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Surfing And Skateboarding Go For Gold: Why the Olympics Needs Us

Skateboarding, surfing and climbing are almost Olympic sports.

Skateboarding, surfing and climbing are almost Olympic sports. But who will benefit most from their inclusion? The debate is now open on whether the sports we hold so passionately should be showcased on the Olympic platform. Regardless, it looks as though they are heading for the mainstream, whether the skaters or surfers like it or not…

This week the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee named the new sports which they would like to showcase, when the Olympics comes to Japan in five years’ time. Three of those were action sports: surfing, skateboarding and climbing, alongside baseball/softball and karate. But it wasn’t the last two that were hogging the headlines at all the major UK news sites earlier this week, from the Guardian to the BBC and even the Daily Mail. It was surfing, skateboarding and climbing. For these are the sports that capture the public imagination, showing the Games are progressing and looking into the future. The cultures and histories that make these lifestyle sports so desirable to us, our readers and the brands we create for, also make Tokyo’s 2020 selection a complex debate.

To be clear, the sports aren’t officially in the Olympics yet. The IOC has to approve their inclusion when they meet at next summer’s Olympics in Rio, but it’s a massive leap towards a yes. We can see the positives for all parties, but we can also see how the Games would benefit more from the inclusion of surfing and skating in particular, more than perhaps the ‘sports’ would benefit. So, why this shift towards action sports?

Well the Olympics and their sponsors get to target that much-lusted after credible youth demographic. With lessons learnt from the X Games in the USA, snowboarding and freestyle skiing have upped young people’s engagement levels at the last five Winter Olympic Games. Especially at the last Winter Olympics when slopestyle was added to the programme and tapped into the mainstream audiences TV screens. The response and ratings were so positive that the IOC has now added big air as an extra event for the next Winter Games in South Korea. “We believe that adding new events will make the 2018 Winter Games more innovative,” Pyeongchang organising committee leader Cho Yang-ho said.

Factory Media’s publishing director Ed Marriage can see why action sports are on the IOC’s radar. He said: “I’m not at all surprised the IOC are eyeing up skateboarding and surfing for the 2020 Olympics. As well as being accessible, exciting and massively popular with young people all over the world, both sports are the perfect antidote to any perceived old-fashioned stuffiness the Olympics may have. A ‘yes’ to skateboarding and surfing from the IOC next year would keep the Olympic brand fresh and relevant to young people everywhere.”

While Factory Media’s Surf Editor Paul Evans can also see why the Olympics would want to get ‘on board’. He says: “I guess the youth appeal of the sport would be a big plus, and the fact that it draws a whole new audience of folk who might not relate to straining, huffing and puffing athletes. Surfing would bring heroes who represent a whole different slice of youth culture away from traditional team sports and track and field.”

These sports engage and excite audiences more than many of the traditional sports included in the Games and those snubbed for inclusion (squash), the fact that BMX was the third most viewed event at London 2012 and snowboarding got the nation talking just proves this. We can see the benefits for the IOC and their worldwide partners, which include brands such as Coca-Cola, Visa and P & G, who let’s face it are going to clamber to sponsor Olympians from dynamic action sports such as surfing and skateboarding far more than they’ll chase Greco-Roman wrestlers and double trap shooters. But what do surfing and skateboarding get out of the deal?

In a nutshell, more eyes on their sports, and more money into their sports. For skateboarding that would surely mean better local skateparks, more schools offering skate lessons, and perhaps, most excitingly of all, less kids riding scooters!

From a surfing perspective, the potential Olympic inclusion was arguably made possible by recent advances in wave pool technology, namely by the Basque-based Wavegarden team, whose first public wave pool Surf Snowdonia opened this summer.

The wave just hosted its first competition and its potential for landlocked wannabe surfers, as is its training potential for actual surfers is massive. In the UK, the existence of Surf Snowdonia and the next generation of similar pools, which are sure to follow, will surely be a gamechanger. British surfers who for so long could only train when the waves showed up or as long as they could ride out the cold in winter can suddenly train on decent waves on repeat.

And while the World Surf League will continue to be dominated, for now at least, by Aussies, Americans and the odd Brazilian or South African, if surfing gets in the Olympics British surfers could for once compete against the world’s best surfers on a global stage. If they qualified of course, but as each nation would have a quota of entrants, the line up would be far more diverse and open. That would hopefully give UK surfers the chance to earn a decent living from the sport they love, and who could begrudge them that?

For that’s really the crux of it. Most pro surfers and skateboarders, especially UK- based ones and women, the latter being so often underpaid and underrepresented, would bite your hand off for the chance to represent their country at the Olympics. We’ve seen it in snowboarding. The majority of the ones that diss it are either the ones that are so successful that they can live without it or the ones whose whole countercultural shtick and sponsorship depends on them taking that line.

Most snowboarders and especially the UK guys love the Olympics. It’s totally changed their lives and allowed them to make a living from doing their favourite thing. Jenny Jones, our amazing slopestyle bronze medal winner, is a national treasure. Her winning run was watched by 3 million people on the BBC. Jones brought funding and inspiration to a whole new generation of British snowsports athletes. She gets letters from teachers telling them how much she inspired their class in Sochi. What UK surfer or skateboarder wouldn’t want a piece of that!?

Ultimately pro surfers and snowboarders want to be watched. As Stephanie Gilmore told Cooler a few years ago when discussing the prospect of surf contests in wave pools:

“I just think that’s part of progression and perhaps that’s just me being envious of the tennis players and the other sports stars who have set schedules for their events. They just show up and have all these people in the stadium watching them. They want to be watched and lots of people watch the Olympics, far more than tune into the webcast of a World Surf League event or watch the latest skate team’s edit.

Whether it becomes the pinnacle event or not is irrelevant, the numbers will do the job. Of course there will be many who will argue that a corporate, mainstream event such as the Olympics should have nothing to do with their ‘sports’ or cultures. It’s a romantic and of course understandable viewpoint but some would also say that heavily-stickered ship has pretty much sailed, and that these sports haven’t been commercial-free zones for a while now. It’s really only a matter of time.

For skaters and surfers who aren’t into it, the simple answer would be don’t watch it. It won’t affect your experience of surfing or skateboarding. It won’t make you love your favourite sport any less, it won’t make you less stoked the next time you ride a wave or land a trick on your board that’s been bugging you for weeks. Unless you only like skating or surfing because you think they’re hip, in which case who’s the fool now.

The list of extreme sports on offer at the Games is ever growing, with BMX and snowboarding already included and proving that these sort of sports appeal beyond the niche audience following them as a lifestyle and there is positive to be said for it. BMX has been in the Olympics since 2008 and it’s done wonders for the sport. As BMX rider and Factory Media Creative Director Ian Gunner says: “Since BMX racing was introduced into the Olympic programme we’ve encountered huge success through participation, facilities and acceptance right through to funding and support. If skateboarding and surfing gain anywhere near the level of success that BMX racing has had, which I think it will as current participation levels of both are already far greater, then it could be a win for the skateboarders and surfers of this world and also help showcase these amazing spectacle sports to a much wider audience through one of the best sporting events in the world.”

So many of our sports look to be part of Tokyo 2020, proving that things like skateboarding, BMX and surfing are youth engaging, audience pleasing additions. The fact that they will be beneficial to the Olympics, only cements the power they have and hopefully can continue to have worldwide, whether that’s at the Games or at the skatepark. Those of us that love our action sports, be they snowboarding, surfing, skateboarding or BMX get that they can’t stay secret for ever, despite wishing they could. So maybe it’s only fair we share the stoke.

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