Two minor developments from January predicted how skateboarding’s year would unfold. The first was an article from Thrasher Magazine by Kristin Ebeling and Alex White entitled, “Honor Roll 2020: The Top Women and Non-Traditional Skaters of the Year.” Considering the ways “tradition” has dictated what does and doesn’t appear in Thrasher’s pages, a celebration of women, trans and queer skaters felt like a minor earthquake. Nothing was toppled — and it was online only — but the surface did shake a little. The second, a short video interview with Werner Herzog conducted by Ian Michna, on the niche, skate-specific Jenkem Magazine. Michna, who started the website in 2011 and has never had a staff of more than three, somehow secured an interview with the legendary film director — strange but, given skateboarding, not totally surprising. It makes sense that a transcript of their interview would eventually appear in the vaunted and extremely not-skate-specific Harper’s Magazine.
This is how things went in 2021 for the USA’s most nagging, inexplicable invention. We saw, of course, the Tokyo Olympics where it debuted as an official sport. But the story of skateboarding this year really begins in quarantine, when masses of former and new skaters bought boards to keep themselves entertained without straying far from home. Now, with all these new local participants and a range of global variants more visible by the day — from grassroots DIY scenes in Uganda to quasi-military training camps in China — it seems we’re mostly okay with wondering what it all means.
The Thrasher piece and Herzog interview reveal two vital qualities that have carved skateboarding’s winding path into 2021. The first is a kind of constant becoming — a state of sustained flux which runs alongside and often against skateboarding’s deep, abiding nostalgia for its own past. The second is a tentacular reach — a slithering, crustacean sneakiness that continues to find its way into new regions of pop culture.
Among those is a recent sneak into academia. In June, weeks before she’d head to Tokyo, I moderated a conversation with the living legend Alexis Sablone — contest veteran, MIT alum, designer and animator and New York street rat — and the most important street skateboarder of all time, Mark Gonzales, through The Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at The University of Chicago. On the meaning and significance of the Olympics, both Gonzales and Sablone were ambivalent. “People want to hold on to things and say it's theirs, or how it is, or what it is, and label it... It belongs to them,” Gonzales said. We’ve all seen, and are thrilled about, the benefits of the activity reaching more and more diverse people. At the same time, we want to preserve what’s special about it, cautious for the ways corporate and government interests might shape the activity into more profitable or compliant forms.
Following the Skateboarding Street events at the Olympics, these concerns might have felt a bit overblown. Sablone would place fourth in the women’s contest — an extremely fucking cool outcome — but the public response was largely unimpressed. (Well, the skaters fell. A lot.) The Skateboarding Park events were more successful — an explosive gauntlet of speed and flight and spectacle, exactly the sort of action that the IOC hoped would attract younger viewers. When Japanese skater Misugo Okamoto fell in her final run, the Americans Poppy Olsen and Bryce Wettstein rushed to comfort and lift her to their shoulders. Why? Because they’re skaters and Okamoto is a skater, and that is how this works. But soon someone had immortalized the moment in an image and the Olympics twitter account celebrated it all as “Sportsmanship at its finest.”
Except, “sportsmanship?” Was this what Gonzales had feared: a case of the Olympics taking skateboarding’s organic, unspoken network of mutualized support and community and framing it in the language of athletics? Were they making it their own, and reducing it, by labeling it?
Perhaps. In any case, the Women’s Olympic events were far more interesting than the men’s. The men, in fact, were boring, besot by repeated tricks, complete and unsurprising commitment to the course’s biggest obstacle, and a prevailing dearth of creativity. In short, Men’s Olympic skateboarding felt lifeless. It felt terminal.
The women’s events, by comparison, buzzed with that energy of becoming. And none more than the performance that landed all the way at the very bottom of the Women’s Street standings. Alana Smith — who in 2013 became the youngest X Games medalist ever, and in 2017 was kickflipping double-sets and feeble grinding long rails, first ever to land a McTwist in women’s competition — scored a paltry and beautiful 1.25. Paltry is evident; the women’s gold medal went to Momiji Nishiya at 15.77. Beauty is more complicated, and lives in the way Alana devoted two full runs to moving about the course doing nothing but ollies. No flips, no spins, just a series of basic, fundamental ollies — a trick that’s at once everything to skateboard practice and nothing to skateboard competition.
What to make of this strategy from a skater who is capable of so much else? Even without knowing Alana’s competitive past, anyone who skates could see that Alana is good — it’s there in the casualness of each ollie and the cohesion of the line carved across the course. Was this some kind of protest? A statement? In truth, I’ve no idea. It was a baffling and, as such, a delightfully skate thing to do.
A state of becoming is a state of openness, of interrogation and invitation. So much of this world is directed by terminality, the great elimination of ways things might go, or even be seen. A never ending, zero-sum contest of public debate, a list-obsessed media culture intent on ranking everything. Even the very structure of contest is itself terminal. At some agreed time the buzzer sounds, and we tally the points then everyone goes home. Terminality is determinism, that insistence that the way something or someone has been dictates how and who they will forever be.
This year, maybe more than ever in the history of the world, skateboarding has shown the world an alternative. In a series of simple ollies, the USA’s Smith offered a glimpse of something for which sport has no real term. In skateboarding, it’s called “skateboarding.”