed seventh in the final, had won a medal.

Tokyo 2020

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Skateboarding has arrived almost as a cultural corrective to the other Olympic sports that time forgot like fencing and archery, those crusty old cousins that have been around forever.

There is something foppish and balletic in the way archers allow their wrist to wilt and the bow to peacefully fall away forwards and to one side when the arrow releases. But where are the tattoos and why are the crotches of their pants so high?

In fencing, the exaggerated frozen, choreographed poses and faster-than-the-eye-can-see engagements have classical appeal. But their branded underwear never rides up. ETHICA, says the thick waistband on Manny Santiago’s shorts as his baggies fall a foot below his hips.

Nyjah Huston is one of the sport’s biggest stars. Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images
Nyjah Huston is one of the sport’s biggest stars. Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP via Getty Images

Skateboarding has provided its first medal of the games in men’s street but the sport isn’t quite what its image tells you it is. The one time all-American pastime may have successfully exported its profile as a chilled, violence-free, rebellious package but Brandon, Vincent, Nyjah and Yuto have also become corporate billboards, drivers of clothing lines, shades and earphones.

Nike is among Huston’s many sponsors. He also promotes collections of shoes and sunglasses and in the lead-in to Tokyo launched his own brand, Disorder Skateboards.

The crossover with music and street art has broadened the appeal much to the joy of the IOC who see the sport as an injection of something it never had before.

Youth culture, street credibility and a whiff of something less wholesome they don’t necessarily need to understand, it is also a countermeasure to a buttoned-up organisation like theirs that can behave like a monarchy and thrives on bureaucracy.

Now the lines of the sport have been further blurred between art form, competitive sport, counter culture and thriving industry.

The purists lament skateboarding - at Olympic level a sport they fall off more often than they stay on as they attempt the most difficult tricks - is drifting away from the original moorings.

A deft touch from the IOC, which they could never have imagined, would have been to put up a sign on the Ariake course saying ‘Skateboarding Prohibited By Order.’

The argument is that the straight jacket of a coldly competitive structure like the Olympics is too shamelessly establishment. Snowboarding, its cold-blooded winter sibling, cut a similar deal with the IOC in 1998 at the Winter Olympics in Nagano.

The women are next in street before park then kicks in. Park’ imitates the shape of an empty swimming pool, harping back to where it all began when the originals used find their challenges among the suburban ruins of California.

Kokona Hiraki of Japan is 12-years-old, although hotter favourites to do well in park are 13-year-old Sky Brown of Britain and 15-year-old Misugu Okamoto of Japan.

Their rites of passage from a young age will be corporatised with financial rewards for success in Olympic Games. As far away as can be from some not so well thought out ideals, a lifestyle and sub-culture that, for better or worse, was far from what skateboarding has become.

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