Five-ring Circus

Was the Olympic Skateboarding Really As Unimpressive As It Seemed?

“A skateboard is not attached to your feet,” an actual skateboarder explains.

A girl in a teal helmet and long ponytail falling on her back, legs in the air, on concrete
Funa Nakayama of Japan won bronze in the women’s event. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Skateboarding made its Olympic debut this year. I was stoked to see it, expecting to be wowed by the very best skaters in the world. But after watching the highly anticipated men’s and women’s competitions over the weekend—in which athletes do two 45-second runs, then five attempts at whichever tricks they want—I was left unimpressed. The skating looked pretty slow, and when the athletes attempted their tricks, as often as not, they’d wipe out. One U.S. competitor in the women’s division barely landed a single trick. Compared with the superhuman feats of athleticism reliably completed in virtually every other Olympic event, the runs felt too attainable, almost amateur—not too far removed from what you’d see at any urban skate park.

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I was not alone in my disenchantment. Many of my colleagues expressed the same feelings as we unpacked the weekend’s Olympic events on Monday morning. “Are the actually good skateboarders not eligible to compete?” wondered one editor. “I am now in the ‘skateboarding is not a sport’ camp,” wrote another, noting that the athletes seemed far more blasé about the competition than their counterparts in other events. “Can it be an Olympic sport if you do it in khakis with your phone in your pocket?”

One of my colleagues summed up our feelings thusly: “It seemed like some guys plodding around at half speed and falling on their butts a lot.” All of us, the underwhelmed, felt that we too would be capable of falling on our butts. But none of us is an experienced skateboarder. To help us understand what we saw and determine whether we are huge jerks for doubting the expertise of these Olympic athletes, I contacted Nathan Sick, 34, a resident of Arlington, Virginia, who’s been skateboarding since his early teens. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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Christina Cauterucci: What’s your history with skateboarding?

Nathan Sick: I probably have consumed some form of skateboarding media pretty much every day for a long time, and I’ve spent many thousands of hours on a skateboard.

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OK, so you can probably tell me whether it’s fair or unfair that some of my co-workers and I were massively underwhelmed by the street skateboarding event.

I’ve wondered how people were going to perceive it at the Olympics. I’ve talked to a few of the family members and people here around me who watched the Olympics, and a lot of them were like, “It looked like nothing or a blur in real time, but then when I saw the slo-mo replay, I thought it looked pretty cool.” I think it’s a fair assessment in a way, that it’s going to be different from some other Olympic sports. I think actually you’re going to see something a bit more familiar when park skating debuts Aug. 3, because it’s going to be very flashy and it’s about landing your run. That to me sounds a lot like figure skating—people are very familiar with the idea of having a routine or run and you try and land it.

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With street skating, it’s about progression to some extent. So people are going for it, they’re trying to push the limits of what they can do. And somebody is going to land four really hard tricks and win. And Yuto [Horigome, the Japanese skater who won gold in the men’s event] did that. So I think people are pushing themselves because they know they can’t play it safe to win, because out of everybody there, at least one person is going to put together four really aggressive scores.

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A skateboard is not attached to your feet, so I think that’s the thing that makes the sport so incredible. It’s very subtle, but in-line aggressive skating, to some extent BMXing, snowboarding, surfing with a big, unwieldy board—these other sports don’t have this small object you’re manipulating that’s not attached to your feet. So the ability to flip the board in a million different ways, into a million different tricks, also makes it a very fine margin of error. So I’m not surprised that someone who’s watching it would be like, “Gosh, why are they falling so much?” But I can also promise you the tricks they’re doing are incredibly difficult. I can also understand why they all sort of look similar or unremarkable.

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So you’re saying this particular sport is more conducive to the types of errors that can ruin a whole run or trick?

Right, and in a way I’m just amazed that they can actually land. With the level of difficult tricks they’re trying, I’m amazed that people even land three or four of them out of five [attempts]. But actually, I did think the athletes seemed to struggle a little bit, especially the men in the finals. I’ve seen competitions where a lot more tricks are landed. I think it looked really hot out there and it looked challenging. Maybe it was the nerves.

