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Skateboarding goes for the gold

Sport is expected to be fast-tracked into the Olympics by 2012, but if snowboarding is an example, it may be a bumpy ride

June 24, 2007|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Olympic snowboarding face-planted nine years ago in Nagano, Japan, captivated audiences four years later during a U.S. medals sweep at Salt Lake City, and last year became one of the Winter Games' most prominent sports in Turin, Italy.

Now it's skateboarding's turn.

A pastime once referred to as sidewalk surfing, practiced by millions and one of the X Games' most popular competitions, probably will make its Olympic debut at the 2012 Summer Games in London amid two sets of questions:

Will skateboarding, like snowboarding, flounder at the outset amid criticism, controversy and athlete boycotts? And, will it attract younger audiences and help transform relatively unknown athletes into mainstream stars such as snowboarders Gretchen Bleiler and Shaun White?

The answer to both questions is probably yes.

"I'm not really for it at all," says Bob Burnquist, 30, one of the sport's greatest performers and innovators. "I don't think skateboarding needs the Olympics to be 'official' or anything like that. And I think it'll do more harm than good."

Norway's Terje Haakonsen, at the time snowboarding's greatest athlete, took a similar stand when he snubbed the Nagano Games and compared then-International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch to mobster Al Capone.

His frustration stemmed from the IOC's mandate that snowboarders, who had their own federation, take direction from the International Skiing Federation. The athletes were given a humiliating "Muppets" mascot, ordered to endorse products they did not believe in, then relegated during the Games to a far-flung venue and asked to compete on a poorly designed course made sloppy by rain.

Yet, from that bungling start, qualifying for the Olympics has become the goal of elite snowboarders around the world.

Skateboarding, which has an estimated 12 million participants in the United States alone, is being ushered in for essentially the same reasons as snowboarding.

"The IOC is very mindful of the fact that it has to move with the times," spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau wrote in an e-mail.

The inclusion of skateboarding in 2012 is not a sure thing, but it is likely to be fast-tracked under a system loophole.

As a stand-alone sport, it would have to be added at least seven years before the Games in a complicated process. Because it is too late for that, skateboarding is expected to be included as a wheel-based discipline under the umbrella of the International Cycling Union.

ICU sports director Olivier Quejuiner told the Associated Press: "We are doing our best to introduce skateboarding for 2012."

Moreau, the IOC spokeswoman, said the cycling union has until three years before the Games to formally propose skateboarding as a discipline.

The cycling union is already involved with BMX-cross, a bicycle motocross race that will debut next summer at the Beijing Olympics. BMX freestyle, a judged competition held on slick U-shaped ramps, is another discipline likely to debut at the London Games.

Which skateboarding disciplines might be included is unclear, but vert skateboarding has an advantage because it and BMX freestyle utilize similar facilities. Both involve acrobatics performed high above ramp walls, and both translate into good television -- they've been prime-time X Games events for the last decade.

"I think it would be good for the global recognition of skateboarding, and it might actually get people under 40 to watch the Olympics again," said Tony Hawk, 39, who helped pioneer vert skateboarding.

However, street skateboarding, which entails rail-sliding and flipping of boards underfoot, is infinitely more popular than vert skateboarding, and street-skating personalities such as Paul Rodriguez and Ryan Sheckler have become icons.

If street skateboarding were slighted in favor of vert, criticism could be swift. "I think it'd be [stupid] because street skating is just so fun to watch and has more of a following and more fans than any vert contest," Sheckler said.

Added Hawk: "My biggest concern is that it could further divide the already splintered skateboard industry. We need more unity in our sport, not heated debates over the relatively small world of skate competitions."

Fairly new to skateboarding is the mega-ramp, one of the X Games' most popular draws. It features towering roll-ins to a jump over a 50- or 70-foot gap, to a landing ramp that leads to a quarter-pipe wall, which launches the skaters anew.

"I think that the Olympics might choose the mega-ramp just because it has the appeal and it's so crazy to watch," said Sheckler, the defending Dew Tour street-skating champion. "And if that's the case, then Ryan Sheckler is going to start skating the mega-ramp."

Sheckler, 17, is to skateboarding what Shaun White was to snowboarding at the same age: open-minded, wanting to capitalize on any reasonable opportunity. "I can't wait -- 2012 can't come any quicker," he said.

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