How the Olympics led to a skateboard revival

Skateboarding grabbed the headlines when it made its Olympic debut in Tokyo. Skateboarding latecomer Josh Sutton finds out more about its renaissance in the UK.

Skateboarder Tom Welford from Leeds a skateboard instructor at LS-Ten performing some moves in the skateboard park in Leeds.

Perhaps one of the most unexpected reactions among the public, following skateboarding’s debut at the Tokyo Olympics, was the surprise and delight at the display of camaraderie and mutual support among those participating.

It stood as a reminder to all of the old adage, ‘it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts.’ The sight of competitors hugging and rooting for each other in open competition is not one you see with most sports, where often it is some form of rivalry that attracts the largest crowds.

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As a ‘later skater’ myself, having taken-up skateboarding for the first time four years ago at the veteran age of 51, the mutual support and encouragement among participants on display in Tokyo came as no surprise.

Tom Brown, Co-owner of Welcome Skate Store, Thorntons Arcade, Leeds.

After a few weeks of watching my then 10-year-old son having fun in the local skatepark and progressing with astounding speed, I thought why not give it a try? Initial trepidation soon gave way to all-out enthusiasm, as fellow skaters both young and old offered tips, advice, support and above all, encouragement. Within a year I was happy ‘dropping-in’ and ‘carving’ the bowl at LS Ten indoor skatepark in Leeds, which brings us to another legacy of skateboarding’s inclusion as an Olympic sport – that of a new lexicon for adults of all ages to struggle with.

As a middle-aged man, it took a while for me to grow comfortable using words like, ‘stoked’ (excited), ‘rad’ (awesome) and ‘sick’ (really good), and to see commentators and columnists across a range of media wrestling awkwardly with new terminology in the light of its new found popularity, reminds us that skateboarding has until recently remained an ‘outsider’ activity associated with counter-culture. It basically had a ‘bad rap’.

But that all seems to be changing.

Tom Brown, owner of Leeds’s only independent skate shop, Welcome, based in Thornton’s Arcade, says that even prior to the Olympics, skateboarding was becoming increasingly popular again.

Tosh Wilson Chief Operations Officer at LS-Ten skatepark in Leeds,

He put part of that new popularity down to lockdown and the pandemic. With most outdoor public sports arenas and parks closed, people found that with minimal equipment needed, you can skateboard in an empty car park. However, a bigger driving force has come from the major sports brands within the industry, as they had begun to increase marketing budgets and training opportunities for their team riders in the two-year run-up to Tokyo.

“The Olympics has without doubt had a positive impact, we’re seeing increasing numbers of young children and family footfall in the shop. We often have dads that used to skate back in the day, buying a new set-up for themselves at the same time as buying one for their kid,” says Tom.

With prices starting from £40 for a ‘complete’ set-up and advice and guidance available from his highly experienced staff (all of whom skate), increasing numbers of young children are taking to the sport.

“I’m extremely proud of all of my staff, Josh, Minnie, Adam, Fraser and Martyn, whose enthusiasm for skateboarding somehow gets transferred to the ten year old who leaves the shop with a new deck under their arm.”

Tom Brown, Co-owner of Welcome Skate Store, Thorntons Arcade, Leeds. Picture James Hardisty

The skateboarding community is one that makes connections and encourages new members. Tom said that with money donated by one of the major brands, Welcome were able to buy a number of vouchers for skateboard coaching at nearby indoor skatepark LS Ten and offer these to new customers.

Tosh Wilson, manager at LS Ten, echoes Tom’s observations. “Even before the Olympics, we were seeing increasing numbers coming along to our girl-only sessions. We’ve seen a huge increase in demand for these sessions which are often booked up to capacity well ahead of the actual event.”

But since the Olympics “there’s definitely been an upsurge in bookings for coaching sessions in all age groups too,” he says. LS Ten is run as a charity and came into being two years ago as the former skatepark, then called The Works, ran into financial difficulties.

With a whole range of community outreach services including coaching and education sessions, does Tosh think there might be more funding available in the future?

“With organisations such as the Skatepark Association, Sport England and Skateboard GB getting more involved and looking to invest in the sport, we can certainly hope to see more new parks and refurbishment of old ones beginning to take shape.

These hopes and aspirations were echoed recently by GB skateboarding team member Alex Hallford. In an interview in Vague skate magazine, Alex pointed out that Skateboard GB is doing a lot of work in communities, trying to create funding for the future of skateboarding in the UK.

Jono Coote, is a Leeds-based skateboarder and author of No Beer on a Dead Planet – a skateboarding odyssey through Australia and New Zealand. He writes regularly for Vague and a number of other skate magazines and he is an active member of RWTB (rolling with the boys), a local skate crew heavily involved in the DIY skatepark building scene.

“I guess that, like anything, skateboarding in the Olympics is all shades of grey. On the plus side it encourages kids to start skateboarding, it makes skatepark funding more likely in the UK, and more broadly will hopefully see money spent on skateboarding in countries where traditionally it has been ignored,” he said. “The biggest worry for me is that a broadening its mainstream appeal will coincide with a shrinking in its place as an outlet for disenfranchised youth. I suppose our place as established skateboarders is to make sure that alternative is made clear; emphasise that skateboarding is creative and subversive rather than its competitive aspects, its place in opposition to popular sports rather than as a side attraction to those.”

For me it’s this creative, positive and inclusive aspect of skateboarding that holds the biggest appeal. Skateboarding’s renaissance, which clearly predates inclusion in the Olympics, is fuelled by a creative energy supported by a host of photographers, film makers, podcasters, academics, artists and writers. The proliferation of new skateboarding magazines set-up and run by skaters – Vague, Free Skate Mag, Grey and most recently The Skateboarder’s Companion – are testament to this, publications all freely available via a network of independent skate shops nationwide.

Whilst inclusion as an Olympic sport, and Sky Brown’s success as a medalist brings with it enormous potential for future investment in skateboarding in this country, more importantly the fact that the achievement of a 13-year-old girl is already inspiring others and bringing more girls and women into what has traditionally been a male-dominated activity can only be a good thing. And that’s coming from a middle-aged newbie male skater.