Welcome to the innovative world of skateboarding
On 4 August 1996, skateboard pioneer, style icon and all-round cool guy Neal Hendrix took part in the Closing Ceremony of the Olympic Games in Atlanta, USA. Along with a handful of friends, Hendrix gave the watching billions a taste of the inventive, dynamic, and physically demanding nature of elite-level skateboarding. He had no clue just where it would lead him.
“At the time, we just thought it was a cool opportunity on a big stage, it was just a laugh for us,” Hendrix said. “We set up ramps off site in Atlanta to practise for a few days because we had a whole routine they wanted us to do. I remember it like it was yesterday.
“I never thought we would be planning actual skate contests in the Olympics for medals. It’s pretty unbelievable.”
As the athlete representative on the World Skate - Skateboarding Commission, Hendrix has been right at the heart of this extraordinary journey.
“I have always been part of top-level skateboarding, playing a lot of different roles,” said the man who turned pro in 1991. “It was important to me that the right people were going to be involved in the group that was going to see skateboarding through to Tokyo.”
Hendrix was there when the International Skateboarding Federation (ISF) was founded in the early 2000s by his long-time friend Gary Ream, now Chairman of the World Skate - Skateboarding Commission. With its ever-increasing pull on young people and its all-encompassing lifestyle, it was no surprise that the mainstream media and the Olympic Movement soon began to cast an eye towards the sport. Like many great relationships, however, it has not all been plain sailing. Part of skateboarding’s intrinsic appeal has always been its counter-culture nature.
“It’s absolutely been challenging,” Hendrix said. “It is different because skateboarding has never gone through a national federation structure before. The career trajectory for a top skateboarder has always been getting some sponsorship on the amateur side from skateboard brands or shoe brands or an energy drink, and then when you reach the professional ranks and you are able to make a living, it’s all been sponsorship deals with private companies.”
The huge growth in events such as the globally televised X Games, and the incredible popularity of videos featuring the best skaters showcasing their most outrageous tricks all over the world, helped the sport blossom in all manner of ways. On the Olympic side, the most significant moment came when skateboarding appeared at the Youth Olympic Games Nanjing 2014 as a showcasing sport. Bringing it to the Summer Games involved negotiation and compromise on both sides. First up, the skateboarders had to be convinced.
“In skateboarding, you are not going to get universal agreement on everything,” Hendrix said. “Skateboarders live, sleep, eat and breathe their sport and they are really protective about it.
“The main thing I’ve said to any detractors is ‘Hey, let’s have this conversation after Tokyo 2020.’ Now it’s up to us to deliver a good show.”
On the flip side, it has been a case of making sure the Olympic Games were ready for skateboarding in all its funky glory.
“We don’t want, and I don’t think the Olympics want, a completely sanitised version of skateboarding,” Hendrix said. “Like anything, there are going to be compromises, especially on the apparel side, and those are the important discussions and details we are busy figuring out right now. Our main goal is to make it still look like the skateboarding that we know and love.
“We want these guys to be able to wear some cool clothes and we want the skate courses to look really cool and exceptional.”
So far, so good. Hendrix believes “99 per cent of the top skaters in the world” will be in Tokyo in three years’ time, and that means we can all expect some truly spectacular action.
“I want it to inspire people all around the world who might not have been exposed to skateboarding before,” he said. “I imagine kids watching TV in South Africa or Malaysia or Papua New Guinea who might be exposed to it for the first time and it might get them on skateboards, which to me would be mission accomplished.”
The impact Olympic inclusion is already having on skateboarding excites Hendrix. From female skaters getting chances they never dreamed of, to European athletes finally receiving national federation (NF) support to compete on the world stage, the picture is deeply encouraging.
And Hendrix is confident the pay-off for the Olympic Movement will be just as fulfilling.
“It brings younger, passionate fans. It is special because of the lifestyle and the culture associated with it,” he said. “There is art and music involved, the skaters are riding boards with cool graphics on them.
“Some of the top skaters now, whether it’s Nyjah Huston or Pedro Barros or Tom Schaar, have a lot of fans. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Sydney or Tokyo or Shanghai or Rio or LA or Vancouver, skateboarding is so global and these guys have fans all over the world.
“It’s a great opportunity for the Olympics to tap into all that passion.”
As a vert specialist and more than semi-retired, the 44-year-old Hendrix will not be competing with the world’s very best street and park skaters in Tokyo. But nothing will stop him being onsite to watch the extraordinary action that will be skateboarding at the Olympic Games 2020.