By Kim Andrè Hansen
It started in 1998 when snowboarding made its debut in the Nagano Olympics, and was finished in 2016 with the announcement that skateboarding and surfing were to be featured in the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Each inclusion has sparked both excitement and controversy, but it’s all fun and games, right?
Citius, Altius, Fortius – faster, higher, stronger. It is the motto of the Olympics. Since its reincarnation in Greece in 1896, the modern Olympics has become the self-proclaimed stronghold of peaceful competition among nations. It features a plethora of sporting events we have all come to know and love, but with the inclusion of these new sports we might wonder to what extent this is changing.
Snowboarding, surfing and skateboarding are all siblings of sort, with surfing being the oldest and the two others being “bastard sports” for those who want to slash the streets or shred on the mountains. At the heart of each activity we find values of inclusiveness and non-competition, and perhaps it is no wonder that their inclusion in the Games sparked a flurry of heated debate.
During the 1990s the International Snowboarding Federation (ISF) hosted most of the global snowboard events. One might think it would be natural that the International Olympics Committee (IOC) would choose them as governing body when including snowboarding in the Olympic games, but instead they chose Fédération Internationale de Ski (FIS) – which, if snowboarding ever had a common enemy, they were the embodiment. As a result, three-time world champion snowboarder Terje Haakonsen boycotted the Olympics, with many others following in his footsteps. A few years later, due to loss of sponsors and fundings to FIS, the ISF ceased to exist.
Fast forward to 2016, with the announcement of skateboarding in the upcoming summer Olympics, the controversy is once more evident. Who will govern skateboarding in the Olympics? After all, it was not skaters who pledged to have skateboarding in the Olympics, but the IOC in an attempt to reach out to younger audiences. The fear among skaters is that it will be the Fédération Internationale Roller Sports (FIRS) – aka. the roller skating federation – that will govern the sport. Luckily, some proponents of skateboarding anticipated the inclusion of skateboarding in the Olympics, and thus created the International Skateboarding Federation (also ISF). Currently a mix of FIRS and ISF members make up the Tokyo 2020 Skateboarding Commission – but to what extent this will hold for future Games remains to be seen.
Now is a good time to ask why all of this matters. On an ideological level, we might question to what extent the core values in these board sports are compatible with the ethos of the Olympics.
Many boarders would be hard pressed to call themselves sportsmen and -women, let alone athletes, and the activities are characterised by fun and challenging oneself rather than challenging one another. On top of this there are conflicts of interest on a more systemic level. Skateboarding was once a crime in Norway, but now seeks to find its place in the country’s highest sporting confederation.
Talk about plot twist.
On one hand we may see the board sports as victims of a powerful, international organization, but if we flip the coin then it becomes evident that the IOC is simply trying to stay relevant. Sporting traditions are changing on a global level, and,
if anything, these board sports are expressions of these transitions. They are said to be hedonistic and individualistic activities, sought only to fulfill one’s own desires and wishes. There are no teams and
no rules, all of which pose challenges to the Olympic inclusion.
How do you crown a winner when there are no objective goals to be met or measured? One needs a formalized system for judging, which also means that some types of performances will be rewarded higher than others. This is not particularly easy, and in competitive snowboarding the phrase «spin to win» signifies one negative aspect of this.
With triple and quadruple corks being the hallmark of modern competitive snowboarding, some commentators are starting to question if the focus on “quantity over quality” could be detrimental to the creative and fun aspect of the sport as a whole. The IOC needs to implement this carefully if not to alienate their new audiences.
Another challenge facing the IOC, and the boarders themselves, is that of clean athletes. Board sports have little or no tradition of performance enhancing drug use but what they do seem to have is a high tolerance towards recreational drug use.
Looking at the hall of fame in skateboarding, for instance, it is hard to ignore that several of the all-time best skateboarders would never be allowed entrance to the Olympic stadium. Here the olympic inclusion raise two questions: Could the competitive aspect actually lead to performance enhancing doping among boarders? And secondly; will the current definition of doping change to better distinguish between recreational drug use and actual doping? Only time will tell.
Times are changing, some would say, and there is much to indicate that the once lawless and counter-cultural boardsports are in transition to the arena of mainstream sports. What is perhaps more interesting, is to what extent the existing sporting regimes are changing as well.