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I guess what I’m now realizing is that it’s a high-risk, high-reward type sport. So if they were doing less difficult tricks, they would be more likely to land them and then everyone would be like, “Wow, you did a trick. Good job. This is sort of what I expected to see.” But what they’re doing is trying something really hard that might, to the untrained eye, not even look that much more difficult. But they’re also more likely to fall when they’re trying it.

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Yeah, you’re correct. And you’re going to see that other format in the park, where you’re trying to land your whole run. So even though, still, what they can do is incredible, they’re all choosing tricks that I think are a little safer for them. Where in street skating, you’re trying to get those top four scores. And I think the reason for that, the reason to allow the margin of error of falling, is so that you see the craziest tricks in the competition. So from a skateboarder’s perspective, I prefer it this way, because then the likelihood of you seeing something just absolutely mind-blowing increases.

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Oh, yeah. So the format of the street skating, with the try-your-five-best-tricks thing, makes it so that you’re not penalized as much for falling once?

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Yeah, exactly. But with park skating, it’s a really crazy complicated course with ramps and shapes and strange obstacles all over the place, and they’re just going incredibly fast and doing things that you wouldn’t expect. It’s very exciting. I think that will be the part of Olympic skateboarding that captures some people. They’re going to be like, “Whoa. That’s crazy.”

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Looking forward to it. OK, switching gears a little bit: What’s the deal with the uniforms, and don’t you think it would be easier for them to jump up onto a rail if they were wearing pants whose crotches weren’t sagging all the way to their knees?

That’s a great question. To be honest, I don’t know. I mean, there’s kind of been a tradition in skateboarding of people skating in clothing that I cannot imagine how you skate in. There was a very regrettable period of time when people skated in crazy-tight skinny jeans and I could never understand that. Thankfully it didn’t last long, because I myself like to wear shorts.

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The other obvious thing an unenlightened viewer couldn’t help but notice is that young teenagers absolutely dominated the women’s event. What’s going on there?

There’s a big force of change playing out in women’s skateboarding right now. It’s not like the situation in men’s, which has just been established for so much longer that they’ve gotten it down to a mostly predictable set of names who are going to be in the finals. Women’s skateboarding has been changing every couple of months for the last two or three years.

How so?

Well, there were two 13-year-olds on the podium. There’s a changing of a guard, but the changing of the guard has happened like three times in the last three years. It’s the fastest period of progression I’ve ever seen from any sport that I’ve followed.

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Skateboarding was for a very long, long time, and still to a large extent is, really unwelcoming to young girls. It’s not structured, and you learn how to skate by—it’s like, groups of young preteen boys hanging out at the skate park or roving around in the streets learning how to skate. Young preteen boys are awful, and it’s hard to imagine how a very young girl would easily find a place in that. And you had these women who were just absolute pioneers who stuck with it and became idols and paved the way, and they were very inspiring. They’re also not necessarily superhumans. They were just people who really liked to skate.

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So all of the men, every single one of those guys has been skating since they were, like, 5. It’s like any other Olympic sport now. It’s down to a science. It’s exacting, you have to be a master, you have to skate your entire life if you want to have any chance of being anywhere near that podium. Before seven years ago, I don’t think there were more than a handful of girls anywhere in the United States who got started street skating at age 5 and practiced it every single day for 10 years.

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And so now what we’re seeing is that’s happening in Brazil, because skateboarding is a lot more mainstream there, and Japan, because skateboarding is also growing hugely there too. So first you had Vanessa Torres [the first woman to win gold at the X Games] and these OGs who were the pioneers in women’s street skating. And then about six or seven years ago, they got replaced by these skaters who had definitely been at it for way longer and from way younger, like [Brazil’s] Pamela Rosa and Leticia Bufoni. But then that guard changed rapidly again, because you had some ladies who actually started now when they were, like, 5. And now you’re seeing the real talent level, what it’s really going to be like going forward. And so now you’ve got Rayssa [Leal of Brazil, the 13-year-old who won silver], now you’ve got Momiji [Nishiya of Japan, the 13-year-old who won gold].

