Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Skateboarding is Not A Sport

You can take practically any physical endeavor and turn it into a “sport”. Just flip through the cable channels late at night and you’ll see. There is competitive lumberjacking, competitive aerobics, competitive martial arts. There's even professional eating. Turning something into a sport is simple all you have to do is impose limitations on it.  Mark Twain once  joked that the sport of golf was  “a good walk spoilt.”  It was just a smart ass remark, but the essence of sports lies in that little quip. Add in rules about teams, official measurements and require someone to carry a ball, and something as simple as walking from one end of a field to another becomes football.

Skaters have been antagonistic about branding skateboarding as a sport for decades. A lot of this comes from skating's DIY roots and the punk rock ethos it picked up in the 1980’s, but the need to refute and reject all attempts to make skateboarding a sport go beyond simple rebellious desires, it cuts right to the nature of skating itself. Limitations and skateboarding are two entities that always have trouble getting along. Entities that should have trouble getting along.

To really get at the heart of why skateboarding is not a sport, and why it never should be, you need to understand the nature of sports, and that nature is in limitation. Sports need limits on almost everything to make them work. All sports have rules that limit where you play and when you play. Rules that enforce how you play and who you play with...most importantly rules always define why you play, and the why is always to compete and win. Shooting baskets with your friends is not playing basketball. It’s practice, or just fooling around. You are not really playing until winning and losing is on the line, and that concept shapes what you do even when you are “just fooling around”.

Skateboarding neither has nor needs any of these limitation to define itself. Skateboarding’s essence is anathema to establishing simple, universal goals. The imposition of these things should be resisted at all times.

Look at how sports restrict space: In basketball, rules determine how high the goal is and the size of the court. You can’t go “out of bounds” and still make the shot. An “official” baseball diamond has prescribed distances from home plate to first base and from the pitcher’s mound to the batter's box. Hitting a ball outside of a certain area is a “foul”, the list goes on and on.  All of these limitations are required so every time the sport is played, the conditions are as uniform as possible. The whole endeavor is contained in order to abet competition. If things aren’t static and uniform, how can you really compare the skill level of different competitors, how do you know who “wins”?

The limitations extend to time as well.  A baseball game is nine innings played consecutively.  A soccer match has two halves limited by a time clock. A goal sunk after the buzzer doesn’t count. Running the fastest lap in practice doesn’t win anything. Sports always have to have a beginning and an end that is predetermined, and what goes on outside of these boundaries is irrelevant.

Now think about what you would have to do to regulate the where and when of skateboarding. Can you imagine a world where skateparks are standardized, where every local park contains the same obstacles of the same size, where every bowl or ramp must have the same transitions and shape to be “official”, or where a ledge trick only “counts” if it is performed on a ledge of a certified height and made of an official material? Suppose you only got a set number of tries to make a trick in order for it to “count”. Imagine being scored on the exact number you made within a certain number of tries. Picture kids sweating over their handrail completion averages.To be a real competitive sport, gear would have to be standardized too. No decks under or over a certain width, standard durometer wheels, trucks all standardized into a set size and geometry... It’s a dystopian vision of skating even Rob Dyrdek would find hard to accept.

But that is the future of skateboarding if it is allowed to evolve into a “sport”.

In fact, turning skateboarding into a standardized, goal oriented competition would make real street skating irrelevant altogether. There can be no regulation in the streets. No standard curb. No official handrail specs. As for DIY skateparks: Forget about it. Too unpredictable. Remember, if it is not in an official venue in sports, it doesn’t count.

Restricting the “how” of skateboarding to adapt it into a true sport is even more offensive. Forget about the scoring rules and format of something like Street League, those limitations are nothing compared to what we would have to do to skateboarding to get it in line with the rest of the sporting world.

In sports, extensive official rules always determine the “right” way to attain the sport’s “goals. You can’t score a basket by running behind the goal and sinking one from behind the backboard. You can’t get a home run by hitting the ball behind home plate.

See, this PROVES who is the best!

