The sad irony of Olympic skateboarders

The success of these young kids probably won’t make the lives of most urban skateboarders any easier

Jennifer Stavros
Tuesday 03 August 2021 16:12
Skateboarder Nishiya Momiji, 13, Is One of the Youngest Gold Medal Winners Ever

Skate culture has felt hard knocks from “the man” for years. The kids of the culture have been subjected to harassment and drama for their love of the sport — even as it’s made its debut in the Olympics.

Yesterday, a few young athletes who broke barriers were literally subjected to signage that banned their sport as they entered and won Olympic medals. “SKATING BANNED” was written on signs surrounding the Tokyo waterfront, not far away from where the athletes were competing. These young athletes’ success while surrounded by official rejections of their sport was not without its irony.

Olympic champions Momiji Nishiya, Rayssa Leal, and Funa Nakayama are only kids. They’re kids born to generations of folks who have dealt with the “haters” for decades. And they grew up long after the Tony Hawk video game fanbase made skating mainstream — yet somehow, despite being everywhere, skateboarders are also still expected to be nowhere.

Olympic medal winner Rayssa Leal was only seven years old when Tony Hawk tweeted about her in 2015. A video of her doing a heelflip dressed in a fairy costume had caught his attention, prompting him to write: “I don’t know anything about this but it’s awesome: a fairytale heelflip in Brazil by #RayssaLeal (via @oliverbarton).” The tweet went viral, bringing Leal her first taste of international attention. Six years later, she has become a representative of her home country of Brazil for her sport, and a well-deserved medal winner.

Back in 2016, however, just one year after Tony Hawk tweeted his admiration for Leal, another skateboarding video went viral. This one showed a fifteen-year-old in Tampa, Florida being brutally thrown to the ground by police for skateboarding in a no-skateboarding area. The video led to a long debate about whether Tampa Police had used excessive force on a child of color supposedly “resisting arrest” after a seeming misdemeanor (the police force stood by its officer). In 2020, like a visual manifestation of double standards, a video of a police officer skating received accolades and positive attention for being “cool”.

Around the world, skaters contend with skate laws and regulations which prohibit the practice of their sport for very little reason. This happens in major cities such as Tokyo and smaller, suburban areas like my Los Angeles-adjacent neighborhood of Culver City, California, where you’ll find numerous signs forbidding skating in the downtown city sector. Norway even tried to ban the sport entirely for over a decade.

Perhaps because it is an urban sport, skaters are viewed to be “slackers” and “bad kids” by rural commentators with little understanding of the athleticism required to excel in it. They are the riff-raff of a conservative society. Now skate culture has only welcomed by the masses at the Olympic Games — but only when it elevates folks who look a certain way in the name of national pride. Though they hail from a counterculture, the skaters performing at the Olympics are not being called on to be revolutionary; they are instead being allowed to practice their sport under certain, very strict parameters. When they leave the stadium, they will be subject to needlessly stringent regulations again.

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