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Olympic champ Momiji Nishiya, 13, shows in skateboarding, the younger the better

The youngest Olympic podium of 13, 13 and 16 shows skateboarding remains a sport dominated by adolescents

Written by Gaurav Bhatt |
Updated: July 27, 2021 8:39:23 am
Momiji Nishiya, Momiji Nishiya skateboarding, Momiji Nishiya tokyo olympics, Momiji Nishiya gold medalGold medal winner Momiji Nishiya of Japan holds her medal after winning the women's street skateboarding finals at the 2020 Summer Olympics (AP/PTI Photo)

The inaugural women’s street skateboarding event ended with a teen sweep. The gold and silver went to 13-year-olds Momiji Nishiya of Japan and Rayssa Leal of Brazil, while 16-year-old Japanese Funa Nakayuma took bronze — the youngest Olympic podium ever.

Is it because all skateboarders are young? Not really. Alexis Sablone, the American trailblazer who turns 35 in two weeks, finished fourth. The average age of participants overall was 21.75, 19.12 in the eight-woman final and 14 on the podium.

And though the ages skewed higher in men’s street — 25.7 overall, 24.2 in the final, and 23.34 on the podium — the youngest still came out on top. Expect the trend to continue in the park events next week, with several contenders aged 13, 14, 15.

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The Olympic medallists will only get younger. After all, the ‘youngest’ records never stand for long in the topsy-turvy skateboarding world. In a sport whose evolution can be charted through VHS tapes, video games and TikTok, there’s always a new kid on the block.

Hunger to surpass

“There will be five to 10 kids in every single event that will beat out the old dudes in two or three years,” American Jagger Eaton, the bronze medallist in Sunday’s men’s street event, had told Reuters in 2019.

“I can tell you from experience that … in two or three years you are going to see a whole new wave of skate athletes that are going to put so much pressure on the people chilling right now,” Eaton, who was 11 when he made his X-Games debut and remained the youngest competitor for seven years, had said.

Extreme sports superstar Shaun White was 20 at the 2006 Summer X-Games, where he failed 21 times to land the elusive ‘1080’. The three complete revolutions on the board, requiring abundant skill and air time, had never been done before. The year prior, White had failed 29 times.

Fellow Californian kid Tom Schaar was six when he watched his hero fall 50 times from the stands. At 12, he became the first skateboarder to secure the holy grail, landing a 1080 in his fifth attempt.

Last year, a 10-year-old from Brazil smashed both those marks. Gui Khury was awarded two Guinness World Records, for being the Youngest X-Games Athlete and for landing the first 1080 on a vertical ramp — much tougher than Schaar’s feat on a mega ramp built for more speed and altitude.

“Everybody has got to keep your head up and your eyes wide open because these kids right now are hungry,” Eaton had prophesied two years ago.

Hungry to push themselves and surpass their heroes.

Cultural evolution

According to a 2019 study based on the US Consumer Products Safety Commission, the average age of skateboarders is between 13 and 14 and they compete an average 50.8 days in the year. And there’s a lot working in favour of this generation.

In the 1980s and 90s, the ‘sport’ was largely an underground subculture. Those interested began in their mid-teens. And one of the few ways to learn new tricks was putting out and trading VHS tapes, stamped with signature styles.

Then in 1999, the PlayStation game Tony Hawk Pro Skater (THPS) brought about a revolution with its accuracy and roster of real-life skaters, including skating legend Hawk himself. Skating entered the mainstream and living rooms.

“Tony Hawk Pro Skater was an inspiration for several skaters. And I definitely think that it had a big impact on the whole mainstream acceptance that goes all the way to making it to the Olympics,” Swedish filmmaker Ludvig Gür tells The Indian Express. The life-long skater directed the documentary Pretending I’m A Superman, chronicling the impact of the video game series.

“Tony wanted skateboarders to buy a Playstation for the game, obviously it worked the other way around too. It was really appealing, it had real tricks, real relocations, real skaters, real skate brands. It had skaters and non-skaters going crazy.”

A few of them showed up in Tokyo.

Shane O’Neill, the 30-year-old Australian who competed on Sunday, told Mashable: “I would always watch skating on TV and stuff, but when I started playing the (THPS) games, I was starting to learn more about, you know, what a frontside trick was…”

And while 18-year-old Aori Nishimura, who finished eighth on Monday, is too young for the THPS movement, she knows it as the reason her gamer dad spurred her to pick up the board.

The influences and inspirations have never been more accessible. The current generation is the first one to have grown up with dedicated parks and arenas, and have been skating since they were four or five. Every trick imaginable has a tutorial on YouTube and every professional career comes with a backup of being ‘an influencer’. If not medals, a talented skater can work towards earning hits and views.

Start as young as possible

There’s definitely science to skaters tapering off with age. Speaking to The i this week, Olympic skateboarding commentator for BBC Ed Leigh mentioned the skill-acquisition process.

“Action sports are based on skill acquisition,” Leigh said. “The younger you are, the bendier and softer you are when you try and get those skills, the quicker you can recover. You have athletes by 21, 22 talking about recovery time, the fact is they can’t just keep skating.”

Shrugging off the falls and trying to nail a trick for hours at end — the single-minded stubbornness natural to many kids – could also be key. Sky Brown, Britain’s youngest-ever summer Olympian at 13, broke her arm a week before the qualifiers in 2019. She competed in a pink cast and came first.

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“Injuries make me want to go harder,” she told this paper last month. “I spend a lot of hours on my skateboard and surfboard daily. I get up around 5 and then I get in the ocean, head to the skatepark, then back to the ocean. It changes some days as well… I dance, I TikTok. But all I want to do is be on the board and have fun.”

It’s become a sport but remains fun. It’s gone mainstream but remains ‘alternative’ enough to not yet be proliferated by regimented schedules, gruelling academies or parent-managers. Perhaps, the kids are ruling the half-pipes and the ramps simply because it’s cool.

“There’s a huge surge of interest in skating, not just because of the Olympics but just because of the timing, and kids are looking for alternative sports,” Hawk, who made a comeback at 53 at the X-Games earlier this month, said in a Laureus interview. “Nowadays, kids choose to skate as easily as they choose any other team sport. I’m really happy to still be doing it to bear witness to that, because when I was a kid growing up skating was the furthest thing from cool that you could do.”

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