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First Ever Olympic Park Finalist Contest Recap

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Skateboarding

Women's Recap

Among everything written and said about skateboarding’s inclusion in the Olympics, there has certainly been a sense that whatever the real or imagined drawbacks might be, they didn’t apply to the nascent women’s scene. In an activity and industry dominated by boys of various ages, women’s skateboarding is now doing its own thing and so all caveats and criticisms are out the window as far as the girls are concerned. If one facet of skateboarding was really going to explode onto the public imagination it was Park skating, continuous and quantifiable. If one sex was going to bring the promise of skateboarding to life, it was the women’s events where camaraderie and the sense of being part of something new happening right now is palpable. Intoxicating, even.

In the Women’s Park finals in Tokyo both those things dovetailed together and crystallised to create a glorious moment. Skateboarding more generally could learn much from it. Leaving aside the assignations of awards for a moment, two things were immediately clear. 

Firstly, the bowl configuration on which the contest was held at the Ariake Urban Sports Park is absolutely gigantic. Television cameras can struggle to translate the size of curved surfaces but watching skaters use the cutaway hip sections as platforms to climb out of the structure you suddenly grasp that the lip is twice the head height of some competitors. This is riding giants, the concrete equivalent of big wave surfing, where liptricks can be more dangerous than airs.

The other unarguable fact is that this was the highest standard women’s skateboard contest ever. There’s nowhere to hide out there if you only have five tricks to your name.

The fact that Sakura Yosozumi won gold with her first run does nothing to either diminish the achievement or do justice to the excitement of the contest itself. The fact is that the 19-year-old Japanese transition maestro—which she clearly is—has hit the prime of her skateboarding life just on time. Having 900-specialist Sandro Dias fly over from Brazil to coach her on rotation techniques for hitherto elusive 540’s clearly paid off, as she dialed in not one but two in a single run. In a field where the caliber-gap has shrunk dramatically since she began competing in 2018, carrying the crowd can make the difference and she carried the small but raucous one here.

Interestingly she forewent trying to repeat the feat on her final run and added a couple of different tricks which she knew wouldn’t increase her score just for the hell of it.

Relaxed, composed, enjoying the experience, if she felt under pressure it didn’t show. She loved the experience and was a deserved gold medal winner.

Hot on her heels was Kokona Hiraki in silver who again came out swinging on her opening run and proved unassailable. While she didn’t have an audience-wowing 540 in her bag, she can kickflip a square-nosed board on command and has the best nosegrind in the game. Unafraid to attack the pool coping and the park’s most treacherous elements like backside lipsliding over a hip and risking everything on smith stalls on the offset metal sub-box which everyone else avoided, much will be made of her youth but she is fantastic devoid of any context.

In some respects, Sky Brown has been the face of the Tokyo Olympics up to now, a cypher to represent the changing nexus of sport, representation and entertainment. In what will remain one of the biggest stories within what may yet be the biggest success of the entire Olympics, Sky Brown managed to gel a final run which garnered her enough points to break up a Japanese podium hegemony by sticking a kickflip indy upon which her previous two runs had floundered.

The roar of the Games went up and she understandably wept with elation and relief. They were sadly not the only tears to be shed onto the hot concrete underfoot.

With an ending Hollywood scriptwriters would find implausible, the last turn of the cards went to the girl Sky had just displaced from the bronze medal position, first-placed qualifier Misugu Okamoto, who was having her own struggles with the same trick elsewhere. The most energized and intensely-focused skater in the finals, she had a gold-medal run in mind but was denied on the kickflip indy going into the flat bank on ballistic runs where she had already landed two 540 variations. Had she not gone for broke on that trick, she may well have won a medal just by completing her second run, and the desperation with which she clawed at the elusive board with both hands on her final attempt was heartbreaking to watch. She was bereft with disappointment, but hoisted aloft by her fellow competitors in a moving act of skateboarding sisterhood. If the gods of consistency smile on her, she is a future gold medal prospect.

Australia’s Poppy Olsen has clearly established herself as one of the energy centers of the women’s contest circuit. She clearly loves what she does and kept the vibes light for herself and the other competitors throughout the scorching day. Having made it through her entire second run via a treacherous gap to slide n’ roll which denied her first time around she can be satisfied that fifth place was as good as she could have hoped for given that the leaderboard split between the top and bottom brackets was fully seven points.

