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Unruly, Unwelcome, Underground: Why Skateboarding Is Exactly What The Olympics Needs

The counterculture’s favorite sport is set to shake up the Tokyo Games in 2020

Brazilian pro skateboarder Luan Olivera performs a switch 360 flip at the Maloof Cup, a skateboarding competition in South Africa. Image courtesy the author

Earlier this month, skateboarding was added to the list of new sports for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for the first time. Now, 6 million skateboarders in the United States—plus millions abroad—will have a global platform to promote skateboarding as a cross-cultural community that possesses a set of shared values.


Though skateboarding culture has often been thought of as the home of unruly, unlawful, anti-establishment youth, the sport may actually communicate the Olympic ideal to millions of millennials who haven’t been tuning into the Olympic Games.

As someone with 20 years of experience in the skateboarding industry—and as the teacher of a course on skateboarding culture at the University of Southern California—I’ve seen how the sport can promote diversity, identity, youth empowerment and global citizenship.

Skateboarders are a motley crew—just what the Olympic Games needs.

In the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) own words, “The mission of the IOC is to not only ensure the celebration of the Olympic Games, but to also encourage the regular practice of sport by all people in society, regardless of sex, age, social background or economic status.”

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]The emptied swimming pool became the first unofficial skate park, a concrete canvas to hone one’s skills and experiment with daring new tricks.[/quote]

Since its earliest days, skateboarding has advanced these ideals in myriad ways, and a range of ethnicities and experiences make up the DNA of skateboarding culture. In the 1970s, a group of surfers dedicated to the Zeypher surf-shop in Santa Monica, California—who came to be known as the Z-boys family—developed an aggressive style that was necessary to surf the dilapidated, defunct Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica.

In between waves, the group would explore and experiment with their skateboards. Soon, the motley crew completely transformed skateboarding from a toy plank with wheels to a vehicle of athletic and artistic expression.

During the drought-plagued summers of 1970s California, many swimming pools—a symbol of both commercial success and excess—were drained to save water. Where some might see blight and abandonment, the Z-boys and their peers saw opportunity: The emptied swimming pool became the first unofficial skate park, a concrete canvas to hone one’s skills and experiment with daring new tricks.

Emptied, abandoned pools became the domain of skaters: Where some might see blight and abandonment, the Z-boys and their peers saw opportunity. Image via Flickr user mallix (cc)

The Z-boys crew also represented the changing ethnic makeup of young Americans. Early pioneers included Tony Alva, a skater and surfer of Mexican and Dutch descent, and Japanese-American female skater Peggy Oki. (Both have been inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame.)

During the 1980s, legendary Z-boys skater Stacy Peralta promoted the careers of skateboarding luminaries Steve Caballero, who was Japanese and Mexican-American, Tommy Guererro (Filipino-Chilean and Portuguese-American), Salman Agah (of Azerbaijani and Iranian descent) and African-American Ray Barbee. According to Transworld Skateboarding Magazine, all are among the most influential skaters of all time.

Meanwhile, Peralta’s most well-known prodigy, Tony Hawk, continues this model of inclusion in his wildly popular video game franchise Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, which has reached over $1 billion in sales. The game has featured female star Elissa Steamer and African-American pro skater and owner of Axion sneakers Kareem Campbell as playable characters.

Anyone with desire and talent can afford a skateboard.

Importantly, skateboarding remains affordable and accessible. A skateboard generally costs between $65 and $125, and within the community there’s an ethos of conserving equipment. For example, the skateboarding company Element’s “No Board Left Behind” project is a green initiative that repurposes used skateboards for kids in need.

There’s a similar commitment to repurposing urban spaces. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, Praca das Aguas was a public park that was rarely used. But in 2010, local skater Tulio de la Oliviera took the initiative to build the first skateable structures in the park.

Over time, the entire Sao Paulo skate community contributed cement for ramps and ledges without the help of the government or a nongovernmental organization (NGO). Today, Pracas das Aquas remains a free public space for everyone. It’s also fertile ground for training the next generation of Brazilian skateboarding Olympians.

Contrast this with traditional sports, like swimming and tennis, which require expensive equipment, lessons and training facilities. Skateboarding also doesn’t require a formal coach, falling perfectly within the IOC’s desire to be inclusive, regardless of class or economic status.

Skateboarding bridges cultures.

