LONDON – Dressed all in black, snowboarder Shaun White looked out through his reflective designer sunglasses at the Olympic rings floating on the Thames on Monday and pondered the idea of becoming a crossover Olympian.
A double-Winter Games gold medallist and a global brand, American White liked the idea.
One problem. Skateboarding, his summer sport of choice is not an Olympic sport. At least not yet.
With his thick mane of shaggy red hair, White, 25, is one of the world’s most recognizable and popular athletes with a portfolio of sponsorships and endorsements that would make Roger Federer feel under appreciated.
Having signed his first endorsement deal at age seven, White has somehow managed to maintain much of his street level credibility while driving a Lamborghini and dating supermodels like Bar Refaeli, recently voted Maxim magazine’s Hottest Woman in the World.
But under the White brand beats the heart of a simple dude who, “just likes to ride.”
“I’ve heard talk about 2016 in Brazil maybe getting skateboarding, for me that would be like the ultimate to compete Winter and Summer,” White told Reuters. “The only thing I could relate it to would be the Summer and Winter X-Games, I compete in both of those and have medals in both.”
“At the time I thought it was the biggest thing that could ever happen until I won the Olympics and then it changed the game.”
There is no disputing that White’s arrival on the Olympic stage was a game changer for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
While snowboarders have fiercely clung to their counter-culture roots, a decade of growth sparked by three Olympic Games have brought the sport mainstream appeal and –(gasp)–respectability.
Once as welcome as swine flu at ski resorts, snowboarders now rule over the mountains they were once chased from and White is their king.
Absorbed into the establishment they once rebelled against, snowboarding has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry where the biggest names like White are linked with everything from video games to home decorating.
With the IOC desperate to keep the Games relevant snowboarding has become the cornerstone of the Olympic youth movement.
Since snowboarding was welcomed into the Olympic lodge at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the Winter Games have steadily upped their hip quotient with an ever-expanding list of “rad” disciplines, including snowboard-cross and ski cross.
The Summer Games, however, has not found yet found a way to tap into the same youthful vibe, delicately fine-tuning its program with the addition of BMX and little else.
The addition of skateboarding would provide the Summer Games with a massive injection of “street cred” but skateboarders are not as convinced they need the Olympics.
In the skateboarding community the most respected skaters do not even compete, satisfied to showcase their moves on YouTube and leave the gold medals to synchronized swimmers and modern pentathletes.
Hardcore skateboarders underlined their disdain for all things Olympic by launching an online petition urging IOC president Jacques Rogge not to recognize skateboarding.
“With due respect for Olympic athletes, we the undersigned skateboarders and advocates strongly request that the IOC not recognize skateboarding as an Olympic sport or use skateboarding to market the Olympics,” reads the petition. “Skateboarding is not a ‘sport’ and we do not want skateboarding exploited and transformed to fit into the Olympic program.”
“There’s good and bad,’ said White, who recently won the ESPY Awards as Best Male Action Sport Athlete for the fifth consecutive year. “It (the Olympics) made the sport (snowboarding) bigger, more popular but to people to holding onto something that is very core, very true it is always hard to go through a change like that.”
MONEY AND ATTENTION
“But I thought it did something really amazing for the sport. It brought more money, more attention to the sport.”
“The beginnings of snowboarding you weren’t even allowed on the mountain, now there are mountains that compete over who has the best snowboard park.”
White’s star status has made the Olympic half-pipe the hottest ticket at the Winter Games and there is little doubt an appearance by the “Flying Tomato” on the vert (half-pipe) at the 2016 Rio Summer Games would do the same.
But despite White’s enthusiasm and backing there is little chance skateboarders will be doing their thing in Rio.
It takes a full seven years for a new sport to work its way through the IOC red tape onto the Games program or it could be fast-tracked as a new discipline but would have to be absorbed into an existing federation such as the International Cycling Union (UCI) – something skaters want no part of.
The biggest hurdle standing in the way of skateboarding joining the Games is the lack of structure within the skating community with no single governing body able to pull together all the different factions, tours and promoters.
“Even in snowboarding it was tough,” said White. “There has been a lot of debate because we’re operated somewhat under the ski federation so some pretty hardcore snowboarders have some issues about that.”