Skateboarding, surfing and climbing are closer to being part of the Olympic Games at Tokyo in 2020 after the Olympic movement took another big step forward in its ambitions to reach a younger, “cooler” audience.
The three sports, along with karate, baseball and softball, were recommended for inclusion by the Tokyo Games organisers, with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) making the final decision in Rio de Janeiro next August. Bids to include squash, bowling and wushu, a Chinese martial art, were rejected with 26 federations trying to get their sports included..
While karate and baseball were chosen because of their popularity in Japan, the choice of skateboarding, surfing and climbing promises to tap into a younger audience and a changing sports counterculture.
“The key word is youth,” Toshiyuki Akiyama, vice governor of Tokyo and a member of the additional event programme panel, said.
Surfing would take place on shortboards with wave machines, thus standardising the waves and removing the luck element by which competitions are often won by a surfer getting the best waves. It would also mean that the competition could take place near the other Olympic events and not be restricted to countries with ocean coastlines.
“Surfing has incredible and growing global appeal, particularly among young people,” Fernando Aguerre, the International Surfing Association president, said. “Surfing embodies a cool, playful lifestyle that would add a completely new element to the programme, helping the Games reach new fans through live action and stunning broadcast opportunities.”
Skateboarding has been a mainstay of the X Games since their launch in 1995 along with BMX, which was first included in the Olympics in 2008. If approved next summer, there will be two codes of skateboarding, both trick-based, one staged in a skatepark and the other in a street setting.
The popularity of snowboarding at the Winter Olympics encouraged the supporters of skateboarding, while the sport’s urban image also made it popular with Tokyo’s officials.
There will be a combined climbing event, set on an artificial climbing wall, with a points system picking an overall winner from the three main disciplines of climbing — lead, bouldering and speed.
“We know younger people tend to stay indoors nowadays, and we believe we included events that will drive people outside,” Tomiaki Fukuda, the president of the Japan Wrestling Federation, said. “It will create a new image for the Olympic Games.”
The changes would add another 18 gold medals to the Olympic schedule and an extra 474 athletes, within the cap of 500 additional athletes set by the IOC.
Baseball and softball had been dropped from the Olympics before the 2012 Games. London’s original bid had included plans for a temporary stadium in Regent’s Park.
The sports were introduced in 1992 but struggled for popularity as baseball’s biggest stars did not compete, because of the refusal of Major League Baseball to suspend its season for the duration of the Olympics. In a bid to keep numbers down, there would be six teams in each event.
Karate will be hoping to get into the Games at the third attempt, after bids to be included in 2012 and 2016 were turned down. It has also shrunk its ambition to be involved, with eight events, split evenly between men and women.
There was another blow, though, for squash in its long-running attempts for Olympic inclusion. It was beaten by wrestling in a vote by the IOC two years ago, but was given a lifeline when the body decided that host cities could select extra sports.
“I know I speak on behalf of the millions of squash players around the world for whom the opportunity of seeing their sport participate in the Olympics has been an absolute priority — and, like me, they will be heartbroken,” said Narayana Ramachandran, president of the World Squash Federation, which will now begin the campaign for inclusion in 2024.
“This is not the end for squash. Our sport, played by vast numbers week in and week out, flourishes at every level from recreational to events around the world. We will go from strength to strength while we continue to target participation at a future date in the Games.”