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Skateboarders skeptical about 2020 Olympic debut

Peter Wozny
September 17, 2019

Skateboarding is set to make its Olympic debut at the 2020 Games in Tokyo. However, many involved in the sport, including legends Tony Hawk and Titus Dittmann, are skeptical about the development.

Deutschland Skatepark Eller in Düsseldorf | Lennard Janssen
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Young

German skateboarding pioneer Titus Dittmann is more than a little concerned about how his sport could change after it hits the Olympic stage in Japan next summer.

"The Olympics will transform a youth culture into a competitive sport," Dittmann told DW. The entrepreneur from Münster is the man who popularized skateboarding in German more than four decades ago. The former teacher believes that, above all, skateboarding has an educational value.

"The kids set themselves goals, such as creating a certain trick. And they only do this for themselves, not for dad, mom or the coach," he said. "And when they master the trick, they experience an incredible euphoria, which has a positive effect on their self-esteem."

Now he fears "it's suddenly going to be all about being better than the other guy."

For more than 20 years Dittmann organized the world's biggest skateboarding event, the Monster Mastership.

"They were more like jamborees with people skateboarding against one another," he said. "And we adjusted the competition each year to reflect the development of skateboarding."

Titus Dittmann
Titus Dittmann brought skateboarding to Germany more than four decades agoImage: picture-alliance/dpa/I. Fassbender

Dittmann doesn't believe the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will be nearly as flexible. "Once the rules are set by the IOC, the development of skateboarding is over," he said.

Tony Hawk: 'We won't be hearing the Dead Kennedys'

While American skateboarding legend Tony Hawk also sees skateboarding and the Olympics as two completely different worlds set to collide, he sounds a little less pessimistic than Dittmann.

"I also believe that skateboarding has leverage in keeping the format authentic and the culture represented properly, he wrote in an essay published on the ski and snowboarding blog Unofficial Networks last year.

"Will we hear the Dead Kennedys blasting from the sound system or will competitors be trying tricks after their times is up just to hype the crowd (or for their own glory)? Probably not…"

But this relaxed skateboarding atmosphere is precisely what the IOC is looking to inject into the Summer Games in an effort to win back a younger audience. According to the Wall Street Journal, among 18-34-year-olds the television audience for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio dropped by 30 percent compared to the London Olympics four years earlier.

Skateboarding parents cooler than their kids

However, many skateboarders oppose the idea of their activity becoming an Olympic sport. For them, skateboarding is all about freedom; everybody gets to do what he or she wants, unencumbered by rules.

This was also the feeling at the recent German Championships in Düsseldorf, where the competitors ranged in age from nine to 47. Some of the skateboarding kids of the 80s and 90s are the parents of a new skateboarding generation – making the event in western Germany very much a family affair.

Some of the fathers – in their baggy jeans and T-shirts, with their grey hair tucked up under their baseball caps – even looked cooler than their children. Among them were Alfonso Janssen and Oliver Stophasius who have now taken on supporting roles for their offspring. Lenny Janssen,18, and 12-year-old Lilly Stophasius are among the candidates for a place in Germany's first Olympic skateboarding team.

Skateboard Commission: "We weren't prepared"

However, preparing for the Games has been and continues to be a major challenge, because when the IOC decided in 2016 to add skateboarding to the list of sports for Tokyo, an informal, unorganized activity suddenly had to organize itself from scratch.

In Germany the federation that organizes roller and inline sports (DRIV) formed a skateboard commission to set up the structures required for the sport to be eligible for financial support from the government.

"We were not prepared," the chairman of that commission, Hans-Jürgen Kuhn told DW. "Our sport is a mixture of sports culture, lifestyle and performance on the skateboard. But it was never the traditional competitive system that everyone else would expect and be familiar with."

Clubs were quickly established and a system of doping tests was introduced. Former professional skateboarder Jürgen Horrwarth was appointed as coach of the national team, although he doesn't actually do all that much coaching.

"I spend most of my working day at my desk," the 42-year-old told DW.

Horrwarth organizes training camps and accompanies his skateboarders at competitions around the globe.

"I'm more of an advisor and friend than a coach," he said.'

Tony Hawk Skateboard
Tony Hawk is skeptical about skateboarding going Olympic, but he also sees an upsideImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Lopes

Sporting success is unlikely

Horrwarth can't really say whether he has actually picked the very best German skaters for his squad. Of the hundreds of thousands of skateboarders in Germany, only around 3,000 are club members, and only they are eligible to participate in Olympic qualifiers.

This is one reason that it is unlikely that the Germans will be bringing home any medals from Tokyo next summer. The Americans are light-years ahead of them, having long had their structures in place for the Olympics. This is in part thanks to Hawk, who, at the age of 51, still enjoys hero status in the sport and often features on US television talk shows.

'An opportunity earlier generations didn't get'

Despite his concerns, Hawk also sees a positive side to skateboarding becoming an Olympic sport.

"I think it's going to be great to see the new generation of skaters be recognized on that level and to have that sort of opportunity that generations past never got," Hawk said in an interview with Business Insider Deutschland last month.

For his part, Dittmann just hopes that the effect on the sport will be limited and "that the power of youth culture, which gives so much to the kids, will be preserved."

In terms of skateboarding's impact on the Olympics; perhaps the sport might just help make the rigid Games a little more laid back.