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Skateboarding is often perceived as an activity for rebellious teenagers, but devotees of the sport hope that gold medals by Japanese athletes at the Tokyo Olympics will change that image and lead to the development of more places for skaters to do what they enjoy most.

“I didn’t expect a Japanese to win a gold medal. I think not many people had anticipated it,” 23-year-old skateboarding enthusiast Yuki Shiobara said of Yuto Horigome one day after the skater captured gold in the men’s street competition on Sunday. “In Japan, skateboarding doesn’t have a positive public image. So I think it was a great opportunity for the sport to dispel that image.”

Shiobara was practicing outside the skatepark at Tokyo’s Komazawa Olympic Park on Monday evening alongside Reo Suzuki, 19. Komazawa’s skate park has easy ramps and other features, and the two said they often go there to polish their skills. Unfortunately, the skate park has been shut down since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so Shiobara and Suzuki were actually riding their boards outside of the park, which was surrounded by wired fences.

“Yeah, there’s usually a lot of people here, maybe up to 50 or so,” Shiobara said.

Suzuki said: “It sometimes gets packed with people.”

Suzuki, a 19-year-old university student, said: “In Japan, you are not really supposed to skateboard unless it’s a legitimate place and it’s thought of as a dangerous sport and things like that. But I think Horigome sent a positive message to the public.”

A skate park at Tokyo’s Komazawa Olympic Park | KAZ NAGATSUKA
A skate park at Tokyo’s Komazawa Olympic Park | KAZ NAGATSUKA

Akio Honma, who owns Instant, a chain of skateboard shops, and serves as a competition committee member for the All-Japan Skateboard Association, is a friend of Horigome’s father, who was a skater as well. Honma has known the gold medalist since he was a little boy.

Speaking hours after Momiji Nishiya and Funa Nakayama won gold and bronze in the women’s street competition on Monday, Honma believes that the feat achieved by the Japanese athletes at these Games will have a huge impact on skateboarding in the country, saying that he hopes the sport will now be seen as a legitimate and fun activity.

“Skateboarding had already been very popular before this Olympics,” said Honma, who said he knew Horigome was an exceptional talent even when he was still a boy. “But skaters have often been criticized for making too much noise and have been treated as nuisances. But hopefully, the general public will get to know what skateboarding is all about through these Olympic competitions.”

The Olympics have often led to growth for certain sports, with one of the best examples being the “Dream Team” effect following the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona.

During and after the 1992 Games, a large number of young Japanese players flocked to public basketball courts, having been inspired by the American team and superstars such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

Many public parks in Japan prohibit skateboarding and enthusiasts hope that will change in the wake of the country's Olympic success. | KAZ NAGATSUKA
Many public parks in Japan prohibit skateboarding and enthusiasts hope that will change in the wake of the country’s Olympic success. | KAZ NAGATSUKA

Unfortunately, the pandemic means any effect from Japan’s skateboarding gold medals won’t be seen just yet at Komazawa.

After winning gold, Horigome talked about his affection for his native Koto Ward of Tokyo, where the Olympic skateboarding competition is being held, adding that Ojima Komatsugawa Park was his favorite place to practice as a youth.

But even there, skateboarding is now prohibited.

Honma said that the park’s management office had tolerated skaters that would follow rules, such as keeping the place clean from litter. But Honma said that new skaters who flocked to the park after the pandemic began broke some of the rules and the sport was eventually banned from the park.

Honma said that there are an estimated 400 places that allow skateboarding nationwide, but that includes some that are in poor condition. He added that about 200 of them are in good shape.

“We hardly have any parks that can host an international tournament in Japan,” Honma said. “I’ve been a competition committee member for over 26 years, but there are barely any places that can host national championships. I would say there are zero places that we can (use to) host global-level events.

“So hopefully, (the feats by the Japanese medalists) will help improve the infrastructure for the sport.”

Momiji Nishiya of Japan competes in the women's street skateboarding competition on Monday. | ALEXANDRA GARCIA / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Momiji Nishiya of Japan competes in the women’s street skateboarding competition on Monday. | ALEXANDRA GARCIA / THE NEW YORK TIMES

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