Skateboarding: Tracing the sport’s journey from streets to the Olympics

After grabbing eyeballs in Tokyo 2020, skateboarding will feature at the next two Olympics, Paris 2024 and LA 2028.

By Aarish Ansari
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics put the spotlight firmly on the action-packed, gravity-defying, extreme sport of skateboarding.

Athletes as young as 13 years of age were seen flying through thin air with their boards, performing mind-boggling tricks and displaying impeccable balance while sliding down rails.

With all these elements combined, skateboarding now has the attention of the entire world.

But for a sport that was only making its debut at the Olympics, how did skateboarding manage to grab the headlines like no other.

Let’s trace the history and the features of the sport to know how it has exploded into a global phenomenon.

What is skateboarding?

Skateboarding, now an Olympic sport, is also a recreational activity, of riding and performing tricks on a skateboard.

Riders stand on a flat board, commonly made of wood, with four rollers attached beneath to either showcase skills or commute.

The skateboard has three major parts – the deck, trucks and wheels.

The deck is the actual board on which riders stand, wheels are what help in moving around and trucks connect the wheels to the deck.

A skateboard is primarily made of a flat board, trucks and wheels.
Picture by 2004 Getty Images

Who invented skateboarding?

Although the first variations of skateboards appeared in the early 20th century, American Larry Stevenson helped pioneer the modern-day skateboard, which helped perform tricks.

A former beach lifeguard in California, Larry Stevenson founded his skateboard manufacturing company Makaha in 1963 and changed the rudimentary design of skateboards, which was nothing but planks with roller skate wheels attached to them.

Larry revolutionised skateboarding through his new, improved, high-quality boards which featured a short surfboard like design. He later added a kicktail – upward curve – at the end of the board to help in tricks.

Today’s skateboards feature the kicktail on the back as well as the front end of the board.

History of skateboarding

Skateboarding originated in California in the 1950s when surfers attached roller skates to a piece of plywood to have fun when the waves were not conducive enough to surf.

With Larry Stevenson modifying the design in the early 60s, the number of skateboarders grew exponentially.

This was also the time brands started sponsoring skateboarders. Patti McGee soon emerged as one of the first professionals to be paid to do exhibition shows.

The popularity of the sport, however, plummeted towards the end of that decade but picked up again in the early 70s.

New competitions were being organised and there were innovations in design and materials. All this helped skateboarders improve their riding skills and in 1976, the most fundamental trick in the sport, called ollie – a jump that allows skateboarders to hop over objects – was invented by Alan Gelfand.

The next decade saw the segregation of skateboarding into two disciplines – vert ramps or half pipe and street skating. This is also when hundreds of new skateparks crop up in the USA.

Skateboarding legend Rodney Mullen invented a number of tricks, and the domination of the street discipline began in the early 1990s.

Tony Hawk, one of the most famous skateboarders of all time, came to the fore with his daredevil tricks that inspired millions of others to pick up the board.

Tony Hawk landed the world’s first 900 trick (two and a half revolutions) at the X Games in 1999.
Picture by 2004 Getty Images

By the time the new millennium rang in, skateboarding had become a sensation across the USA, with more and more young kids taking up the sport.

The sport also started gaining global recognition from authorities and competitions like X Games and Street League Skateboarding were being held on a grand scale.

Today, skateboarding has become a huge part of the culture and fashion among youth across the world, with numerous brands catering specifically to the sport.

Skateboarding tricks

There are hundreds of tricks in skateboarding, with the most basic trick called the ollie.

Ollie involves slamming the end of the board while simultaneously sliding the other foot forward to jump with the board. Dozens of other high-skilled tricks start with the ollie.

A skateboarder performs an ollie.
Picture by 2020 Getty Images

Another popular trick in skateboarding is the kickflip, which is executed by flipping the board beneath them after performing an ollie.

There are many other variations of flip tricks such as heel flip, varial flip and fakie flip.

Then there is the grind, which is performed by sliding the trucks on top of objects such as rails, stairs and pipes.

Moreover, the tricks differ according to the environment they are performed in, such as a pool, ramp, air, vert (steep ramp) and street.

There is no limit on the tricks that can be done in skateboarding as athletes keep pushing the levels of creativity.

Skateboarding in Olympics

Skateboarding was one of the five sports to debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. It featured two disciplines, street and park and had separate competitions for men and women.

Park skateboarding involves riding in a bowl and gaining speed to do big moves in the air while street features riding over obstacles, rails, stairs and slopes.

Japanese skaters dominated at Tokyo 2020, winning three of the four gold medals.

Momiji Nishiya, 13, was the youngest winner as she grabbed the top spot in the women’s street event.

Keegan Palmer (men’s park), Sakura Yosozumi (women’s park) and Yuto Horigome (men’s street) were the other gold medallists.

Momoji Nishiya won the gold medal in the women’s street event at Tokyo Olympics.
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

The massive global appeal of skateboarding has led to its inclusion in the next two Olympics, Paris 2024 and LA 2028.

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