At the start of 2020, skateboarding was gearing up to make its Olympic debut among the likes of sport climbing, karate and baseball. Having never featured in the games’ 124 year history, fans and competitors were begrudgingly made to wait one more year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the re-scheduled Tokyo ‘2021’ edging ever-closer, Team GB will soon form their own contingent of skateboarders to fight for gold in the sport’s maiden campaign. Alex Hallford, a shaggy-haired skateboarding sensation from Nottingham, is one of those vying for a seat on the plane.
At face value, all seems rosy for Hallford and the sport. However, among certain subgroups of skateboarding fandom, there is a persistent unease with the cultural incompatibility between a rebellious, underground sport and a mainstream global event. Certainly, the Olympics represent a daunting yet exciting crossroads for one of the gnarliest sports around.
Hallford first picked up a skateboard at the age of ten. He said: “I saw someone skating on my local mini-ramp when I was a kid and that was that. It looked amazing, visually seeing someone fly around on a board was what got me hooked initially, and the feeling was way better when you’re doing it yourself.”
An up-and-down love affair with the sport characterised his teenage years, but the 28-year-old has now jumped in head first, earning first place in the GB National Championships back in April.
Having taken a huge step towards Olympic qualification, Hallford still seems noticeably relaxed as he discusses his chances from the backroom of Nottingham’s FortyTwo skate shop.
He said: “I’m not exactly sure where I’m standing on the world leaderboards at the moment but I’m getting closer. We’re just lucky the nationals happened, it was great fun and great to see everyone again. We’ll see where I end up.”
Such a laid back attitude is typical of skateboarding’s long-cultivated counter-culture. A recent interview Hallford conducted for Men’s Health described it as ‘beautiful chaos’.
In less poetic terms, Hallford said: “The culture is wicked. There is such a broad spectrum of people skating – some people don’t drink, some people love drinking while they skate, there’s a bit of everything.
“It’s been through the highs of becoming quite mainstream and then it became super underground again. It’s very creative as a sport so it’s always attracted those who want to be creative with physical expression, almost like dance.”
It therefore came as a surprise when a sport built on creative identity and rebellious principles became associated with the polite, suit and tie wearing anti-political realm of The Olympics. It seems almost like a collaboration between Red Bull and Yorkshire Tea – both loosely in the same domain, but… really?
Hallford said: “I think it was basically inevitable with snowboarding and the success that has had in the winter Olympics. The cultures do contrast though, that’s for sure.
“Some people within skateboarding are anti-Olympics but at the end of the day it will never really affect the underground – those scenes will always be there anyway. I’m interested to see how it all pans out.”
One thing is for sure, it is a giant leap for the exposure of competitive skateboarding. Those involved with the sport have been consulted in the establishment of Skateboard GB, their own Olympic department, but scarce funding leaves them without a nutritionist or physiotherapist which many other countries enjoy.
Balance, awareness, stamina and courage are all key attributes in what is an extremely demanding sport, meaning nutrition and conditioning have become increasingly important as time has worn on.
The Olympics is a step in the right direction towards popularising the competitive branch of the sport, but the absence of proper funding leaves plenty of growing room.
Hallford said: “It’s one of those sports which looks extremely easy but it’s definitely not – I’d put it up there as one of the hardest.
“You have to take the elite level events seriously if you want to do well. The older skaters have already started to set an example for the younger ones, because among the younger group there is a lot of partying so it’s all filtering down.
“You’re putting your body through a lot of stress and impact; all it takes is one little slip up and you can really damage yourself so having people on hand would be very helpful. Hopefully, there will be more funding in the years going forward so that me or whoever else qualifies for the Olympics can benefit from it.”
One has to wonder about skateboarding in a post-Olympic world. The most protective skaters will worry that an influx of new participants could dilute their culture, while the idea of skating to attain sporting recognition rather than joy is enough to make some feel sick to their stomach.
Hallford is markedly more optimistic, citing increased funding for skate parks and improved business for board markers as two key positives. He added: “These days it is very inviting and people are very welcoming, at least in Nottingham and around the UK.
“It’s still a very hard sport, a load of people might get into it but you still have to be a certain kind of person to stick it through and want to keep falling off and progressing. Whether new people flood in or not, skateboarding will always have its own offshoots and subcultures.”
Hallford could seal his Olympic qualification through competitions in the coming weeks, meaning there could be plenty for everyone to be excited about this summer.
A smattering of sporting neutrals will soon marvel at skateboarding’s maiden voyage into the global televised mainstream. Meanwhile, the stubbornly rebellious wing within the sport should, according to Hallford himself, have faith that it will be able to navigate through a changing landscape with their unique principles in intact.