Tokyo 2020 - Sky Brown, skateboarding and the youth explosion ripping up Olympics
Just as The Times sent out a 56-year-old columnist to try BMX riding, along came Sky Brown to push the envelope even further towards youth. To stay with it, the next wave of middle-aged writers will need to head for Britain’s skateboard parks, writes Paul Hayward. You want it? We have it. Stream every Olympic event live on discovery+
‘Everyone’s on their feet for Brown’ – 13-year-old star saves her best for last to seal bronze
People of a certain vintage who may only have tried once or twice to race around on boards on wheels will be familiar with that sensation of seeing a skateboard park and thinking of it as something for “the kids.” The Olympics, as we know, used to be for “the adults,” until 13-year-old Sky Brown and her contemporaries blasted it onto the menu.
Any sport that arrives with a smile on its face and paints an even bigger one on its audience has a chance. Just as BMX has transferred urban thrills and spills to the Olympic arena, so skateboarding brings a whiff of the ocean, of the good life, as well as a town park in say, Hertfordshire. What unites those ends of the spectrum appears to be a feeling of community and mutual appreciation between the athletes.
With her bronze from a campaign-saving final run, Brown (13 years and 28 days) became the youngest British Olympic medal winner in history. She was already the youngest team member. The swimmer Margery Hinton was 13 years and 44 days when competing at Amsterdam in 1928. Sarah Hardcastle was 15 years and 113 days when winning silver and bronze in the pool in Los Angeles in 1984.
The reaction to Brown’s bronze gold medal might have been a slew of fresh concern about allowing children to compete in the Olympics. Instead, it was a rush of admiration for her artistry, bravery and positivity.
‘It wasn’t pressure’ – Team GB's Brown on her final skateboarding run
For example Professor Jo Delahunty QC, Emeritus Professor of Law Gresham College, and a specialist in family law, tweeted: “What was (almost) equally brilliant was the way all the finalists (average age 19) whooped with joy at their competitors tricks, raced to hug one another & and pushed them on to their best. Life lessons we could all learn and apply from this stellar group of talented athletes.”
In that swirl of emotion was the brutal accident Brown endured last year, when she crashed between two ramps, “fracturing her skull, breaking her left arm and wrist and lacerating her heart and lungs.” Now, “super sick” is her term for the Tokyo Women’s Park final rather than her medical state.
With her huge social media following, Brown already understands how drama works, and articulated her struggle for bronze in a very modern way. “It was a little bit of a rollercoaster, but honestly it made me stronger. It made me want to go harder. It pushed me,” she told Eurosport in Tokyo. “I wanted to show the world - if you don’t give up, you’ve got it.”
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Self-taught, she was on a board “before she could run” and turned pro at 10. She knows how to sell her sport: “I hope we showed how beautiful skateboarding is and how beautiful and creative you can be with it.” The scoring system rewards “tricks,” either in mid-air or along the walls of the bowls that make up the course.
There is something beguiling about a sport where a 13-year-old Olympic bronze medallist is able to say, in 'Reaching the Sky', a discovery+ documentary: “I can hear the ocean while I’m skating.” The American west coast, where many Britons would love to be to escape this feeble summer, is credited with knocking the sport together when metal wheels were attached to a board. They probably thought it would be a good way of scooting along the proms of Santa Monica and Venice Beach. An ‘Olympic sport’ was probably way beyond their ambitions.
‘Youth explosion’ is a standby headline for media outlets. But the eruptions seldom last. The old reclaim lost ground. This time the Olympics is changing at a deeper level. There’s no longer a debate about whether to go looking for the young. The cold commercial logic of social media and the commodification of talent means that to ignore change is to wither and die, not least financially.
New consumption and viewing habits, and the altered appetites of the young, have shifted power away from ‘ancient’ Olympic disciplines to those that people under 30 are actually following, and doing. Thus skateboarding sits alongside golf. In Britain, Brown’s bronze medal may seem an enjoyable novelty - another slice of ‘happy news’ from Japan, a cameo of precocity. The metrics will say otherwise.
The intriguing part is whether BMX and skateboarding have changed the whole dynamic of the Games or whether they, too, will face new challengers. Will the Olympic programme succumb to ever faster churn? Already Brown says she would like to be in the surfing as well at Paris 2024. What a life. Surfing and skateboarding: more fun than school.
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