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Culture

Skating Championship Shows Commercial Side of Sport

Twenty thousand skateboarding afficionados gathered last weekend for the Skateboarding World Championships in Dortmund. But for many, it seemed more like a merchandise opportunity than the pinnacle of skating.

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140 skaters from 40 countries competed in Dortmund last week-end.

Darren Kaehne has been skating for ten years.

During his first years on wheels, he eagerly saved up to buy new boards and costly equipment until he found a corporate sponsor. This weekend, the 26-year-old Australian reaped the benefits of hard training, injuries and bruises when he lined up for the 21st Dortmund Skateboard World Championships.

"It is this moment that we all strive for," he says. "You speed up and all of a sudden the impossible might happen and you can manage tricks, which seemed absolutely unattainable before."

"Street" versus "Vert"

Skating on the grounds of Dortmund's Westphalenhalle arena and performing tricks at the World Championships is the dream of almost every teenage skatephile who showed up to see the skateboarding world's creme de la creme in Dortmund. 140 skateboarding professionals from 40 countries competed in the "Vert," short for vertical, and "Street" skating competitions.

For many years, "Vert" was the leading discipline. Gliding up and down the walls of half-pipes, which can be up to five meters (16.4 feet) tall on each side, appeared to be the most challenging of all skateboard disciplines. However, since the mid-1990s "Street" has become much more popular. Street skaters practice in public places -- like staircases, handrails and tubs serve as obstacles, which skaters jump onto or slide along with their edges. Few skaters compete in both disciplines.

"Street is much more practical, you skate wherever you want. To do Vert, one first needs to find a decent halfpipe, which can be rather expensive", says Kaehne.

Fashionable sport rather than means of protest

Since the mid-1970s, public recognition of skateboarding has increased dramatically. The earlier public image of skateboarding as a form of protest has been replaced with the softer image evoked by events like the World Championships. The number of confrontational incidents between skaters and the authorities has decreased significantly. And cities from Rotterdam to Münster have built skate parks in their city centers.

But for most, skating is more a fashion than lifestyle -- except for the most hardcore, like Canadian skater Gailea Momolu, who sees it as a "particular way of thinking and living, which is different from most peoples' reality."

Individualism replaced by conformity

At the Dortmund event, little remained to be seen of the individualist spirit that once dominated the skateboarding scene. Instead, the crowds resembled a homogenous crowd of young consumers, who respect the unwritten dress code and spend their parents money on pricey equipment from well-known brands.

Branding-feast

In many ways, the Dortmund World Championships more resembled a trade fair for skate products than an actual sporting event. Equipment makers weren't the only companies trying to lure young skating fans.

The entertainment industry and media brands want to benefit from the current skating boom. Sony, a major sponsor of the event, tried to market its PlayStation video game system, and VIVA, Europe's second largest music video channel, was also an event sponsor. Skateboarding, it seems, has become a matter of selling an image to younger people, and that could mean a boom for the industry.