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I was so excited for Alexis Sablone [who placed fourth]. She did so well. That was awesome, because she is one of the older guard, and she’s always been really good. But she has a degree from MIT, she has done other things with her life. I was so excited for her, because she is not like Rayssa—she did not have what they’ve had, where they have been at it every single day since they were 5 years old.

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Alexis gave a really sweet quote to the New York Times, about watching Rayssa and Momiji compete: “I was like, ‘We’re finally here.’ Female skateboarders have reached critical mass. There’s enough now that there will be prodigies. And they’re here.”

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I think she’s got to be psyched. Rayssa is amazing by anybody’s standards. And I’m sure the generation that comes after her is going to be even better still. I think women’s skateboarding is going to absolutely explode in the next 10 years, which is great. And it is very much due to people like Alexis Sablone and then even before her, like Elissa Steamer, these real OG women skaters who just stuck with it.

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Is there any other inherent advantage that a younger person has in skateboarding, or is it mostly just that now there’s finally a pipeline of younger girls who are great at it?

Yeah, it’s just a lack of pipeline, because I think Rayssa will be a lot better in 10 years than she is now.

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Why are the best skateboarders not from the U.S., when we invented the sport? Why aren’t we dominating?

I don’t think people understand how multicultural and diverse skateboarding is. A lot of people still think of it as, like, white California suburban kids. And it really isn’t that anymore. I mean, its biggest problem has been a disparity in gender, with sexism and with exclusion of women. But it’s been huge in Brazil for like 20 years. It’s much closer to the mainstream in Brazil than it is in the United States.

What type of physical training do skateboarders do? Is it weightlifting and stuff, or really just practicing on the skateboard?

It really depends on who you’re talking about, because competition skating is still not like—I don’t think as many people scoff at it anymore, but this is kind of a subset of skaters who do these competitions. There are amazing skateboarders who are arguably even better than the people at the Olympics, by certain metrics, who weren’t there and who don’t really do that well at these competitions. But the people at the competitions, from what I see on Instagram, do quite a decent bit of training. Felipe Gustavo is constantly training. Leticia Bufoni is constantly training. Nyjah [Huston] trains pretty often. Weight training, squats, stationary bikes. I know it’s now more of a thing for pros if they get into their 30s, because otherwise you’re going to get injured.

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It appeared to me, watching the Olympics, that the athletes felt a lot more nonchalant than athletes in other competitions. They had their earbuds in, they were looking at their phones when it wasn’t their turn. I was watching ping-pong earlier in the day, and every time those athletes ended a set, they would go back to their coach and have this really intense discussion. The downtime in skateboarding seemed a lot more like, oh, we’re fist-bumping, we’re all just kind of having a great time. Even when they fell, some of them would still kind of waggle their tongues at the camera. It seemed a lot more low-key and less competitive than a lot of other Olympic sports. Would you agree?

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I hadn’t really thought about it. Maybe it’s kind of a cultural thing. Competing is not the main part of skateboarding. It just isn’t. There’s a bunch of sports that are just built on competing, full stop, like team sports. Everything is a competition. Then you’ve got sports that probably mostly exist for the competition—like I’m sure people love and enjoy running and track and field, but they are training specifically for competition only. Skateboarding exists completely separate, and the way that most of these people earn their living is not through competitions. Many of the top skateboarders don’t even compete, period. It’s kind of similar to climbing, where the biggest achievements in the sport are not competition-related.

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If you’re a pro skater, you’re pro because your name is on a board, your name is on a pair of shoes you designed, and you make a company look cool. And the companies are often run by skaters, so no one’s really complaining. The video part is still king. I know Nyjah’s almost done with a big video part. And when he releases that, I think it’s going to wipe the bad taste out of his mouth from [falling four times in a row and placing seventh in] the Olympics, because it’ll be amazing and everyone will be like, “Oh, my God, Nyjah’s the best.” The videos are very artistic, they have multiple years of effort put into them, skaters tend to watch them a thousand times. And there’s a music selection and style and all these different elements that just aren’t captured in the Olympics. So I do think there is less of a seriousness about competitions. But, I mean, I think Nyjah was crushed. He’s pretty devastated to have blown it. They do care.

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