Keeping it Surreal

Keeping it Surreal

Volunteer journalist Brian Salmon took part in the recent Pan-American Games, and reports from The World Games sports from there:

At first sight, the 20th Century cultural movement of Surrealism has nothing to do with athletic competition. However there is an Olympic sport, no less, which is in essence a surrealist performance: Street Skateboarding! Prior to World War 1, the dominant art movement was Impressionism, which depicted crowds of people doing pleasant, communal activities, in gloriously lit, picturesque settings. However the horrors of the conflict led to a darker mood, in which older certainties were questioned. The Surrealists responded to this Zeitgeist by challenging what could be used to represent visible reality. So, in their world, a lobster became a telephone receiver, and an unidentifiable apple was used as a substitute for a human face. A distorted watch represented not just an indication of the time of day, but a metaphor for the increasing unreliability of human memory.

Virtually every sport that has been played, even the creative and artistic ones, rely on a conventional view of reality for the activity to be performed. The governing federation sets out the equipment to be used, the number of athletes permitted, and how the athletes are to use that equipment, and then the players perform within those fixed limitations. So a gymnast, for example, will not perform their balance beam routine when using the vault apparatus. Even in the extreme outdoor sports where competitors ride on boards to perform jaw-dropping tricks, they are still operating within the confines of their specific environment.

Thus the park skateboarders and snowboarders will use the pipes, bowls and ledges to generate momentum for their spectacular twists and somersaults. Likewise, the surfers and wakeboarders will leverage the surging power of the water to assist their competitive efforts. A beautiful, imaginative sport like Rhythmic Gymnastics is built around how the competitors interact with the apparatus in their routine. However the athletes in the barely disguised competitive ballet activity still use the objects according to their form and purpose. Clubs can only be thrown and beaten, hoops and balls are, of course, rolled and caught. What else could you do with them?

If you have the disruptive imagination of a street skateboarder, then pretty much anything! The subversive genius of the skateboard riders is that they do not look at ordinary, unregarded objects conventionally; they will instead have an instinctive grasp of how their immediate environment can be repurposed to showcase their skills. In their eyes, the most mundane piece of street furniture appears to be a magical playground: railings, which normally protect from danger and signify a zone where fun activities are not permitted, are suddenly transformed into risky, exhilarating objects to slide upon. An item like a bench, somewhere to rest and pass the time, becomes a high-speed place of transition for energetic leaps and glides.

Conversely, features such as steps and ramps, which serve no other purpose than to enable the conventional pedestrian to pass through quickly, are turned into creative, discovery zones and are now destinations in their own right. Why descend the steps, when you can leap over them? Or even better, traverse the ledges to which the handrails are attached and then on landing, switch your leading foot! The street skateboarders realised that you do not have to be physically inside the arena to appreciate athletic performance and have a sense of community; even without a ticket you can have exactly the same experience in the stadium car park.

With a flick of the foot and a change of the centre of gravity, the mundane becomes the wondrous; locations that have no significance, other than their usefulness in getting to somewhere else more interesting, suddenly are covered by an invisible circus marquee. The riders have the rare talent to transform place and object alike. Even the simple mechanical device they use to transport themselves around their chosen course takes on new forms constantly. Obviously, the board goes forward as it was designed to do, but the next moment it is sliding sideways along the rails, and then the performer is riding backwards up the slope. For a second, it can even become a back to the future hoverboard as the rider takes to the air; bafflingly, there appears minimal separation between feet and board.

Ironically, as Street Skateboarding has moved into the mainstream and massively gained in popularity and exposure, the subversive activity has itself been subverted. The same arenas that banned the riders from congregating outside to practise are now only too happy to let the athletes perform inside. The free-spirited entertainers are now regarded as marketing products for The Man. The rails and seats are used for their original purpose of directing the enthusiastic fans to their designated places. Previously, the riders would appear before magistrates, who would enforce where they could not skate; now it is sporting judges who evaluate what they can do. At one time it did not matter whether they fell off when practising a trick, they would dust themselves off and try again. Nowadays just five single tricks are permitted; lose your balance and you fail to score. In the urban environment the skateboarders could perform as long as they liked; under the floodlights there are no limits to how their creativity can be expressed, apart from, crucially, their run must be completed in 45 seconds. It is like presenting a paintbrush to Michelangelo, pointing to the Sistine Chapel and indicating he can paint whatever he fancies, just so long as it is completed tomorrow!

For the fans who flocked to the Skateboard venue adjacent to Santiago’s National Stadium to enjoy the Street competition at the Pan American Games, these restrictions did not appear to matter in the slightest. They roared their appreciation of the physics-defying jumps, tricks and turns. This was not your standard medal competition! For a start, the riders dressed in their baggy trousers and wearing headphones and earbuds did not look like your normal smartly turned out athletes. Their warm-ups included perfunctory and mostly futile rehearsals of their best tricks. For one unfortunate Canadian skateboarder, this pre-competition period was an accurate predictor of her eventual performance. Of the seven times she dropped in, gravity was the decisive victor on all but one occasion.

However the other riders stepped up, both literally and figuratively. The commentator’s frequent initial observations of “Wow!” and “Are you kidding me!”, whilst not contributing much to the understanding of the technicalities of the sport, were a perfect reflection of how the spectators were responding to the extraordinary skills and tricks. The many Brazilian fans were dancing to the Samba Street, as their two riders proved that the iron rails were not the only metal they would be coming into contact with. Rosa Leite blossomed and climbed to second place on the podium. In such a surreal sport, it seemed only fitting that the gold medal was won by a “Little Fairy”, the nickname by which 15-year-old Rayssa Leal is known. Street Skateboarding made its Olympic debut at the 2021 Games, and by claiming silver in Tokyo she became the youngest medallist in 85 years.

Skateboarding is not the only World Skate discipline on display in Santiago. Fans of wheel-propelled humans can also watch inline skaters compete in Speed Skating and Artistic Skating. The latter two disciplines will also feature in the inline skating competitions that are part of the sports programme of the next edition of The World Games in Chengdu, China in 2025, along with Inline Hockey and Freestyle.

What would Baron de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, have thought of this latest and youngest batch of Olympians? Surely he would be impressed with the sense of community, the creativity in recognising the artistic potential of random, overlooked objects, and the enthusiasm shown in pursuing excellence in mastering borderline-impossible skills. Even though Street Skateboarding has climbed the summit of Olympic recognition, it still at heart remains the cheeky, irreverent sport of youngsters redefining their immediate world, one Ollie and Grind at a time.


Brian Salmon for The World Games




 The World Games is a multi-sport event staged every four years by the International World Games Association, organised with the support of the International Olympic Committee. The World Games 2022 was held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 7-17 July 2022. 3,600 athletes from 34 sports and 100 countries took part in the Games. The 12th edition of The World Games will be held in Chengdu, CHN, 7-17 August 2025.