Today, there are a number of skateboarding NGOs that seek to use skateboarding as a way to empower youth or promote gender equity.

The NGO Skatistan has brought skateboarding to war-torn Afghanistan, where the sport is used as a vehicle to educate and empower male and female youth. Meanwhile, pro skater Amelia Brodka’s annual skateboarding event “Exposure” seeks to bring together females skaters from around the world.

In my own research, I’ve documented thriving skateboarding communities in Brazil, Cuba, Switzerland and South Africa. Some of this work was on display during the John F. Kennedy Center’s celebration of skateboarding culture, “Finding A Line,” in May of 2015.

Most recently, via the U.S. State Department’s SportsUnited program, I became the first skateboarding U.S. Sports Envoy to the Netherlands. There I worked with Syrian refugee youths who had been granted asylum in the Netherlands and the Dutch and foreign children of the International School. Using skateboarding, we created shared experience between the two communities.

Here’s why it took so long.

Skateboarding’s unique culture isn’t based solely on competition. It’s also about the individual skater’s identity and his or her contributions to the skateboarding community.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]There’s real anxiety over the idea that, by joining the Olympics, a subculture that has long been a conduit for self-expression could be going mainstream.[/quote]

Similar to jazz, skateboarders may play within an “ensemble” (i.e., their local crew). But they’re judged on the spirit and style in which they’ve inspired others to express themselves and become better skaters. In this, skateboarding represents the idealized dream of sport: to create a global community with a shared identity.

But skateboarding’s Olympic arrival has been slow, and there are two main reasons: initial apathy among the skateboarding community and the IOC requirement that the sport establishes formal governance. There’s a contingent of skateboarders that doesn’t believe the sport should ever enter the Olympics: Over 5,000 skateboarders signed an online petition denouncing the move.

Because skateboarders see their sport as an opportunity for individual expression, they believe governing bodies and rigid guidelines betray the ethos of the culture. As the petition states, “Olympic recognition will not do justice to the purity, individuality and uniqueness of skateboarding culture … [and] viewers of the Olympic games will not be interested in skateboarding.”

There’s real anxiety over the idea that, by joining the Olympics, a subculture that has long been a conduit for self-expression could be “going mainstream” and, in the process, lose its authenticity. When snowboarding was first rolled out as an Olympic sport in 1998, it was bungled on a number of fronts. Some snowboarders boycotted. Others became roiled in controversy after testing positive for marijuana. For these reasons, many skateboarders are wary of being brought into the Olympic fold.

For the IOC’s part, the decision could be strategic. Olympic TV viewers have become older and older (the median age for London 2012 was 48; for Sochi 2014 it was 55), and the decision to include skateboarding was probably influenced by a desire to attract younger demographics.

When announcing the new sports for Tokyo 2020, which also include softball and karate, IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement, “We want to take sport to the youth. With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.”

He added that skateboarding and the other sports are “an innovative combination of established and emerging, youth-focused events that … will add to the legacy of the Tokyo Games.”

Anxieties aside, as someone who has seen what skateboarding can mean to the children of Cuba, Brazil, South Africa, Switzerland, Spain and the Netherlands, I believe skateboarding can exist within the Olympic structure. The key, of course, is that any sort of governing bodies or guidelines doesn’t homogenize the community or the sport, and that revenue-sharing from the Olympics is directed back into skateboarding communities, so this healthy, supportive culture can thrive.

If all goes well, skateboarding culture will continue to flourish under the Olympics banner, helping the Olympic Games become more diverse, inclusive and accessible.

Sports

The healthcare systems in the United States and the United Kingdom couldn't be more different.

The UK's National Health Service is the largest government-run healthcare system in the world and the US's is largest private sector system.

Almost all essential health services in the UK are free, whereas in America cost can vary wildly based on insurance, co pays and what the hospitals and physicians choose to charge.

A medical bill in the US

One of the largest differences is cost. The average person in the UK spends £2,989 ($3915) per year on healthcare (most of which is collected through taxes), whereas the average American spends around $10,739 a year.

So Americans should obviously be getting better care, right? Well, the average life expectancy in the UK is higher and infant mortality rate is lower than that in the US.

RELATED: The World Health Organization declares war on the out of control price of insulin

Plus, in the U.S., only 84% of people are covered by private insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Sixteen percent of the population are forced to pay out of pocket.

In the UK, everyone is covered unless they are visiting the country or an undocumented resident.