In skateboarding, though, we are all about hitting the ball the wrong way or shooting baskets from the wrong side of the goal. In fact, we are rewarded for it. Alan Gelfand didn’t have a rulebook stating that he had to have at least one hand on the board for an air to “count’. No one was blowing a whistle when Salman Agah decided it would be cool to try all his tricks riding the “wrong” way. 

In a sport, the goal is always the same and it always makes the winners and losers crystal clear, and if you find a new way to play that doesn’t help attain that goal, or play without that goal in mind, you will be a failure.  The Harlem Globetrotters have found all sorts of innovative and exciting ways to manipulate a basketball and put it into a hoop. This doesn’t make them NBA champions, because, in the official parameters of a basketball game, those exciting manipulations can’t beat a team running a conventional strategy. In sporting terms, spinning the ball on the tip of your finger or shooting a half court shot blindfolded are all a waste of time.

Likewise, The thing you may love the most about football is passing the ball. You may even become the best passer in the word, but if all you do is pass, and those passes don’t result in most touchdowns, it doesn’t really matter. In sports you have one goal: to win, and winning requires playing within the limits and eliminating anything that does not move toward that goal.

But what is the “goal” of skateboarding. Ask 20 different skaters and you will get twenty different answers. To be a sport, we’d have to mandate one definition of skateboarding and apply it universally. You would have to confine skateboarding, restrict it, box it into something comprehensible like baseball, an endeavour where a whole season of play can be completely explained by a handful of stats.

Suppose we did all get together and decided the “goal” of skateboarding was to do the “best” tricks. Even if you go from that narrow definition of skateboarding, determining what the best tricks are with the rigid standards a sport requires is impossible without imposing unacceptable limits on how we skate. Is a sketchy 360 flip better or worse than a smooth kickflip? Do you score each individual maneuver on some universal scale or are tricks evaluated in combination? All of these things would have to be standardized and objectively enforced. Skaters would be conditioned to ride with a certain outcome in mind.

To be a true sport, skateboarding would have to have a pre-determined roster of ‘official maneuvers”, like gymnastics or figure skating, and each one of those maneuvers would be defined by rigid definitions of what perfect form looked like. Gymnasts and figure skaters don’t win competitions because they make their triple somersault distinctive with their own personal flair. They don’t win by inventing new maneuvers. They win by making their moves conform as closely as possible to a predefined, meticulously described ideal.

Do we as skateboarders really want perfection definitevely defined? Because that is what you would need to do to make Skateboarding fit into the world of sports. In a sport, you either make the basket or you don’t. The soccer ball hits the net or it doesn’t. You don’t get extra points for sinking a basket with “style” or intensity. Sports can’t accommodate that. Forget about the eternal style vs. tricks debate that helps fuel creativity in skateboarding. Style as we know it, as the individual way a person skates and does his tricks, would be wiped out. Skaters would focus on “form”. Doing something the “right” way as described by a rule book’s ideals.

If skating was a sport, there would be no arguments about Hawk vs. Hosoi, because there would be a rulebook that decided it definitively. Debate would be irrelevant. Ask yourself, how would a skater like Jay Adams or Mark Gonzales fit into the “sport” of skateboarding? The answer is: they wouldn’t. They would be too imperfect, too outside the lines...too themselves to ever “win”.

For a lot of skaters, thinking about the sport debate is a waste of time. It doesn’t really matter.The term ‘sport’ is just easy shorthand. Using the term is simpler than really thinking about what they are doing when they skate. 

But it does matter, because, If you love skateboarding, you love something that is the opposite of a sport.

In a lot of ways, no matter what happens, no matter what changes corporations and athletic organization impose on skating, it will always be easy to keep skating from becoming a sport. Skateboarding is so big, so open, so boundless that , even if cultural forces concoct some variation of skateboarding that is rabidly goal-oriented, standardized and regimented like little league or the NFL, all it will ever be is just one facet of a whole cultural phenomenon, a facet that, even if it is wildly popular, can be easily resisted and will never be definitive.

