When Yuto Horigome is riding his skateboard with a goofy stance, grinding down rails and executing kick-flips and nollies in Tokyo this summer, he’ll be doing it in hopes of winning a gold medal.
Not X Games gold, Olympic gold.
Yes, skateboarding will be on the Olympic program when the postponed 2020 Games kick off in July. So will surfing, and sport climbing too. As unlikely as it may seem, the traditional and staid Olympics will be getting a little more extreme in Tokyo.
Extreme sports may not be the first thing that springs to mind for most people when they think of the Olympics, but the two worlds are getting a little closer with the addition of three sports that are more familiar to X Games devotees than those who mainly follow competition around the rings.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is likely hoping these sports will help it make inroads with the coveted youth demographic, as part of its efforts to get a younger audience hooked on the Olympic Games.
“We want to take sport to the youth,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in 2016, when skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing were added to the program for Tokyo 2020 along with baseball, softball and karate. “With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect anymore that they will come automatically to us.”
The inclusion of these three sports is a testament to how extreme sports — which had previously been seen by some as pursuits for rebels and thrill seekers — have been moving toward the mainstream spotlight for the past several decades.
Being included in the Olympics will only serve to enhance their appeal and introduce these sports and their athletes to an even wider audience.
“I’ve definitely seen the growth,” pro surfer Kanoa Igarashi, who started the season No. 6 in the World Surf League Championship Tour rankings, told The Japan Times. “You see the people in the water, you can just tell that surfing is a sport that in a way is kind of trendy right now. A lot of people talk about it, a lot of people want to get into it. It’s beautiful to see.
“I’m sure with the help of the Olympics it’ll be even more of a boon for the sport. It’s heading toward that kind of mainstream world of sports. I think it’s a matter of time and we’ll be right there.”
So how did these three sports get mainstream enough to catch the IOC’s attention?
It’s at least partially attributable to the IOC’s efforts to skew younger and keep the games relevant in an age where there are myriad things, from video games to social media, vying for the attention of new generations.
As skateboarding legend Tony Hawk told CNN’s Patrick Snell in 2019, “They need our cool factor.”
“They need this to get the excitement level that we have at skateboard events,” Hawk added. “I don’t think we need their validation because we’re already validated. And I mean really, how many more swimming events can you watch?”
This isn’t the first time the IOC has let its hair down to catch the gaze of younger eyeballs. The last time the Olympics were in Japan was for the Nagano Games in 1998, when snowboarding made its debut. Ensuing years have seen a further mixing of extreme sports and the Olympics, with the addition of BMX, halfpipe and slopestyle in both freestyle skiing and snowboarding, and others.
As the mainstream appeal of extreme sports grows, the IOC may also simply be trying to keep up with the times. For instance, break-dancing — another youth-oriented, non-traditional sport — will make its Olympic debut at the Paris Games in 2024.
“There are those who may view this inclusion (of) skateboarding, surfing, sport climbing and breakdancing more cynically and may not believe that the motivation has anything to do with Olympic ideals and that it is straightforwardly marketing appeal that is the motivation,” Dr. Angela Schneider, director of International Centre for Olympic Studies, wrote in an email to The Japan Times.
“It is no surprise that the IOC has been looking at younger audiences and that the decision to include breakdancing, and also skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing, which will be debuted in the postponed Tokyo Games, is in response to these changing interests.”
The IOC could also be taking these steps to diversity the Olympics.
“Some have argued that the sports historically supported in the Olympic Games are more Northern Hemisphere sports, than Southern Hemisphere,” Dr. Schneider wrote. “They have also argued that they have been more popular with White cultures than Black or Latino cultures, for example.
“Some of these new sports were put forward by the Olympic organizing committee. For example Breakdancing, or ‘Breaking’ as it will be called in the 2024 Olympics, was put forward by the Paris organizing committee after successful trials in the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires, and it will be given the much desirable venue of the Place de le Concorde downtown.”
The major catalyst for the mainstream shift of extreme sports — to the point where the Olympic movement has stood up and taken notice — may have been the X Games event that started in Rhode Island in the summer of 1995, run by U.S. broadcaster ESPN.
Known then as the Extreme Games, it was an Olympic-like international extreme sports competition that ran from June 24 to July 1 and included, among other things, biking, bungee jumping, in-line skating, skateboarding, sport climbing and water sports.
Some of the giants of the extreme sports world took part, with Hawk winning gold in skateboard vert and silver in skateboard street, and BMX great Mat Hoffman winning BMX vert.
It was such a hit that instead of holding the second edition in 1997 as planned, ESPN decided to bring it back the following year.
Hoping to make the most out of marketing the event internationally, the network came up with its current, more easily digestible name.
The event became a runaway success, serving as a celebration of action sports, music and youth culture. An X Games has been held every year from 1995 to 2019 — where Horigome took gold in skateboarding. There has also been a Winter X Games since 1997.
Because it was hit with the coveted youth demographic, sponsors (the first X Games had seven main sponsors) were eager.
Broadcast on ESPN and buoyed by robust sponsorship, the X Games have provided a huge platform for extreme sports. The events made a household name out of Hawk — who even now, at 52, is as synonymous with skateboarding as Michael Jordan is with basketball — and through the years has given others like Hoffman, BMX rider Dave Mirra and snowboarder Shaun White — who would later win three Olympic gold medals — huge crossover appeal.
Video games, TV appearances and other showcases for extreme sports soon followed, spreading awareness even further. This likely ramped up participation in these sports, further increasing their status outside their original circles.
The X Games proved just how much mainstream appeal there was within the extreme sports realm. These sports and their athletes were seen as hip and cool. And even as traditionalists scoffed at the baggy-clothed ambassadors of counterculture, the IOC sought their hold on the youth.
“You’re never going to see Usain Bolt crash and smash himself up ten yards before the finish line,” BMX rider Jamie Bestwick told the New Yorker in 2014. “That’s what kids want to see. No disrespect to Canadians, but curling?”
Where snowboarding, for instance, was once frowned upon at many ski resorts, it’s since become a marquee event at the Winter Olympics. Skateboarders are still being shooed out of public spaces, but they’ll have a spot — one highly coveted by many other sports — carved out for them at the Olympics this summer.
As for detractors who may wonder if surfing or skateboarding and the like can even be considered sports, Schneider feels the IOC simply chose not to get bogged down in the minutiae of that argument when it came to giving these sports a space on the Olympic stage.
“The concept or notion of sport is very widely debated and the word ‘sport’ itself is used in our society to describe myriad diverse things,” she said. “For example, we describe people as being good, bad and spoil ‘sports.’
“We also describe different activities as sport (e.g. hunting, fishing, horseback riding, mountain climbing, sprinting, frisbee and hula-hoop), and we sometimes describe an action that is challenging and fun, but has nothing to do with physical prowess, as being ‘good sport.’
“Clearly the IOC decided not to enter the murky waters of this debate, and it would be challenged if it didn’t respond to modern youth interests and what they see as sport. And, it has also been challenged for having a lack of diverse cultures represented in the sports.”
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