Skateboarding to get Olympic air time

The International Olympic Committee is expected next week to rubber-stamp skateboarding’s place at the Tokyo 2020 Games, but it could be setting itself up for a culture clash.

Skateboarding to get Olympic air time

The International Olympic Committee is expected next week to rubber-stamp skateboarding’s place at the Tokyo 2020 Games, but it could be setting itself up for a culture clash. 

Following the green light from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and subject to a formal vote in August, skateboarding, along with surfing, sport-climbing, karate and baseball/softball, is set to be part of the Tokyo 2020 Games. While the prospect of more ‘alternative’ events being given an Olympic platform is exciting for athletes and spectators alike, it’s not without its problems, both cultural and regulatory.

Firstly, the IOC must decide exactly what format the events will take. For baseball and sport climbing this is relatively straightforward – each sport has one format that translates relatively easily on to the world stage. However, skateboarding poses more difficult questions.

Very broadly, the sport is divided into two main camps: the competition circuit – mostly based on the Nike Street League model which independently scores each trick delivered over a set course – and the video/online circuit – which rewards overall performance and that ephemeral thing called ‘style’. When BMX, a sport that can be split into two similar camps, debuted at the 2008 Games, the IOC went with a course-based model. That suggests that a Street League-style competition will be added first, if only because a scoring system already exists, and despite the fact this would exclude some of the greatest skateboarders in the world who only participate in the video circuit.

The big difference between BMX and skateboarding circuits is that the former uses a finish line, which makes deciding who makes it to the podium much easier. Also, both the Street League circuit and its scoring system have been almost entirely developed by big sponsors, raising potential concerns as to the integrity of scores, something that the IOC will undoubtedly need to ensure is addressed.

Once the nature of the circuit has been decided by the IOC, the next issue will be for countries to put forward teams to compete. How they will be chosen has puzzled many skateboarders. Many countries, including major nations like Great Britain, have no national governing body for skateboarding with recognised local status, and although the IOC has recognised the International Skateboarding Federation as governing authority at an international level, competing entities such as the World Skateboarding Federation challenge the legitimacy of this decision. Disputes as to who would govern the sport internationally have encumbered the bid for inclusion in the Games with concerns raised at both international and local levels over who will be nominating athletes for selection – and whether they will be veterans of the sport, promoters, or potentially non-skateboarders.

What does all this mean more broadly? While the Olympics has a strong history of including more extreme sports in its roster, such as BMX and freestyle skiing, there may be a never-before-seen degree of culture clash between skateboarding and the IOC. Skateboarders and the sponsors which have been instrumental in establishing the sport will have to submit to a number of key rules and regulations in order to feature in the Olympics – perhaps most importantly regarding marketing.

In particular, the rules put in place by Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter, and the unique, sponsor-led model of skateboarding may cause some headaches for sponsors and athletes.

Brands have perhaps more power in skateboarding than in any other sport.

Brands have perhaps more power in skateboarding than in any other sport, with sponsors, both big and small, being the ones who essentially define whether skateboarders become ‘pros’. Endorsement agreements are, therefore, vital for the longevity of the sport and the careers of athletes, and those may need to be renegotiated to accommodate Olympic participation, or even put in place – since skateboarding is also a notoriously light-on-paperwork enterprise.

While the Rule 40 marketing ‘blackout’ for non-Olympic sponsors during the Games has been relaxed prior to Rio 2016, with athletes now able to feature in some long-term personal sponsor campaigns during the Games, there are still significant constraints which will be alien to the skateboarding fraternity. Boards and clothing that are normally adorned with logos will need to be ‘clean’ for the Games – and skateboarders themselves will not be allowed to promote brands which are not official Olympic partners during the Games. There are also strict media rules, controlling the type of messages athletes can disseminate during the Games. While a few words on social media about the Olympic experience is encouraged, athletes cannot act as journalist or post footage of their competition.

Given skateboarding is a digital culture in which video clips are the currency that creates a skateboarder’s reputation, these rules are likely to come as a shock.

While the potential pitfalls are considerable, let’s not forget some of the opportunities. Sponsorship deals are often made on a handshake in skateboarding, and Olympic status – plus brand interest – may encourage better, fairer, more creative deals for athletes. The sport’s appeal is huge, not just among youth on boards but office-working ‘counterculturalists’, potentially boosting Olympic audiences and interest in the Games in general.

Finally, the IOC has necessitated that each team send equal numbers of male and female participants to compete, which will have huge implications for the sport, local skateparks, and women’s skateboarding more generally. With such potential across genders, ages, brands and medium, one certainty is that the introduction of skateboarding to the Olympics will be hard to ignore.   

Alex Kelham is head of the sports business group at global law firm Lewis Silkin. Frances Pollitzer, also of Lewis Silkin, has worked with the sports business team and in corporate, media and entertainment law.