Friday, August 17, 2007

Olympics and Skateboarding.....

Commentary: Olympic skateboard a good idea or not?

Friday, August 17, 2007
BY BRIAN HENDRICKSON, Columbian staff writer

PORTLAND - Bob Burnquist's eyes glow when he recalls grasping the Olympic torch.

He carried it briefly once through his native Brazil, holding it aloft while riding his skateboard. It spurred emotions in him about the power of sport and the Olympic Games' ability to unite the world during difficult times.

But add skateboarding to the Olympic program?

The suggestion steers Burnquist toward a new range of emotions. He instantly grows skeptical. He wonders whether the clash of cultures can work together. Burnquist questions the International Olympic Committee's motivations, whether the forces pulling his sport toward those games truly understand it, and whether the movement to shoehorn skateboarding into the 2012 London games is in the sport's best interests.

"I'd rather it not happen than happen the wrong way," Burnquist said Thursday after finishing his preliminary run on the vert ramp at the AST Dew Tour in the Rose Garden. "They need us more than we need them. And that's OK. But we need to figure this out."

It's a unique position for a sport that has thrived for years on its independence and has grown exponentially - and effortlessly - in the last decade. Big money sponsors, corporations and television networks have flocked to its events, spurring video game franchises, prime-time broadcasts, swelling earning potential for athletes and expanding the sport's audience despite the lack of a governing body to steer its direction.

Now the IOC is trying to snag a piece of that popularity, hoping it can draw younger viewers to bolster the Summer Games' sagging ratings. They're so eager to add the sport that the IOC approached the International Cycling Union this summer to discuss adding the sport in 2012 under the cycling banner.

Many question what it would mean for skateboarding.

"It's touchy," said Paul Zitzer, a former pro skateboarder who now works as a television analyst for NBC's broadcasts of the Dew Tour. "I think it always will be just because skateboarding, a lot of people who have been in it for a long time - in the industry, work for the magazines, work for the companies, run the companies - when they started skateboarding, it was like this rebellious thing. The closer it gets to being an Olympic thing, the further it gets away from what it was."

Older skaters remember "what it was" as a sport that had little in common with - or need for - the Olympics.

When Zitzer started skating 22 years ago, the sport was a grass roots activity that preferred its underground status. There were no Fortune 500 companies like Toyota sponsoring events in major venues. And unlike the Olympics - with its national network broadcasts - exposure for skateboarders was limited to videos produced by skateboard companies. The culture remained fiercely independent and strayed from the mainstream.

But the last decade produced significant changes. ESPN's X-Games has given the sport mainstream exposure. Tony Hawk - a legend in the sport since the 1980s - developed his own clothing line sold in major stores like Kohl's, and a video game franchise. Shaun White, who won an Olympic Gold medal in snowboarding last year and leads the Dew Tour's vert ramp competitions, has shot commercials for American Express and Hewlett Packard.

Many view the Olympics as an inevitable step in that evolution. But the irony escapes few.

Television ratings for the Olympics has dropped while skating's popularity has erupted. And the IOC's eagerness to add a sport that can attract young audiences - a demographic that would satisfy their sponsors and television partners - has helped fuel skepticism in the skateboarding community. Some question whether skateboarding needs the Olympics, producing an ongoing controversy on both sides.

On one end are the cautious skeptics like Burnquist, who question the proposal to place skating under the Cycling Union's banner and whether it would spark turf battles over the fundamental differences between the sports. Entering the Olympics also raises the potential that the sport could start losing its independence. Without a governing body, who will look out for the skateboarders?

But those on the other end see tremendous benefits: More exposure for athletes, and possibly increased sponsorships. Increased exposure could help awareness in the sport, which could lead to the development of more public skate parks. The business and development potential is enormous.

But throughout that spectrum of concerns are an endless series of questions. The momentum appears destined to carry it toward Olympic recognition, but few know how it will shape the sport.

The possibility has created a mixture of emotions: excitement, uncertainty and anxiety. Nobody is certain what to expect from a future that moves skateboarding from extreme to mainstream.

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