In sixth was crowd favorite Bryce Wettstein, the radiant American with the most creative trick choices and a timeless backside ollie. Frighteningly comfortable on big transitions, she set the atmospheric tempo and acted as big sister to people she was in competition with. That is what makes skateboarding different. Notably, she came unstuck-slamming heavily on her last run on the same flatbank which took out Olson and Okamoto, Wettstein’s courtesy of a second attempt at the lesser-spotted boneless fingerflip. A talismanic and charismatic figure, Bryce Wettstein might be remembered as skateboarding’s spirit of the Games.

Seventh fell to Sao Paulo’s Dora Varella, someone else who brought sunshine energy to match the 33-degree heat of the Tokyo afternoon. Frontside stand-up grinding into every run in that swashbuckling Brazilian tradition, she hurtled around pausing only to nosepick backside, grabless the very deepest deep-end she could find and almost stuck a heelflip indy on her last trick of the day. Landing that may have bumped her up a ranking place or two but her easygoing nature and support for the entire field will have done her career more good than that deck shuffle could.

Eighth went to the Yndiara Asp, the superb Brazilian charger who has done so well in events held in historic skateparks. Having turned her back on a career as a PE teacher to skate full time, she had an excellent first run but got snagged on the tiles of the pool coping twice early on in her latter two runs in one of those rotten luck scenarios you can never discount in skateboarding. It isn’t a science and nothing is ever guaranteed. Like her Brazilian compatriot Varella, Yndi brought her upfull disposition to bear on the situation and remains one of the stars of the final for that reason in any eventuality.

If the praise seems effusive it is only because the whole thing was fantastic. Regardless of who placed where, women’s skateboarding as a standalone entity did itself real credit on the largest international stage today, and will doubtless flourish in manifold new ways from hereon in.

The skateboarding industry is now left to play catch-up. Exciting times ahead for the entire activity.

Men's Recap

The thing most likely to linger in the memory from Men’s Park skateboarding final in Tokyo is not an image but a sound. The sheer speed of the skating in the final sessions was right on the edge of possibility, tribute not only to the skaters themselves but to innovations in park design which made the concrete sound as fast as riding on glass. The park construction was essentially perfect, and the skating sounded like a rocket ride thundering throughout it: fantastic and exhilarating.

It may be that the 18 month hiatus in international competition might have blunted our expectations of what was likely to unfold, or perhaps nobody knew what today would produce in terms of the level of skateboarding. Notably it was the first skateboarding final with no Japanese presence and was by extension guaranteed to close out the possibility of a clean sweep of gold medals by the host nation.

Instead we had a line-up which more classically represented the competitive make-up of skateboarding’s historic heartlands: three Brazilians, two Australians, an American, a Puerto Rican and a lone European. As a mix goes, it really couldn’t have been more exciting: the Brazilians never fail to turn up and three in the final guaranteed they would try to form a juggernaut, and they did. Australia had until now had a relatively subdued first showing in the inaugural Olympic Games for skateboarding, with only Poppy Olsen’s creditable fifth the day before troubling any of the 24 finalists positions. That was about to change.

As we noted in his rider profile, Keegan Palmer arrived in Tokyo as the great unknowable. Raised in Australia but relocated to California he had a solid, but perhaps not, trailblazing run into the Olympics and showing flashes of potential greatness that characterize future stars like Curren Caples. Having done enough but not more to make it to Tokyo, the question became would he have used the competitive downtime productively; he was, after all, by no means a favorite to win based on his road here.

The answer was emphatic, he has delivered on his potential and has arrived a fully-formed skateboard star. A deserved winner, his first run alone made him unbeatable, containing no less than three 540s and two flip tricks, at speed, in an unbroken run. On his third run, he landed a kickflip 540, the trick of the entire Games, and improved upon his own otherwise unchallenged first score. A double victory, you might say. Truly incredible, blisteringly fast with it, he left Pedro Barros with a mountain to climb.

One of the greatest concrete skaters of all-time is always a good box office draw, and on the biggest of stages he did not disappoint. Although Pedro Barros only made it to the buzzer on his first run, it was something for the ages and will no doubt be watched for years to come. Nobody is doing stalefish 540’s; a trick in which the grab is actively working against your ability to rotate. Pedro made three vast ones today, one to start each run: huge, tweaked bird wings circling in the air. Really something to behold.

