With the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo just eight months away, there are still plenty of unanswered questions about how Olympic skateboarding will work. How many events will there be? How many from each country will be competing? What will the uniforms look like? And who’s repping Australia?
Over the past few years, tiny morsels of information have intermittently surfaced, mostly surrounding the skaters vying for a position in Team USA. But by all accounts, things have been vague, confusing and political. Or, as Dave Carnie put it in a Transworld article about Team USA recently, “There’s been some mismanagement, some differences of opinion, communication issues, there might even have been some diarrhoea involved”.
Love it or loathe it, skateboarding is in the Olympics. So, in light of the lack of information surrounding Olympic skateboarding and, more specifically, Australia’s involvement, we had a chat with Chris Middlebrook, who is teeing things up for the Australian Olympic team. Midds, who is an OG Melbourne filmer and former TM for Nike SB Australia, was very helpful in breaking down the nitty-gritty details.
Interview by Nat Kassel. Photo above, Hayley Wilson, Chris Middlebrook and Shane O'Neill.
Hey Midds, tell me about your involvement with the Olympics. What’s your official title and how did you score the gig?
My involvement with the Olympics started before I left Nike. Of course, for Nike and any other sponsors who were potentially going to have skaters in Tokyo, there was an interest to know how things were going to take place. After I left Nike, I was approached to help tie some of the pieces together between the government and the skaters who would potentially make it to Tokyo. This evolved into an Olympic Street Skating Coordination role. It was effectively the same as a regular Team Manager role where you connect the brand – or in this case, the government – with the skaters and support their needs.
Now this role has evolved in line with the needs of the skaters and portions of what I was doing have been shared with other skate coaches to support the skaters better on a day-to-day basis. My role is now specific to on-the-ground support for all Australian competitors during the Street qualifying competitions. Brett Margaritis is carrying out a similar role for Park skating.
What made you want to be involved in the Olympics?
I chose to be involved because I had several friends who have the potential to make it to Tokyo and I felt I could help them navigate what has been a very complicated and political environment. Most skaters are generally reluctant to get involved with anything new or different coming into skateboarding from a non-traditional source and such things will always be subjected to scrutiny. Having worked at Nike SB for so long, I understood this reluctance. Since the government had support to give to competitive skaters, I quite simply started acting as the conduit between them.
People have some pretty strong opinions about skateboarding becoming an Olympic event. What’s your take on it?
Yep, there are many strong opinions. However, for all the negative ones, I have found that there more strong positive opinions. Especially from younger open-minded skaters who think it’s incredible that people they know or look up to will get to skate in an Olympics for Australia. They look at it as an opportunity.
The Olympics has created many opportunities, one of the biggest being for female skateboarders. It has created an environment for them to accel and receive recognition. The level of motivation and female progression has accelerated over the past 12 months alone. Most importantly, it has helped females to have a sustainable skateboarding career. This is something that the skateboarding industry has never quite managed to pull off by itself, but I believe the Olympics has been a catalyst for this.
Historically, skateboarding has always had a competitive element, right since the very beginning. Before videos were the norm, competition was a way to create an event to showcase skateboarding, push progression, and also push it out to the non-skating public. This promotion of skating and the brands associated ultimately drove the engine that supports the industry and the pros.
I feel everyone who gets into skating has an entry point where they see skating for the first time. Sometimes it’s a friend, or the kid up the street who skates, but there are also those bigger pop culture moments that attract kids to skating. Back to the Future, Gleaming the Cube, the X Games, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Jackass, Globe World Cup, SLS – a lot of these are a kid’s first look at skating and I think the Olympics is just another one, on a way bigger level.
These days, skating is like really like music – there’s so much of it out there, but you don’t listen to all of it. You hone in and find certain parts of it you that like and that’s what you get into. Whatever your version of skating is, what happens in Tokyo won’t really affect that.
So there are four categories: Men’s Street, Men’s Park, Women’s Street and Women’s Park. How many skaters will be in each category?
When it comes to the actual event and competitors, there will be four events with 20 skaters per event. 20 Men’s Street, 20 Men’s Park, 20 Women’s Street, 20 Women’s Park. That’s it. So probably a semi-final and final. The competitions themselves will run for a few hours each. As it’s in Japan, the time zones are similar, so it will be easy to tune in.
No surprises here, Shane O'Neill is Australia's front runner for Men's Street. Switch 360 flip. Photo by Jake Darwen.
What do we know about the Australian team so far? Team USA was announced earlier this year, but we haven’t heard anything concrete about who might be wearing the green and gold. Can you announce anything?
OK, so before we get into this I need to explain that nobody is ‘selected’ as such to be at Tokyo. Each skater must qualify in their own right to get there. There is World Ranking with World Skate. They host a series of qualifying competitions for both Street and Park. Different events are worth different points and of course where you place at a comp gives you more points and hence a higher World Ranking. For Street it is SLS Supercrown, SLS and 5 Star Events. For Park it is 5 Star events. A 5 Star event is a competition that is created specifically for qualification and ranking points. In Street, it’s similar to SLS but without the SLS branding basically – same for Park. Similar to a Vans Park Series event or bowl contest but not branded. VPS and X Games are not sanctioned events.
