Skateboarding’s Olympics: Neal Hendrix Interview

Yesterday afternoon, on the heels of an eleventh-hour lawsuit against the International Skateboarding Federation and the International Olympic Committee, and on the eve of the 2016 Summer Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, the IOC made its official announcement that skateboarding will be included the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan.

The Good Problem caught up with Neal Hendrix—vert pro veteran, Woodward Camp Brand Manager, Chair of the International Events Committee for the ISF, and Athlete Representative for the IOC’s Tokyo 2020 Skateboarding Commission—and asked him about how this decision went down, why it went down, and what skateboarding might expect from being included in the international spectacle of sport known as the Olympic Games. —Kevin Wilkins

Hendrix:Kanights
Neil Hendrix. Fastplant fakie at Woodward. Photo: Bryce Kanights

TGP: One of my first questions to you was, “When’s this deadline?” But it looks like about fifteen or twenty minutes ago the decision was handed down that skateboarding will be in the Olympics.

NH: Yeah.

Who had the final word on that? Why was the deadline there? Who made that decision and why couldn’t they have decided before today?

There are a few different things that took place to lead up to today. Today was actually the general assembly vote, which always happens at the Olympic Games. There were a few previous deadlines, and a few previous votes and meetings that were really important and influential, although, [those were] not the final decision.

In June of this year, the executive board of the IOC—about a dozen executives from around the world who meet quarterly—takes stuff to the general assembly, and votes on whether they’re going to support them or not. And so there was a really important vote in June from the IOC executive board on whether they were going to recommend that the general assembly vote for these new sports, or one, or two, or none, or all of them. And so there have been a few processes leading up to this even going in front of the IOC executive board.

When the IOC executive board voted that they were going to support this, that’s when everyone knew this was a done deal, because normally when the IOC executive board goes in front of the general assembly, the general assembly knows that the IOC executive board has been researching and working and doing all of this for years leading up to it.

So today was kind of a formality.

Among us who have been involved in this process, and kind of behind the scenes, today was a total formality.

A group called the WSF filed suit in a California court against the ISF. Is that correct?

Yep. And the IOC.

Can you tell me who Tim McFerran is?

Tim McFerran worked for the Maloof brothers and organized the Maloof Money Cup for a few years. When the Maloof brothers decided to get out of skateboarding, [McFerran] created his own organization, used a lot of the resources that they had created together, and started doing the Kimberly Diamond Cup in South Africa. He also did some smaller events and tours leading up to the Kimberly Diamond Cup, and started a federation called World Skateboard Federation a while back.

So Gary Ream and the ISF have been working with the IOC for years?

For over twelve years, yeah.

And McFerran also wanted to get involved, but under his own three-letter acronym?

Correct.

The WSF.

The last few years there were three different organizations that were fighting to be the representative body for skateboarding. It was the ISF, WSF, and FIRS [Roller Sports Federation]. ISF is basically the [skateboard] industry that we know of. There are committees that meet regularly. There’s an athletes committee from around the world. There’s industry, you know, the Jim Thiebauds and Steve Van Dorens, and the event committee who’ve met a ton of times. There’s the Skatepark Of Tampa, Street League, the Vans Park Series, and the Boardr—kind of the skateboard world that we know.

Right.

I can give you a little bit of background on FIRS. FIRS is the roller sports governing body. They’ve been in existence for 50 or 60 years. They’ve never had much involvement in skateboarding, but they have always been recognized by the IOC and part of SportAccord and the governing bodies that oversee all sports federations. Being part of SportAccord and part of that whole scene is very, very important because they don’t want any new federations coming in and staking a claim that any of their member organizations have already staked a claim to. And that ends up being very important in how this commission structure is going to work.

One of the things in this suit … it sounds like there was a proposal from Gary Ream to chair a committee, and he wanted to include FIRS president …

One thing, real quick. There’s some stuff in this suit that I won’t be able to address directly. There’s some stuff that I will.

Okay.

But the idea of a commission was that we were fighting for the ISF and skateboarding to be self-governing and to be the sole recognized body for skateboarding. Period. This is what we were fighting for, for years and years and years. We were like, “This is skateboarding.” [But] we kept running into these political roadblocks where FIRS was so embedded with the SportAccord and old-school, world sport governing, that there was no way to get rid of them.

The IOC was like, “Hey, you have to work with these guys.” And we just were like, “That’s not skateboarding, you know. This is skateboarding.”

