The International Olympics Committee has won some street cred after a handful of new sports immediately captured global attention. It helped that the first gold medal among them went to the host nation, which had largely been unenthusiastic about holding these pandemic-era Games.
Local hero Yuto Horigome carried a burden for Japan, along with a certain responsibility to show the world that these Games deserved to go ahead after months of controversy. His chosen sport, skateboarding, put a focus on the legitimacy of adding newer, unconventional sports to the Tokyo Games. Any doubts about that decision were erased by some dramatic performances showing that whatever else happens during these two weeks, the Olympics can still connect with their times.
Horigome’s stage was the men’s street skateboarding, a demonstration of skills and stunts on a simulated urban scape that includes stairs, benches and handrails. American superstar Nyjah Huston was the favorite, bringing a global audience with him as one of the highest-paid skaters in history. They were joined by six other competitors in the final.
By the end of the first two runs through the park, both Horigome and Huston were well placed but not leading. The result hung on the final five tricks — each a chance to pull off a single, complicated maneuver along a metal rail that would impress the judges and gain high points. Skaters are allowed three gimmes — bad attempts that don’t count toward the final score.
The ending was a nail-biter. Huston nailed his first trick, but bailed on the next four (failing to land). Horigome had more luck, sticking four of five tough tricks requiring him to flip his board onto the rail before sliding to a landing that made it look easy. That consistency gave him the world’s first Olympic gold medal in a sport many had written off as a kids’ pastime. Brazil’s Kelvin Hoefler took silver; the Japan-Brazil pairing atop the Olympics’ new board sports would become familiar. Huston’s teammate Eaton Jagger grabbed the bronze.
Legend Tony Hawk was among many who never thought such a day would come. “As a kid that was mostly lambasted for my interest in skateboarding, I never imagined it would be part of the Olympic Games,” he told his 6.9 million Instagram followers after trying the course. This debut showed the sport “to an audience that has never seen it before or simply refused to embrace it.”
For Japan, the win meant not only a medal for its tally but a sorely needed morale boost. Concern that the arrival of thousands of athletes and officials could worsen a pandemic that has led to repeated states of emergency spurred opposition to the Games, which many Japanese had wanted canceled, even amid strict protocols that include banning spectators at most events.
A day later, as if to prove the point, three Japanese made it through to the women’s street skateboarding final. Again, it was a thrilling finish. At the end of her two runs and first trick, it looked like Dutch skater Roos Zwetsloot had it in the bag. But she failed to nail the next four. The consistency of Momiji Nishiya meant that Japan had a lock on Olympic gold, with Rayssa Leal gaining Brazil another silver and Funa Nakayama taking bronze for Japan.
But the significance hasn’t been just the medals that the IOC handed out this week at Tokyo’s Ariake Urban Sports Park. It’s the acknowledgement that there’s a raft of sports out there that many don’t take seriously but deserve credit.
An hour away at Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach, the tail end of a typhoon greeted the debut of Olympic surfing, capping decades of campaigning to get the sport entry to the Games. After three days, in sometimes choppy and overcast conditions, it was Brazil’s turn to make history, taking the first men’s Olympic gold, accompanied poetically by a silver for Japan and bronze for Australia. In the women’s event, the U.S. took gold and South Africa silver. Japan’s bronze ensured it a spot on each of the first four board-sport podiums.
That sports once viewed as the refuge of hippies and dropouts now have a global stage alongside the centuries-old traditions of fencing, archery and equestrianism is a sign that the Olympics are growing up. It might be argued that they’re also more egalitarian, though the medal tallies remain dominated by the bigger and richer countries.
More equitable or not, they do meet both a willingness and a need to appeal to younger audiences. In reality, these sports aren’t particularly new, nor the athletes especially youthful — at 22, Horigome is older than many swimmers and gymnasts. But their fans definitely skew toward an age segment that both the Olympic movement and the exclusive broadcasters must tap to remain relevant.
Relevance matters for the consuming habits of these changing demographics. Comcast Corp.’s NBC saw viewership for the opening ceremony, both over the air and through streaming, drop 36% compared with Rio 2016. Yet downloads of its Peacock video streaming app have climbed into the top of App Annie’s U.S. iOS and Android rankings, an indicator that viewers may be tuning in, just not on their TVs.
While blue-ribbon events like the men’s 100-meter sprint and women’s soccer will be old-school favorites in the final week, the introduction of sports climbing, karate and park skateboarding are likely to bring the thrills and drama that audiences crave. Climbing will show a mix of speed, skill and strength across difference rock faces. In the park event, skaters can catch air and push their limits. Karate will include one-on-one sparring called kumite, and kata, a demonstration of specific skills.
While it may seem that the Olympics have finally validated a few previously ignored sports, the reality is that these modern athletes are conferring new legitimacy on one of the world’s oldest events.
Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.
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