For the first time since 1896, when the first international Olympic Games were held, skateboarding and surfing are officially part of the Olympics. A new sport or contest is always noteworthy at the Games — there are six in total at Tokyo 2020 — but given that both surfing and skateboarding lie very much at the center of streetwear and sneaker culture, their inclusion is especially important to Highsnobiety’s community.
Both are deeply rooted in anti-establishment subcultures, which is ironic considering the Olympics are about as establishment as major events come. Mainstream coverage of both sports’ inclusion in Tokyo has been characterized by interest and intrigue. How does the scoring work? Who are the main athletes to keep an eye on? Publications have been quick to share guides on how to consume the contests, mainly targeted at the casual consumer.
Equally ironic is that both sports’ inclusion has been met by what can only be described as indifference by many of those who actually surf and skate themselves.
“Skateboarding is such a personal thing,” explains Michael Cukr, the skater, filmmaker, and photographer who has worked with brands ranging from Vans and adidas to Louis Vuitton and whose work has appeared in a myriad of publications. “You either want to do it or you don’t. You’re drawn to it, or you aren’t.”
Cukr, who also surfs, notes that everyone’s relationship to both sports is highly personal. “Every skater has their reasons why they fell in love with skateboarding. Everyone has their own version of it,” he says. “Some people love video, some people love contests. It’s whatever you make of it.”
To Cukr, skating and surfing at the Olympics are just an additional aspect of the world of skate and surf that already exists. Noah founder and lifelong skater and surfer Brendon Babenzien echos those thoughts. “Skating is a funny thing, because it’s always with you,” he says. “Actually going and skating comes in and out of your life, but you’re always in the mindset. You’ll be driving down the road and be like ‘Oh, look at that, you can skate that.’ It never leaves.”
Even so, Babenzien says that while both sports have defined large parts of his life, they’re not his identity. “I don’t have loads of surf memorabilia in my house, and I don’t physically build this surfer lifestyle. I don’t particularly even really care for it, necessarily,” he explains. “I barely hang out with surfers. I mostly surf alone.”
One criticism of surfing and skating being included in the Olympics is that it represents commercialization and globalization of sports that, at their core, as both Cukr and Babenzien have noted, are incredibly personal. “The idea of [surf and skateboarding] selling out by being in the Olympics, I mean, give me a break,” Babenzien laughs. “Skateboarding sold out a long time ago.”
He notes that luxury fashion houses are advertising in Thrasher or that unhealthy energy drinks sponsoring skateboarders is evidence that the sport has already been commercialized to a certain degree and that Olympic participation doesn’t move the needle all that much.
At the same time, though, he admits that his teenage self would not want skateboarding and surfing to be at the Olympics. “You can make a very strong argument that no athlete should participate in the Olympics until they clean up their act, right? It’s a crooked organization. It’s got its own problems politically, and ethically, and everything else,” he says. “But I find it really difficult to judge people who want to participate, because it is the biggest global event for sports, [and just want to] be able to say, ‘I competed with the best in the world and came out on top.’”
Both Cukr and Babenzien are adamant that the Olympics can live alongside OG skateboarding or surfing without one impacting the other. Olympic skateboarding and surfing — or rather any competitive version of the sports — doesn’t define the sport in the same way that football or basketball’s top-tier competitions do. When you’re playing a casual pick-up game of either sport, you’re still ultimately playing to win, to a certain degree. That’s not the case when you’re skating or surfing for yourself.
“I don’t think the Olympics take away from skateboarding, its history, or its reputation,” says Cukr. “I forget who said it, but somebody had a really sick quote back in the day: ‘Fuck skateboarding unless you’re doing it.’ Which rings true. The single most important thing about skateboarding is doing it. Nothing can take away from that.”
“You want to join a contest? Go ahead,” adds Babenzien. “Maybe I’ll watch, maybe I won’t.”
That pretty much sums up skateboarding and surfing’s view of the Olympics. Respect for the athletes and the sport, but unwilling to let one specific aspect of an entire culture and world define the rest.