TOKYO (Reuters) - In exactly a year from Friday, skateboarding will make its Olympic bow at the Tokyo 2020 Games with top skaters hoping the global exposure will help take the sport to the next level of popularity.
What started with surfers attaching rollerskate wheels to wooden slats in 1950s California is already a professional sport, of course, but the Olympics offers skaters the chance to do their thing on the biggest sporting stage of all.
“The publicity that skateboarding will get from the Olympics in Tokyo 2020 is just going to change everything for skateboarding,” said American Jagger Eaton, who made his X Games debut at the age of 11.
“(It makes it) more accessible for people like me who love competing and want to compete.”
The International Olympic Committee’s drive to reach a more youthful audience led to the inclusion of skateboarding along with four other new sports for Tokyo.In a sport that is still firmly rooted in the streets and urban skateparks, not everybody has been happy with the prospect of skaters vying for gold, silver and bronze.
For the likes of Eaton or three-time street world champion Nyjah Huston, though, skateboarding is all about competing — and winning.
“I have a super competitive drive and I have worked my life, everything, to get where I am at, to compete with the pros and I just won’t let anybody take that away from me,” said 18-year-old Eaton.
Huston, who has also won the Street League Skateboarding competition five times, is the hot favorite for gold in Tokyo and sees the Olympics as the extra motivation he needs after a decade at the top.
“It adds extra pressure but I am always going into every contest with the same mindset. Going out there and doing the best to win. I love a day out there competing,” said the 24-year-old American.
“I feel like people might think I would be less competitive now or less fired up after winning so much over the years, but I think the feeling keeps growing and the love for skateboarding keeps growing.”
They will both need that competitive edge just to get to the Games with only 20 spots for men and women in the two disciplines of park and street skateboarding up for grabs.
Skaters can qualify with a podium finish at the next world championships – in September for park boarders and next year for street – or by placing in the top 16 in the Worldskate rankings.
Triple Olympic snowboard champion Shaun White is among those who have declared an interest in taking part and Eaton said the threats might not come from the usual suspects.
“The thing about Tokyo is that it is an open contest,” explained the 2018 X Games silver medalist.
“Not everybody is invited to the X Games or these other contests so that is why you have got to keep on your toes.”
As hosts, Japan are guaranteed one spot per event but they are likely to need more than that, such is the depth of skating talent in the country.
Chief among that pool of talent are current street skating world champion Aori Nishimura, who turns 18 on Wednesday, and 13-year-old Misugu Okamoto, who currently leads WorldSkate’s park rankings and is in pole position for Olympic qualification.
With eight skaters in the top 10 rankings across the two disciplines, Japan’s women are taking the sport by storm.
“In terms of girl skaters, we have had a lot more competing internationally since it was announced to be an Olympic sport,” Nishimura told Reuters.
“In Japan, they put a lot of emphasis on the Olympics.”
Skateboarding has long been a young person’s game and they do not come much younger than 10-year-old Cocona Hiraki, who will break Eaton’s record as the youngest competitor in X Games history in Minneapolis next week.
Whether she qualifies or not, Hiraki hopes the Olympics can help to further inspire a burgeoning skateboarding community in Japan.
“If we try to introduce the (skateboarding) style so that everyone can join in and enjoy, then we can inspire people who do not know anything about skateboarding,” she said.
The IOC is hoping Hiraki is right and that a whole new audience embraces skateboarding, and in turn the Olympics, come Tokyo 2020.
“It is the biggest sporting event in the world and there will be millions of people watching this,” said Nishimura.
“It is going to be a good opportunity for skateboarding to be seen across the world.”
That exposure will undoubtedly also help continue the transformation of skateboarding from an urban recreation to a truly international professional sport.
“I think a lot of people thought of skateboarding as a hobby, as opposed to a career and parents seeing their kids making a good living out of it,” said Huston.
“My dad, he was a skateboarder, but his parents weren’t supportive of it (but) I think it has now got to the point where people take it more seriously and I am stoked to be out there and be a part of it.”
Reporting by Jack Tarrant