There is also a selection process done at a country level for those who wish to participate in the open competition at sanctioned qualifying events. The opens are basically for people not currently pre-qualified. If you do well in the open, you get through the next round and so forth. Creating the opens was a critical part of opening up the competitions to all people around the world and giving them the chance to get to the Olympics.
In reference to the US Team you’ve mentioned, yes, sure, I guess it’s a team but none of them are guaranteed. Technically they are really just the squad of hopefuls. I mean, of course Nyjah [Huston] will get there, but in reality there can only be three US skaters per event. They have four in each division, so someone will miss out.
But just for argument’s sake, let’s say that someone not on that US Team, say Eric Koston, decides he wants to earn his spot at Tokyo. He would have to apply to Team USA for selection to skate the open division at the next qualifying event, as he currently has no World Ranking points. If he won that competition and then a couple more and got some big points, he could push other US skaters down the ranking.
So every country can have a maximum of three skaters in each event, right?
Each country can have a maximum of three skaters at the Olympics, per event. You can only be one of those three if you have enough points in the World Ranking. If you look at the World Ranking, there are a lot of countries who have more than three skaters actively competing to try get their spot. The US, Brazil and Japan all fall into this scenario, so at each competition, they are battling amongst themselves for their spot. If you’re ranked fourth or lower from your country, you won’t be in the Olympics. After the World Championships, two months before Tokyo, those ranked fourth and lower will be removed from the ranking, and the ladder will shift up to settle on the final order.
And then there is the Continental Rule, how does that work?
Yeah, so each continent must be represented at the Olympics – that’s what the five circles on the flag represent. Australia sits within the continent of Oceania, along with New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and islands like Fiji and Samoa. For competitors in Oceania (and every other continent), it means if you are the highest placed skater in your continent at the end of the 2020 season, you will be in the Olympics.
There’s an anomaly that applies here for Australia at the moment. As far as I know, there aren’t any competitors from any of the other countries within Oceania. This effectively means that if you are the highest placed Australian in your competition at the end of the 2020 season, you will be skating in Tokyo. Even if your ranking is not in the top 20, you get a spot automatically for the continent. But of course, someone in your country could come up behind you during the 2020 season or someone from within the continent, say from New Zealand or Papua New Guinea, could start competing and overtake you.
Poppy Starr Olsen transfers a backside air at the World Skate Park World Championships in Sao Paulo. Photo by Piero Capannini.
Right, so who is most likely to represent Australia at this point?
Based on this information and the current World Ranking, if the Olympics were next week, the people who will be at Tokyo would be Shane O’Neill, Hayley Wilson, Keegan Palmer and Poppy Starr. But the 2020 year is still to come, and there are several skaters still actively entering qualifying contests, and trying to get themselves the points to climb higher up the rankings. Some of them are: Tommy Fynn, Brad Saunders, Joey Cormack, Haylie Powell, Liv Lovelace, Taniah Meyers, Shanae Collins, Charlotte Heath, Kieran Woolley and Ethan Copeland.
It seems like Tommy Fynn had a few options, having been born in South Africa and partly raised in New Zealand and then Australia. What are the rules around which country you can represent?
The rules and regulations around which country you represent fall into line with citizenship and nationality rules. Some people who have different nationalities in their backgrounds can choose who they’d like to represent and then go through the application process to become a citizen of that country. This needs to be done early in the piece. You can’t not qualify for your country and then change at the last minute to get in.
A lot of people have joked about uniforms. Who’s designing them? Any idea what they will look like?
Asics is the official uniform sponsor of the Australian Olympic team. Footwear is considered a tool, so all skaters will skate in their normal sponsored footwear. I’ve seen the uniforms, and they’re looking good, and aren’t really that different from what you’d see people skating in these days. We’ve had big input on colour and the designs and materials so people feel comfortable.
Keegan Palmer is currently ranked fourth in Men's Park and set to do Australia proud at the 2020 Olympics. FSA photo by Thomas R Cordova.
When you say the uniforms aren’t that different from what people are wearing these days, I’m guessing you don’t mean Nyjah's tighty whities? Will there be any Lycra?
The Australian uniforms are basic chino pants, T-shirts and hats. Pretty standard skate attire really.
Do you know who’s designing the courses? Is there any indication of what they might look like?
California Skateparks are doing the Tokyo course. Apparently, it is already designed, yet they are not revealing the course ’til closer to the games. Word on the street is it’s gonna be big.
Is it true the tickets for the Tokyo 2020 skate events sold out on the first day? Are there tickets available for family or friends of our Australian team?
Apparently tickets sold out in five minutes for the street skating. I believe that family and friends will have access to purchased tickets via the AOC [Australian Olympic Committee] once the people competing are confirmed.
What date will the skate events be held?
Opening Ceremony is July 24.
Men’s Street: July 26.
Women’s Street: July 27.
Women’s Park: August 5.
Men’s Park: August 6.
Hayley Wilson is Australia's leading hopeful in the Women's Street division. Hip kickflip to fakie. Photo by Bryce Golder.
Think you’ve got the chops to compete in the Australian Olympic qualifying events? Head over here.