His silver medal-winning first run began there and developed into a mastery of charging. The fastest, the most emphatically expressive skateboarder in that theatre today, he did enough to win on any other day and was a righteous, gracious, superb silver.

If there is one thing that skateboard contests always benefit from it is the presence of a mercurial, unpredictable talent which is guided as much by spirit as the mind and in Cory Juneau we were treated to just that. He probably would admit to being surprised at finding himself the sole standard-bearer for the homeland of skateboarding here, but he had two magical runs right out of the gate showcasing the dreamiest, floatiest frontside flips you will ever see and made skateboarding seem weightless and effortless. He stepped off one of his head-height 540’s early in his final run, but by that stage had already done enough to earn bronze, but only just.

Luiz Francisco waited until the very last run of the day to put together the ride of his life so far. As first placed-qualifier, he was the final skater to roll in during each heat and sensed he might have enough left in the tank for a bronze medal. Ending a flawless run including a buzzer-beating 540, he kicked his helmet toward the Brazilian crew in the stands in elation, only to flinch with disappointment when he came up just a point short for fourth. Nonetheless, you get the feeling that, like the guy just below him in the final standings, a new star was born in Tokyo today. Pedro Barros might be the face of Brazilian park skateboarding today, but Luiz Francisco is one to watch in years to come.

The guy he pipped into fifth with that run was Australian dangerman Kieran Woolley, who at 17 already has all the assurance and poise of a veteran. Keen to go bigger than anyone else, he interestingly forewent the convention of trying to end on a show-stopping blaster in favor of dialing in a hurtling barrage ending on a grind transfer which cost a careless cameraman dearly at one stage. Alongside Cory Juneau, Kieran Woolley brought an air of reckless abandon to skating the course which really stood out. Having fluffed the flip indy over the hip to flatbank in his final run and with his Olympic story by then a foregone conclusion, he went back and stuck it for the crowd in the great tradition of energy exchange. A very exciting skater to watch and one who, like Margie Didal in Women’s Street, will return home with a lot of new fans based off the unique energy they brought into the scorching fulcrum of the Tokyo Olympics.

Steven Piñeiro did himself and Puerto Rico no small credit with his sixth place. Although he struggled with timing on his second and third runs, thereby losing out on the additional points the kickflip body jar he intended to sign off with might have brought him, it would have been unlikely to bridge the six-point gap to move up a ranking spot. Like Pedro Quintas, Yancy can take a lot of pride from making it to the world’s greatest stage through a qualifying field that left Heimana Reynolds, Oski Rozenberg and Zion Wright spectating.

The sight of freewheeling bohemian Frenchman Vincent Matheron in the final was the other great story of the qualifying scramble. One of only a handful of Europeans from his generation capable of mixing at this level, he has been dogged by horrendous ankle and shoulder injuries but still possesses the kind of fearless cull-clip commitment that you suspect he struggles to tame. He got snagged three times on high-speed liptricks and didn’t complete a run, but no matter: given that he may never have skated again after surgery, his presence here in the top 8 was fairytale enough. A real master-blaster and a joy to watch, even if that is sometimes through your fingers.

Completing the leaderboard was the third Brazilian, Pedro Quintas on whom the scale of the occasion may have began to tell. A product of imperfect skate terrain which is as often likely to be DIY construction as competition standard, the relatively unknown all-round skater from São Paulo came into the Olympic Games ranked 162nd in the world and qualified for the finals in third place.

Like Matheron he was unable to complete any of his runs on the hard slick curves of the Ariake Urban Sports Park, but he has raised his profile immeasurably and the sponsorship offers are likely to come flying his way before he even gets home.

So let’s add some broad brush strokes here: skateboarding has completed its Olympic debut. More eyes are on the skate game now than ever before. Participation numbers will skyrocket, small businesses and large will benefit, but nobody will benefit than the lives both touched, and about to be touched, by the activity which has set these Olympic Games apart.

Remember: Paris is only three years away.

Words: Niall Neeson

Photos: Jaime Owens, Bryce Kanights, Jeff Landi