Prescription drugs can cost Americans an arm and a leg, but in the UK, prescriptions or either free or capped at £8.60 ($11.27).

via Wikimedia Commons

The one drawback to the NHS system is responsiveness. In the UK people tend to wait longer for inessential surgeries, doctor's appointments, and in emergency rooms. Whereas, the US is ranked as the most responsive country in the world.

RELATED: Alarmingly high insulin prices are forcing Americans to flock to Canada to buy the drug

The New York Times printed a fair evaluation of the UK's system:

The service is known for its simplicity: It is free at the point of use to anyone who needs it. Paperwork is minimal, and most patients never see a bill. … No one needs to delay medical treatment until he or she can afford it, and virtually everyone is covered. …

According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States spent 17.2 percent of its economic output on health care in 2016, compared with 9.7 percent in Britain. Yet Britain has a higher life expectancy at birth and lower infant mortality.

Citizens in each country have an interesting perspective on each other's healthcare systems. UK citizens think it's inhumane for Americans have to pay through the nose when they're sick or injured. While Americans are skeptical of socialist medicine.

A reporter from Politics Joe hit the streets of London and asked everyday people what they think Americans pay for healthcare and they were completely shocked.

Health

Bans on plastic bags and straws can only go so far. Using disposable products, like grabbing a plastic fork when you're on the go, can be incredibly convenient. But these items also contribute to our growing plastic problem.

Fortunately, you can cut down on the amount of waste you produce by cutting down on disposable products. And even more fortunately, there are sustainable (and cute) replacements that won't damage the environment.

Coconut bowls


Cocostation

Who says sustainable can't also be stylish? These cute coconut bowls were handmade using reclaimed coconuts, making each piece one of a kind. Not only are they organic and biodegradable, but they're also durable, in case your dinner parties tend to get out of hand. The matching ebony wood spoons were polished with the same coconut oil as the bowls.

Cocostation Set of 2 Vietnamese Coconut Bowls and Spoons, $14.99; at Amazon

Solar powered phone charger

Dizaul

Why spend time looking around for an outlet when you can just harness the power of the sun? This solar powered phone charger will make sure your phone never dies as long as you can bask in the sun's rays. As an added bonus, this charger was made using eco-friendly silicone rubber. It's win-win all around.

Dizaul Solar Charger, 5000mAh Portable Solar Power Bank, $19.95; at Amazon, $19.95; at Amazon

Herb garden kit

Planter Pro

Put some green in your life with this herb planter. The kit comes with everything you need to get a garden growing, including a moisture meter that helps you determine if your herbs are getting the right amount of food to flourish. All the seeds included are certified to be non-GMO and non-hybrids, meaning you can have fresh, organic herbs right at your fingertips.

Planter Pro's Herb Garden Cedar Planter, $39.00; at Amazonedar Planter, $39.00; at Amazon

Reusable Keurig cups

K & J

Keurig cups are convenient, but they also create a ton of plastic waste. These Keurig-compatible plastic cups are an easy way to cut down on the amount of trash you create without cutting down on your caffeine. Additionally, you won't have to keep on buying K Cups, which means you'll be saving money and the environment.

K&J Reusable Filter Cups, $8.95 for a set of 4,; at Amazon

Low-flow shower head

Speakman

Low-flow water fixtures can cut down your water consumption, which saves you money while also saving one of the Earth's resources. This shower head was designed with a lighter flow in mind, which means you'll be able to cut down on water usage without feeling like you're cutting down on your shower.

Speakman Low Flow Shower Head, $14.58; at Amazon

Bamboo safety razor

Zomchi

Instead of throwing away a disposable razor every time you shave, invest in an eco-friendly, reusable one. This unisex shaver isn't just sustainable, it's also sharp-looking, which means it would make a great gift for the holidays.

Zomchi Safety Razor, $16.99; at Amazon

The Planet
Instagram / Leonardo DiCaprio

This August, the world watched as the Amazon burned. There were 30,901 individual fires that lapped at the largest rainforest in the world. While fires can occur in the dry season due to natural factors, like lightning strikes, it is believed that the widespread fires were started by loggers and farmers to clear land. Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, cites a different cause: the actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

DiCaprio wasn't accused of hanging out in the rainforest with a box of matches, however President Bolsonaro did accuse the actor of funding nonprofit organizations that allegedly set fires to raise donations.

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The Planet