This week, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle announced a draft "Skate Melbourne 2017-2027" plan, which considers making a world-class skatepark for the city before skateboarding joins the Olympics in 2020. With the sport well on its way to respectability, we asked a lifelong skater who grew up when it was still an outsider activity viewed with suspicion, how it feels to have politicians singing its praises.
I often think about the time a librarian confronted my friends and me as we were skateboarding on a pathway behind her place of work. She stuck her head out from a door and said, "This is not a ramp." Thinking back, I imagine she’d been sitting there for quite a while, working after hours, annoyed by the very un-library clickety-clack of our wheels on the pavers, our laughter and clapping, our swearing. She probably threw around a few different approaches before settling on that line: this is not a ramp. Then, satisfied, got up from her chair and walked toward the door, readied herself for the confrontation, and went for it. It took some guts – although she seemed old to me, I’m sure the librarian was only in her twenties, and there we were, a gang of loud teenage males making a lot of noise. Hardened by numerous altercations with security guards, I stood up to her. "I know it’s not a ramp," I said. "This is not a ramp," she repeated, staring at me defiantly. "Thanks for telling us," I said, adrenalin pumping. "This is not a ramp," she said again, her voice cracking slightly. "Are you alright?" asked my friend Michael, as we picked up our bags and rolled away, laughing.
The thing is: there was no ramp – that was sort of the problem. In the mid '90s, skateparks were rare in Australian cities, let alone the small rural town I grew up in. Besides, ramps were old hat – we were street skaters. The skate facilities that did exist were relics from the past, or poorly designed monstrosities that we rolled around the perimeter of, happy to at least have a patch of concrete that people wouldn’t yell at us for kickflipping on.
Skateboarding somehow captured my attention in 1989 and became my life’s passion. Through skate magazines and videos, I discovered a culture that gave me everything I needed. Unlike my previous obsessions: Star Wars, Transformers, pop music, cricket – skateboarding was the whole package. It was something I could do by myself whenever I wanted, something I could improve at, something I could sink everything into. I started making my own skate videos, my own skate zines and my own ridiculously baggy clothes.
Not much has changed since then, really. I’m still completely obsessed with skateboarding. I’ve seen it go through various booms and slow patches, but mainstream culture has gradually got on board, to the seemingly utopian point where we now find ourselves. Skateparks are dotted around every suburb and they’re amazing – all designed and built by skaters. And similarly, city streets are dotted with skate stoppers (the metal brackets fixed to curbs and steps to make spots unskateable) and security guards, but they’re still navigable. The internet has all but replaced my beloved magazines and video tapes as the perfect medium to consume skateboarding; and new, incredible content is released daily. With growth, there has also been diversification, and skateboarding is a broader church these days. Lots of older people skate now; lots of girls skate. A bunch of people only skate bowls; some only skate curbs.
The big news, of course, is skateboarding will become an Olympic sport in 2020. It’s been on the cards for a while, and has been the subject for much argument within the skateboarding fraternity. There is the school of thought that being in the Olympics signals the beginning of the end for the skateboarding we all fell in love with. Contest runs, competitiveness and practicing is counter to everything that is cool and fun about skating. It also means commercial entities outside of skateboarding will take control of it and rinse it of all that is magic, and make it just like any other sport.
On the other side are the people who argue it's a great thing. Why shouldn’t skateboarding be an Olympic sport? It’s as physically demanding as gymnastics, as agile and rhythmical as basketball, more relevant than lawn bowling. What about all the benefits sure to come along with this mass-acceptance, in the form of even more skateparks, more money for professionals, specific training facilities and coaching programs in schools?
Seemingly in response to the Olympics announcement, as well as the unavoidable popularity of skateboarding, the City of Melbourne has released a draft Skate Melbourne 2017-2027 plan which identifies a series of city spaces that will be sanctioned as skate friendly, "including developing a map of preferred routes and areas." The draft plan’s other key actions are "improving programming, communication and management of skating" and "increasing participation for girls and women in skating." The plan recommends the redevelopment of Council’s two dedicated skate parks: Riverslide Skate Park in Alexandra Gardens and JJ Holland Reserve in Kensington. "We’re considering the costs and potential partners for creating an internationally renowned skate park for Melbourne," says Lord Mayor Robert Doyle in a press release "That will take a considerable investment," he says, "but if it’s going to become an Olympic sport, then why not build at least one of those parks to be Olympic standard, and have that as one of the recreational offers in Melbourne?"
At first glance, the plan – which will be presented at the Future Melbourne Committee Meeting on Tuesday – looks very positive for skateboarding in this city. It acknowledges skateboarding's popularity and promises to back it with some solid cash. Furthermore, it recognises the importance of street skating in actual streets, and plans to accommodate for that, too. It’s all very promising, and shows the council is looking to forward-thinking cities such as Malmo and Copenhagen, where skaters are consulted on how to activate dead parts of the city, and skateboarding is seen as an important tourism drawcard.
I’m somewhat suspicious of all these promises. Partly because I’ve heard them before, and partly because of whom they’re coming from. The Lord Mayor was recently instrumental in driving skaters out of the popular skate spot Lincoln Square in Carlton on the pretext that their presence was disrespectful to the families of victims of the Bali bombing, who the square is home to a memorial for – but really, skateboarders felt it was as a response to a few very upset residents of the nearby apartments who just didn’t like the skaters and their admittedly rowdy behaviour.
To me, a big part of the attraction of skateboarding was its otherness, its subversive heart, its complete independence from mainstream culture. It’s not like that anymore. I care deeply about skateboarding, so I’m going to try to embrace this mainstream acceptance and make the most of the fruits it will bear. I’ll definitely tune in to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 with great interest, along with millions of other people who previously had very little interest in the activity I’ve shaped my life around. I look forward to checking out the super skatepark Doyle is promising. Now that will be a ramp.
Photos courtesy of Duncan Ewington/@ewingram, the author and Melbourne City Council.