Like most people I am in two minds about the Olympics. It’s a commercial circus run for the TV companies and administered by a corrupt bunch of elderly men. All the performers are professionals or hope that scoring a medal will enable them to become one.

The founding Baron thought athletics might function as a replacement for war, but the Olympics are more of a bloodless supplement to it. National flags are waved with abandon and some countries cheat furiously.

Team Hong Kong at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Sports Federation and Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China.

And yet… it is still a thrill to see someone who lives in the same town coming out in front of the world. The coverage tends to human interest stories rather than the actual details of the sports, and some of the resulting tales are genuinely inspiring. It is nice to see unfeigned joy on a face.

However the constant search for novelties leads to some strange places. Who, in the real world, takes three-a-side basketball seriously? It seems there is a trend towards the invention of “beach” variations on existing sports which will allow the organisers to insist on bikinis.

The new thing which really shocked me, though, was Street Skateboarding. It sounds like a contradiction in terms. Olympic Street Skateboarding? Many respectable members of the middle classes do not regard street skateboarding as a sport so much as a form of juvenile delinquency.

Skateboarding in a proper skateboarding park designed for the purpose offends nobody. In the street it is noisy, disturbing and dangerous. What are they trying to encourage?

So to YouTube, where I discovered that in the organised version they do not do it in the street. In the X Games, whatever they are, they have an extensive space like a normal skateboard park, with some street-like obstacles – ramps, stairs, railings – scattered about it. The performer does a succession of tricks on them.

For the Olympics the matter was simplified. There was one slope, decorated with a variety of stairs, banisters and such, on which each performer did one trick. This was repeated several times with, as you might imagine, scores for difficulty of item and smoothness in performance, as well as a swift exit from the medal running for anyone who falls flat on his or her face.

The so-called “women’s” event was in fact dominated by children. The winner, Momiji Nishiya, was 13. The silver medallist was the same age. The bronze medallist was a crone of 16. The skill and courage on display were remarkable, but…

Most of the tricks were variations on that YouTube staple in which the skateboarder leaps up, the skateboard mysteriously following the soles of his feet, and tries to slide down a railing by a flight of stairs. When attempted by the inexperienced this often leads to a nasty accident. The one in which the skateboard flies out of the picture and the skateboarder lands with one leg each side of the pole is particularly hard to watch.

And the question which then arises is, if you had a 13-year-old daughter, would you want her to be watching this? I assume for the Olympics they build the fake streetscape from some forgiving material but in real streets you are dealing with steel and concrete. Also in real streets there are cars.

Watching very small athletes fly through the air, and occasionally crash-land, I imagined orthopaedic surgeons all round the world rubbing their hands and upgrading the plans for their next BMW. We all want young people to be inspired to do more sports, but is this really a good choice?

In the Olympics they do wear crash helmets (which is more than you can say for the X games) but no other protection features. It seems skateboarders are not encouraged to take such effete precautions as gloves, knee pads or elbow protection.

The result is predictable. If you look at the pictures of the triumphant winner which accompany this story you can see the visible part of what must be an extensive collection of scars.

Perhaps the risks are acceptable for the talented and properly taught. But if kids all over the world are going to be inspired to attempt this sort of thing in their back gardens, many of them are going to qualify … for the paralympics.


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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.