No rush for gold
Last week in London, action sports icon Shaun White -- in town to make sponsor appearances and offer color commentary on women's gymnastics for NBC -- stirred a long-simmering pot when he not-so-subtly campaigned for skateboarding to be included in the Olympic program.
"I've heard talk about 2016 in Brazil maybe getting skateboarding," White, a two-time Olympic snowboarding champion and five-time X Games skateboarding medalist, told Reuters. "For me that would be like the ultimate, to compete in winter and summer."
White's comments were candid yet perfectly timed. Major media outlets from USA Today to Fox News ran the story, insinuating that White could soon become a rare two-sport Olympian. The only problem? The list of sports for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics has been set since 2009, and skateboarding never had a realistic shot.
In fact, according to the International Olympic Committee, skateboarding is not even a "recognized sport." The IOC recognizes 33 summer sports, and you can't apply to be added to the Olympics if you're not on the list. (To become recognized, a sport must be regulated by an international federation and adopt the Olympic Charter.) White was likely referring to a controversial scenario in which skateboarding would be added as a new discipline within an existing Olympic sport, namely cycling. But after discussing that possibility last year, International Cycling Union president Pat McQuaid told ESPN.com that the UCI has abandoned the plan for Rio and won't revisit it unless specifically requested to do so by the IOC.
Given those terms, you'd expect the campaigning for skateboarding's inclusion to have relented. Not so. The debate has persisted for decades -- a public comment here, another there -- making it one of the longest-running dialogues in action sports. And there's a reason it lingers. Proponents like White, whose estimated $8 million annual earnings are heavily tied to his Olympic achievements, and industry companies hungry for mainstream exposure would stand to make a lot of money from skateboarding's Olympic inclusion. So would the IOC.
Two years ago, Tony Hawk told The National, a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, "I think the Olympics needs skateboarding much more than skateboarding needs the Olympics. The Summer Games desperately need that cool factor, something that snowboarding has added to the Winter Olympics. The Summer Games just don't have that."
It's a point the IOC, which began talking about skateboarding in 2007, doesn't deny. With billion-dollar TV deals that require ever-more-compelling action to broadcast, skateboarding could serve a key role as the IOC strives to keep the Games fresh and relevant.
"Our problem is that we see that young people are not that interested in the Olympics anymore," Gerhard Heiberg, a longtime IOC executive board member from Norway, told ESPN.com in December 2010. "We need to find sports attracting ages between 16 and 24. Skateboarding is of course interesting to us because you have young people operating this, but we have found that at this stage it is not well enough organized."
A major hang-up has been the lack of a universally accepted governing body. Three organizations currently stake some claim to representing skateboarding to the IOC -- the International Skateboarding Federation (ISF), the International Federation of Roller Sports (FIRS) and the UCI -- but hard-core skateboarders don't subscribe to any of them.
The sport also is known for an institutionalized fear of structure, which conflicts with the IOC's mandates when it comes to competitions. For starters, Heiberg said the IOC wants to see regularly organized world championships and "a minimum 70 countries on all five continents holding regular competitions." Don't count on that quota being met any time soon.
Once the IOC recognizes a sport, it still faces a long road to getting into the Summer Games. All candidate sports begin with an extensive questionnaire and are then assessed against seven criteria, from the legitimacy of their international federations to their contest transparency to their image. Sports also must demonstrate "added value" through potential new sponsors they'd bring or by increasing the Olympics' TV appeal. With the docket maxed at 28 summer sports, one must be dropped for another to be added.
"The composition of the Olympic Program is systematically reviewed after each edition of the Games in order to keep it relevant and appealing to younger generations," IOC spokesman Andrew Mitchell said in an email. "Great efforts have been made to modernize the Olympic Games to remain in tune with the latest trends and developments in world sport. It is during this evaluation process that candidate sports are also considered for inclusion."
Despite the Olympic buzz about skateboarding, the sport remains fractured. Lance Mountain, 48, turned pro in 1981 and was part of the highly influential Bones Brigade collective, which also included Hawk. Mountain speaks for much of the skateboarding community when he says, "I don't think it should be in the Olympics. Skating is a subjective art form. It's a lot more like music -- it's supposed to turn people on. Putting skateboarding in the Olympics would be like having Rush, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and the Sex Pistols all play a set, then judging them."
Nevertheless, most insiders, including Mountain, still believe skateboarding will be added at some point. The potential benefits are too rich. If it does join the five-ring circus, Mountain and his contemporaries hope the IOC stages events in which the winner can be determined objectively. "Longest ollie or highest ollie," Mountain says. "Or slalom racing. Or the game of S.K.A.T.E. Make it measured, make it timed. It cannot be judged the way gymnastics is judged."
At a point when the number of competitors at each Summer Olympics has reached 10,500, the next Olympiad to possibly add new sports would be the 2020 games, with decisions to be announced next year in Buenos Aires. Sports under consideration include rollerblading, squash, wakeboarding and a Chinese martial art called wushu.
Realistically, the earliest we could see skateboarding in the Olympics as its own sport -- and not a discipline under, say, cycling's umbrella -- would be 2024. By then, Shaun White will be 37 years old and likely watching from the sideline.