Think about running, a pastime whose participants can be as dedicated and philosophical as the most hard core skater. Everyone runs sometime for some reason, but running only becomes a sport when you decide to race against another individual at a certain place and time, or when you decide to “race” against yourself by timing a particular run and comparing it to a previous “race” against the clock. There are people who love to run who never time themselves, who never think about whether they are going faster than the other guy or faster than they went yesterday. The existence of marathons and track and field have done nothing to keep these people from doing what they love the way they love it.

Skateboarding should be the same way. No matter what  happens, the way to resist and refute the specter of sportified skateboarding will always be simple: Do it how you want to do it. Skate. Create. Enjoy. Do that, and skateboarding will never be a sport.


  1. i don't think that the development of a "sport form" of skateboarding changes anything for the outlaws who don't give a fuck about that bullshit. i don't think that it is a fact at all, that "turning skateboarding into a standardized, goal oriented competition would make real street skating irrelevant altogether."

    It has already been turned into a standardized, goal oriented competition. That has made nothing irrelevant. It just hasn't. Do i LIKE it? No. Not at all. It is profoundly boring to watch, and i find certain aspects of it disgusting. I hate gold and diamond encrusted culture that sells shoe brands. I always will. But any time i get around it i cannot help but think that i would enjoy the company of Sean Malto, or Paul Rodriguez... and i can't help wishing some of that kind of success on David Gravette, whose career is somehow sentimentally important to me...

    I don't know. can anyone out there help me figure out where i'm coming from and where i'm going with this?

    1. All the Pros that became Pro without entering a single contest makes me smile. I grew up playing baseball and playing on baseball teams until I turned 16. I skated the entire time I played. I finally realized I hate being the reason an entire team wins or loses. I also rebelled against my coaches, and in the end, decided to stop playing for teams, and concentrated on skating. Self expression and the "Art" aspect of riding my skateboard are what keeps me skating on what is essentially, a child's toy at the age of 46 (I'll be 47 at the end of this year). I'll continue pushing until my body can't push any longer. Goddamn, I love you Skateboarding!

  2. To me the sport vs art(or whatever) thing has become a bit more important as skating has become such a mainstream accepted thing. I think that when skating is small (or local), you can have a contest and it can be really fun and cool, and people know it means very little, but they have fun anyway. Example: how many late 80s contests did Blender win? I think Zero. Yet there is widespread agreement he's one of the best ever. But the contests were still fun. But this current level of stuff is distressing. I'm glad freestyle is still mostly underground. I want it to stay that way. Big money ruins everything. I don't know of skateparks have really helped anything. I'm babbling. Maybe it's time for skating to die again? I'm really 51, aren't I?

  3. I think this is what makes skating so versatile. It can be and already is a "sport" to some. And, that's OK. Competitive skateboarding has always existed. What's fantastic is that element of skating is completely voluntary.I don't give two shits one way or the other. Ive judged local competitions before. Whatever. It doesn't define anything for me. This is not unique. Bicycling, snowboarding, swimming, whatever. You think the hipster on his fixie gives a flying fuck about who won the tour de France? Or, dudes cliff jumping in the woods are thinking about Michael Phelps? Nope. It doesn't change anything. When I'm dancing in the living room with my old lady II don't give a fuck about my steps or form. It's pure. Skateboarding is not that vulnerable. It doesn't fucking what Mountain Dew or Red Bull says. We will shred how and where we fucking want. And, if Nyjah wants to talk about how unhealthy sodas are while wearing a Monster hat. Fuck it. I won't give two shits when my trucks are scraping blocks in some backyard.

  4. I love that this is getting so much conversation going so quickly. We'll have to talk about this!

  5. Yep, skateboarding already IS a sport for some. But that doesn't matter at all because I just do it for the fun. That doesn't mean that I would discourage anyone wanting to participate in a contest.

  6. but even our contests are not anything like "sports". That's one of my points with this article

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  8. hmmmmmmm
    style is everything!!!!
    also agression!!!!! else dont give a fuk!
    archi, keep on sk8

  9. I have heard that first time. Do you know than what it is?
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  10. Great article, haven't skated since the 80s but was just recently gifted a great deck designed for my 45 year old butt and can't wait till the snow melta