Olympics

'Street sports' gain ground in Japan ahead of Olympic debut

Kyodo

As Tokyo prepares to host the inaugural Olympic 3×3 basketball, freestyle BMX and skateboarding events, youth-focused “street sports” are breaking new ground in Japan, providing unexpected benefits and opportunities in some unlikely places.

While the X Games and the French Festival International des Sports Extremes (FISE) began showcasing extreme and street sports worldwide in the mid-1990s, tennis, team sports and traditional disciplines like wrestling, gymnastics and swimming remain the most popular Olympic sports in Japan.

But alongside the inclusion of next-generation sports on the 2020 Olympic program, more and more “urban” competitions are being held nationwide, revealing growing interest in activities generally considered the domain of young people and providing new opportunities for Japan’s athletes.

And since these events can be hosted with minimal infrastructure, usually small, flat spaces available in any city, they can be held as part of festivals in parks or other areas, making them cheap and attractive to cities looking to jump on the bandwagon.

The third annual Ark League, an international competition in Japan combining BMX, skateboarding and break dancing, was held in Samukawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, in April.

The Ark League was formed in 2017 by merging Flat Ark — a BMX Flatland World Circuit born in Kobe in 2013 — and Skate Ark, which was created shortly after skateboarding was given the green light for its Olympic debut in 2020. Break Ark debuted this year as its third offering.

Flat Ark was organized by Yohei Uchino, a legend in his native Kobe and in BMX circles around the world. The BMX Flatland World Circuit champion from 2012 to 2014 set out to create “a contest for the riders, by the riders” to establish “an environment where riders can put on their best performance.”

“From the scoring system to the waiting room to the air conditioning, everything is administered completely from the athlete’s point of view,” said Uchino, 36. “That way they can show off their real ability.”

Some of the sports’ biggest names were invited to Samukawa to compete in Ark League from April 27 to 29.

Teen sensation Sora Shirai of Japan dominated the skateboard street competition, boosting his confidence ahead of May’s Street League World Tour stop in London, where the 17-year-old finished seventh, the best result among the Japanese men.

Such multidisciplinary contests as ESPN’s X Games and France’s FISE — held in Hiroshima for the first time last year — have enjoyed worldwide success, demonstrating the potential of extreme sports to the International Olympic Committee, which is looking to attract a younger audience.

As a result, skateboarding, freestyle BMX and 3×3 basketball were all added to the 2020 Summer Games program, while the organizers for Paris 2024 made headlines earlier this year by floating the possible addition of break dancing.

The week before Ark League, Hiroshima hosted one of the stops in the annual FISE World Series for the second year in a row, drawing fans of break dancing, BMX, sport climbing, skateboarding, inline skating, slacklining, parkour and kendama, a Japanese variant of the cup-and-ball game.

High school “b-boy” Shigeyuki Nakarai, who won the bronze in break dancing at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, finished as the runner-up at Ark League after commanding the men’s field at the FWS event in Hiroshima.

Nakarai, who goes by Shigekix, has quickly become one of the faces of street sports in Japan along with fellow teen breaker Ramu “Ram” Kawai, the first person to win a gold medal in breaking at the Youth Olympic Games, back in October.

Nakarai, who is aiming for a spot on the Olympic podium should break dancing debut at Paris 2024, said “Japan’s (competitive) environment has improved” with events like the FWS, giving the 17-year-old an opportunity to hone his craft alongside some of the world’s best.

And while the new athletes themselves are enjoying the benefits of global competition, small cities and towns in Japan are hoping to cash in on the new sports’ global reach to revitalize their stagnant economies.

Akira Hara, policy chief of Samukawa’s Department of Planning, lamented that the town near Tokyo finds it difficult to stand out despite having the largest population of all towns and villages in the Kanto region.

“It would be good to raise our profile, but it was tough with nothing to offer besides the Samukawa Shrine,” Hara said, referring to a local shrine.

After deciding a sports tournament might be the answer to its struggles, Hara said planners zeroed in on street sports because with “soccer and baseball, we couldn’t differentiate ourselves from neighboring municipalities.”

Ark League was a success, attracting 25,000 people over three days. Hara said hanging banners around town built excitement among the residents and led to a big turnout.

The chairman of the event’s executive committee, Akira Kato, said the international event gave the town more motivation and impetus to put on similar events in the future.