In the end, there was no way for our group to be recognized. Even though we dotted every “i” and crossed every “t,” the groups that would do the recognitions—the IOC, SportAccord, and all the groups in Europe—would never recognize us because there was already a member organization in their group that claimed our sport. They said, “The only thing that we can do is setup a commission.” They said, “We are willing to give the ISF control of the Olympic Games, but you’re going to have to partner with this group.”

Then we had the option of walking away. We came really close to walking away, but at that time we realized if skateboarding walks away, then we hand the Olympic Games and what skateboarding looks like to a billion people to this group that’s never done skateboarding or skateboard events.

Well, it basically comes down to the sports that they represent, which are, inline roller racing, artistic inline, and downhill rollerblading, and a lot of disciplines I’m not super familiar with. They’ve been fighting for 50 years to get a sport in the Olympic Games. That’s what their world revolves around. They do world championships. They do continental championships. They do national championships. But their end goal was always the Olympic Games. In the 90s, when skateboarding started getting bigger and was on TV, they just staked a claim to it because it had wheels and rolled.

They just saw this as their ticket into the Olympic Games, and they know that they haven’t put any work in.

So for [FIRS] it was strictly being able to say, “We accomplished our goal, which was to represent a sport that made its way to the Olympics.”

Yep. And obviously, in that world of sports federations, it’s more power. It’s more prestige. It’s really interesting because in the United States, sports are kind of run by private businesses and sports leagues.

Yeah. A lot of our mainstream sports live and die within the borders of the United States, but federations are having to deal with multiple countries and multiple borders.

Yep. So it was the ISF, FIRS, and the WSF, and there was even a time in the Spring of 2015 when the International Olympic Committee had those three groups come to Lausanne, Switzerland, together and make a proposal about who should govern skateboarding.

Gary Rehm and Tony Hawk went to Lausanne together in March of 2015, and made the presentation for skateboarding. FIRS made a presentation. WSF made a presentation. And this has kind of been going on for years—three groups. Finally, in the spring of 2016, there have been a lot of discussions about what a commission would like. Different discussions on what an arrangement would look like. And at the end of May, we went back to Lausanne—Josh [Friedberg] and I went with Gary and the International Olympic Committee and proposed a Tokyo 2020 commission that would be a partnership between FIRS and the ISF, where FIRS would actually be the recognized governing body, but the ISF and the skateboard industry as we know it would have voting control and would organize and run the Olympic Games. And so that would be the formatting and the qualifying and course and park design and who’s judging … you know, the actual running of the skateboard contests.

And that’s called a technical commission, correct?

No. This is a new body. That’s what you’ve probably seen in some of this stuff that’s flying around. It’s called The Tokyo 2020 Skateboarding Commission.

Is the suit that McFerran filed because he’s no longer part of that?

Correct.

Was he ever part of like a proposed partnership deal like, “Okay, we’ll all figure this out together.”

I don’t think that I can answer that directly … because I know that when we went to Lausanne, Switzerland, at the end of May, and sat down in the IOC office, they proposed a Tokyo 2020 skateboarding commission there again. There were weekly calls and stuff leading up to this, but when pen got to paper and we actually had a contract in front of us, it was FIRS and the ISF, with the ISF having voting control over everything at the Olympic Games.

So that’s sort of spurred [McFerran] to file his suit … or the WSF to file suit? Because he was left out of the roll call?

Right. It’s worth mentioning that there’s an events group for the ISF called the International Events Groups. All the big major skate events around the globe are part of this. The major groups that are organizing skateboarding events are part of this. And we’ve offered McFerran a spot on that committee for his South Africa event. We felt that event was deserving of a spot in that committee and could play a role in the ISF structure. We felt, and I felt personally, that he ran a good event in South Africa. It was good for the community there. It was good for the pros who visited there. But one good event didn’t necessarily make it federation.

Delfino:Acosta
Pedro Delfino. Crailslide at the Vans Park Series contest in Huntington Beach. Photo: Anthony Acosta

One of his arguments was that the ISF has never run a contest.

The ISF never wanted to run contests. We were perfectly happy and didn’t want to stimey what was happening in the private sector. We think Street League is doing good things for street skateboarding. We’ve worked super close with Street League in the last couple years. We’ve helped Street League become more inclusive. Now there are two open contests that guys are able to use to try and qualify for Street League. We’ve worked with Street League the last couple years to include women, which was a huge step. That was something that Street League had never done before.

Same thing with Vans Park Series. ISF worked super close with Vans when they were conceptualizing the Park Series. We worked with them on the format and how open it would be and how to involve all the different continental regions that were invited and select pros who didn’t have to go through the qualifying rounds. We worked with Vans to stress how important it was to have girls involved in this first season of the Park Series. There are two girls events this first year. But ISF never wanted to do our own events. We wanted to support what the skateboarding world was already doing.

