how surfing, skateboarding, BMX and sport climbing became Olympic events

The Tokyo Olympics will be new in more ways than one. Along with the challenges of riding the games during a pandemic, there will also be a range of new sport competing for the attention of fans.

As well as baseball / softball (reintroduced after a 12-year hiatus), karate and basketball 3×3, four action sports geared towards young people will debut: surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing and BMX freestyle.

According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the inclusion of these new events is “the most complete evolution of the Olympic program in modern history”.

For many fans, however, the addition of action sports raises big questions: are they really Olympic sports, and do they deserve to take the place of more established events?

Akiyo Noguchi from Japan is a star in the world of sport climbing.
Getty Images

Competition for young fans

Our research shows that the process and policy behind this decision dates back over 20 years, as part of the IOC’s grand goal of making the Olympics more appealing to young spectators.

While the Summer Olympics are considered the most watched sporting spectacle in the world, the number of young viewers has been declining for decades. Median age of U.S. television audiences for the Rio 2016 Games was 53.

Recognizing this, the IOC has endeavored to attract a younger audience by incorporating new action sports in summer (windsurfing, mountain biking, BMX races) and in winter (ski cross, outdoors) Olympic programs.

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Since its controversial inclusion in the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998, snowboard has become the darling of winter games. With Inspired by the X Games presentation and youthful cultural icons such as Shaun White and Torah Bright, snowboarding was credited with a 48% increase in viewers aged 18-24 at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Since then, a new generation of cool young snowboarders like Chloe Kim have continued to inspire and attract a global audience.

Olympic champion snowboarder Chloe Kim with the American flag
Snowboarder Chloe Kim, helping to make the Olympic Winter Games an audience success.

This success leads to the inclusion of more action sports in the Summer Games. But the IOC also sued other key initiatives, such as the Youth Olympic Games and an Olympic Games YouTube channel.

Since 2010, the Youth Olympic Games have been an important testing ground for new sports, social media innovation and concepts like the Sports Lab in Nanjing in 2014, and the Urban park in Buenos Aires in 2018. Not everything goes beyond the trial stage, but many do.

Agenda 2020 and the new vision

The arrival of IOC President Thomas Bach in 2013 and the introduction of the Agenda 2020 policy accelerated the modernization process.

In 2015, the IOC collaborated with the Tokyo Organizing Committee to preselect five new sports – karate, baseball / softball, surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing – for possible inclusion in the 2020 games. When all five were confirmed for Tokyo, Bach proclaimed:

We want to bring sport to young people […] With the many options available to young people, we can no longer expect them to come to us automatically – we must go to them.

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Following a review to measure the overall performance of all sports, various international federations have developed strategies to become more youth friendly. The International Cycling Union has approved BMX freestyle, and the International Basketball Federation added basketball 3×3 for Tokyo.

This pressure to attract younger fans has had a ripple effect, with other sporting bodies keen to bring new events into the fold. The battle in progress on the possible Olympic inclusion of free run (also known as Parkour) is an example.

BMX freestyle competitors are rated based on difficulty, originality, execution, height and creativity.

Nostalgia and progress

With the action sports economy leveling off, many players in the industry have actively supported Olympic inclusion. But the counter-cultural heritage of many of these sports has led to tensions.

Many participants view them with nostalgia as alternative lifestyles rather than conventional sports. The associated value systems they celebrate – self-expression, creativity, pleasure – are often seen as at odds with Olympic disciplinary, hierarchical and nationalist ethics.

This saw the initial proposals to include surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing in Tokyo
strongly contested by many within action sports cultures at large, concerned about the loss of autonomy and control over “their” sports.

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While Olympic athletes are enthusiastic ambassadors of their sports (and likely to see significant economic and cultural rewards), there are those in the action sports world who see Olympic inclusion as just another lucrative stunt – part of a longer “sell out” process with little benefit to their sports.

Our research shows that it was primarily the older “core” male participants who most objected to the inclusion of action sports.

However, a international survey showed that younger participants and women were much more enthusiastic. The Under-19s were the most supportive, with 80% agreeing with the statement: “I think this is a great idea and I would probably watch the Olympics more.”

British skater Sky Brown will only be 13 when she competes in Tokyo.

A showcase for female athletes

The new-look games also had their logistical challenges. Organizing organizations for action sports had to navigate new complex terrain, including determination how the athletes will qualify, competition formats, equipment, uniforms, drug test and suitability of the place – all complicated by the pandemic.

But the inclusion of new sports (with equal representation of men and women) also helped the Tokyo Olympics come as close as possible to the IOC’s gender equality goals, with female athletes making up 49% of all. the Olympians.

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For women in action sports, the Olympics create more opportunities for athletes and leaders in activities long dominated by men.

The phenomenal talents of female athletes showcased in Tokyo, including 13-year-old skateboarder Sky Brown (Great Britain), surfer Carissa moore (United States) and climber Akiyo Noguchi (Japan) – may well see the gender dynamics change in these post-Olympic sports.

Breakdancer in competition
Competition breakdance, soon to be at the Olympic Games.

A changing Olympic landscape

Without spectators, alas, Tokyo will not be the urban party envisioned pre-COVID, with live music, art and a youth-friendly vibe in urban and seaside areas.

However, the action sports at the heart of this concept will not go away. Paris in 2024 will see the addition of kitesurfing and break / breakdance, a trend that will continue at the Los Angeles games in 2028.

Traditional ideas about what events are (or are not) legitimate sports will also evolve in the years to come, as the IOC asserts its rights in an increasingly competitive sports and recreation market.

With the survival of the games so dependent on viewers and sponsorship dollars, the IOC will only fight harder to remain relevant to the next generations of Olympic fans.

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