When the three athletes on an Olympic podium have a combined age of 42, you know – in the words of English rock band The Who – that the kids are alright.
That was the case as women’s street skateboarding made its bow at the Olympics, with 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya of Japan taking gold ahead of Brazil’s Rayssa Leal – also 13 – and 16-year-old Funa Nakayama, also from Japan.
If organizers wanted to engage a younger audience by adding skateboarding to the Olympic program, then it was mission accomplished at Tokyo’s Ariake Urban Sports Park.
Nishiya, who becomes one of the youngest ever Olympic champions, moved into the gold medal position with her fifth and last trick in Monday’s final. Her score of 15.26 saw her leapfrog Leal (14.64) and Nakayama (14.49).
“I’m simply very, very delighted. I am so happy,” Nishiya told reporters, adding that she felt her success had “nothing to do with her age.”
Japan strikes double skateboarding gold
While fans being kept away from nearly all Olympic venues has led to a surreal, eerie atmosphere at some events, this street skateboarding final hummed with energy – be it the music that was pumped from speakers, or the lively announcer who encouraged and cajoled the skaters from the sidelines.
The 20 competitors brought an energy of their own, too, fist-bumping and elbow-tapping each other in between rounds.
Combine that with the constant buzz of the cicadas that could be heard from a nearby cluster of trees and the absence of fans was almost forgotten.
The heats – which, like the final, saw riders scored on two 45-second runs and five individual tricks – were topped by the three skaters who would eventually stand on the podium, although it was Nakayama who initially led the way with a score of 15.77.
As the eight best riders advanced to the final, the stands began to fill up with the competitors’ teammates and a growing number of media members. On several occasions, the announcer had to remind spectators to wear masks.
With the final heating up, USA’s Alexis Sablone and Netherlands’ Roos Zwetsloot both had chances to move into the medal positions, but neither could stick their last two tricks.
Nishiya, Leal and Nakayama all had an opportunity to take gold with their final tricks, but Nishiya – Japan’s second Olympic champion in skateboarding after Yuto Horigome’s victory in the men’s street competition on Monday – was the only rider to land one.
‘Wild to see’
For 34-year-old Sablone – more than twice as old as each of the medal winners – skateboarding’s Olympic curtain-raiser was a clear sign of how the sport has grown among young women.
“It’s wild to see,” she told reporters ahead of the final. “Honestly, by 2024 (the Paris Olympics), I really won’t believe what I’m seeing there. I look forward to watching from the sidelines somewhere.”
For Leal, her skateboarding career came full circle in Tokyo when she met with legendary skater Tony Hawk ahead of Monday’s event. Landing a silver medal capped off her whirlwind Olympic experience.
“I’m very happy to make this dream come true,” she told reporters. “It’s a dream for my parents and it’s a dream for me to be here at the Olympics. It’s fantastic to represent Brazil and get this medal … I had great fun.”
Skateboarding – and a lesson in failure
Hawk, meanwhile, has seen skateboarding grow from a small community in southern California to a global stage like the Olympics during his lifetime – although he maintains that the Olympics needs skateboarding’s “cool factor” more than skateboarding needs the Olympics.
Over the years, skateboarding’s influence has been felt across many cultural spheres, including music, art, and fashion; some would argue that it is too wide-reaching to be identified purely as a sport.
“I think the Olympics is definitely putting it in a sporting category because obviously that’s what the Olympics is, and that’s absolutely fine. There’s always been competitions that have existed in skateboarding,” British skateboarder Helena Long, consultant curator of the “No Comply” skateboarding exhibition at London’s Somerset House, told CNN Sport ahead of the Games.
“The only thing is, it’s in that format where it’s being judged and everyone has their own opinion on what they like to see in skateboarding, whether it’s someone wearing baggy trousers or someone wearing skinny jeans, or they like to see that trick or this trick.”
While noting that the Olympics has helped to get people “looking into skateboarding a bit more,” Long added that the very nature of competitive sport is often a contradiction of what skateboarding is about.
“Putting it into a sports category, something competitive, it’s either a win or lose scenario; if you fail, you fail – it’s not something you aspire to do. You win, that’s what you want to do, that’s the endgame,” she said.
“Whereas with skateboarding, you fail all the time … You can hurt yourself; you can get cuts and you can get bruises. It’s pretty painful. You fail, I’d say, 80 percent of the time.”
The men’s and women’s park skateboarding events take place next week, on August 4 and 5.