The IOC has come out and said that a lot of the things filed in the suit are groundless. I wasn’t sure why they were responding and not the ISF, but I also wasn’t clear until I talked to you that both the ISF and the IOC are named in this suit. Was the ISF waiting until this had been decided … until the announcement that skateboarding had been included in the 2020 Olympics had been made?

We do have a statement that we’ve been sending out to everyone and I can … I can read this to you directly. We did put together an ISF statement. It was tricky timing just because Gary and Josh were on their way to Rio and so it was hard to reply given the timing.

What we were sending to people, I can copy and paste this to you, if you want: “As stated by the World Anti-Doping Agency [WADA], ISF is in compliance with the agency rules. The International Skateboard Federation is also in agreement with it—IOC—where spokespersons stated these obligations are groundless. Throughout the entire process of working with the IOC and the desire to add skateboarding to the Olympic Games, the ISF has done so ethically and professionally, and has complied with the regulations and requirements set forth by the IOC.”

That’s a big thing that people are concerned about: Once you put skateboarding up on this Olympic pedestal and open it up to the scrutiny of things like drug testing programs, it might not come out smelling super sweet. There’s something, too, in the suit, where the WSF claims that the ISF didn’t meet anti-doping standards, that there was some concern about drug testing programs, scheduling, and things of that nature. Do you know much about that?

Yeah, and what I just read to you is that the World Anti-Doping Agency has said that we’ve been in complete compliance with all of our plans and education process. That’s really all that I want to say on record: WADA and the IOC has said that everything that we’re doing has been in compliance.

I know you can’t speculate on the WSF’s suit, but if there hadn’t been any drug testing for the last five years then when would [the ISF] have not been in compliance? Is that just sort of [McFerran] grasping at straws?

Yeah. I think that was grasping at straws.

What was your tipping point, Neil? For decades, the rallying cry of skateboarding was, “No. Skateboarding shouldn’t be in the Olympics. That would be stupid.”

I’ve gone back and forth a lot and it’s always been weighing the pros and the cons. It’s rare that you’re faced with a situation in business where everything is rosy and perfect. You’re always kind of weighing something. When you go to buy a new house, the house is nice and pretty and it’s awesome, but you’re going to have less money to go on vacations.

There are always pros and cons to everything. The more I’ve been a part of this process and realized the power of the media … like NBC pays the IOC billions and billions in broadcast fees and I learned how much power and sway that they have. I’ve also learned that they’re going to do this whether we’re on board or not. We basically had the option to tell these guys to go F themselves, but they were going to go and do it anyway and it’s going to be really bad and skateboarding’s going to look crappy to a billion people. Or we could try to rally the troops and make it as good as possible—make it look like the skateboarding that we know and love. I mean, there are a lot of people who think the X Games is corny. I think there are some super corny things about the X Games, too. But half the kids I meet at the skatepark or at Woodward started skating because they saw somebody on the X Games. They thought skateboarding looked cool. And Andy McDonald might have been the first skateboarder they saw, but a year later they’ve got an Andrew Reynolds board and they’re watching King of the Road, you know? That’s skateboarding.

I live in California now, and there are a ton of skateboarding opportunities—there are a ton of skateboarding facilities—but when I travel around the world, nowhere else has the facilities and the opportunities that we do. And the more that I talk to people who are trying to get skateparks built in Australia, trying to get an event going in Malaysia, trying to get funding for some super talented kids from Europe to compete overseas, it became apparent that all this stuff was going to be easier for these skateboarding communities around the world if skateboarding was in the Olympics.

It’s easy for us to sit in our cool-guy bubble in Southern California and say, you know, skateboarding at the Olympics sucks. There’s a lot of stuff about the Olympics that does suck, but I do like the idea of like giving some talented kids from around the world the ability to compete overseas. And I like the idea of funding for skateparks around the world. Access to facilities is huge.

But there was never really a tipping point for me. The only thing that I would say is I realized that it was going to happen with or without us, and so I decided that I would rather be a part of trying to make it good rather than just saying, “F them,” and then it was going to happen anyway and it was going to be really, really bad.

This lawsuit is something that I’m not used to seeing. I can’t even get my head around it. It’s like a couple of divorced parents fighting over a kid.

One-hundred percent. That’s exactly what it is.

I never knew that was something to think about or that skateboarding would ever be subjected to a vulnerability like that. That’s never even crossed my mind. Pretty weird.

The thing that I still like is that skateboarding in the Olympics is a couple days every four years. Skateboarding lives, eats, and breathes 365 days a year, 24/7. There are a lot of sports that revolve around the Olympics. I see gymnastics at Woodward. It revolves around the Olympics. That’s all it does. Skateboarding lives, eats, breathes 24/7, 365, and there’s this culture and community that is not even going to care what’s happening in Tokyo 2020. They’re out filming video parts.

You know, Brandon Biebel’s not getting drug tested. He’s out doing his thing—kids love it, sponsors love it, and he’s freaking awesome. He’s a huge part of skateboarding. There’s Daewon Song, there are other kids coming up, and there’s the Volcom team driving across the country in a van skating ditches in New Mexico—that’s skateboarding, man. You know? None of that is going to change with [skateboarding in the Olympics].

Biebel:Colen
Brandon Biebel. Nollie back heel in East L.A. Photo: Ben Colen

One of my concerns is just kicking over the wrong rock. Because like you’ve seen professional cycling, it goes twelve months out of the year. It’s got it’s own world championships in each discipline. It’s got its own grand tours, the classics, all these feeder races, all the youth development programs, and everything. And every four years it’s got the Olympics, and people adjust their schedules so they’re also able to compete in that. It’s great for each country and it’s great for all these athletes. But you’ve also seen the PED abuse and all the drug scandals that have gone on down in cycling. Fifty years ago, all that stuff was just a bunch of crazy shit that was a part of cycling’s culture, and people were like, “Don’t worry about it. Don’t upset the apple cart right now.” So I know it has to be in the back of everyone’s mind, like, “Fuck, we might have to deal with this in a really public arena. We might have to deal with skateboarding’s party problem.”

My view on it is from being around skateboarding for my entire life. I know that skateboarding doesn’t have a performance enhancing drug problem. Are there a lot of skateboarders who recreationally smoke weed? Yes. There are a ton, and are we going to have to have a huge education program to explain to these guys that they’re going to have a choice whether or not they want to compete on that level, or not? That’s exactly what we’re going to have to do. It’s the exact same thing that the NFL has had to do. The NBA has had to do it. And now, it’s a given, when you’re competing in a global sport on a global stage for a lot of money … obviously there’s not a lot of money in the Olympics, but there is in competitive skateboarding now, too. That’s what every NBA player coming up, every NFL player … these guys are super talented. Sometimes they’d rather stay in their hometown and smoke weed with their buddies. Sometimes they’d rather get paid millions of dollars to play basketball, and that’s the same thing that some of these competitive skateboarders are going to have to face.

But [skateboarding] is not there yet, professionally. We’re nowhere near what it’s like in the NBA or in the NFL.

I agree with you one-hundred percent, but say you’re a super ripping park skater from Finland. You have no opportunities, you have no sponsor, you have nothing. You’re just a local ripping kid. At that point, you don’t need a million dollars. If someone says to you, “We’ll pay to cover some of your training and we’ll pay your travel to go compete around the world. That might as well be a million dollars.

You’re saying it’s relative?

It’s all relative. If you’re a super talented kid who desperately wants and needs an opportunity … I mean, think about when we’re growing up: Getting boxes of free skateboards might as well have been a million dollars. That’s all we wanted.

And so that kid in Finland, that’s the local ripper in his town. If someone gives him the opportunity … “Hey, you can go to these skateboarding events around the world—you can go to Southern California for six months out of the year and we’ll pay for you to practice there—but you’re going to have to not smoke weed.” That might be a fair trade-off for that kid.

Aside from trying to represent skateboarding correctly as opposed to a roller sports organization representing it incorrectly, are there any other concerns you have about presenting skateboarding’s culture in a way that’s palatable to the core?

I think any time you package skateboarding into a TV format, there are always small sacrifices that you have to make. X Games has been around for twenty years now and has become a little bit more palatable. I feel like X Games and stuff like that has also become a little bit better. We went from plywood ramps and rough parking lots to freaking perfect street parks that replicate what these dudes skate in the streets. There are perfect vert ramps, too, and I feel like we’ve come a long way.

But there’s always going to be small sacrifices that feel like, you know, you’ve got to work with these people and explain to them how important these parts of the culture and skateboarding are. We’re going to have to fight some of those same battles in the Olympics, as well. One-hundred percent.

Daewon:Acosta
Daewon Song. Blunt fakie in Chino. Photo: Anthony Acosta

The uniform thing is something that people bring up a lot. It’s a goofy argument. Who really gives a shit? But will skaters really want to wear a country’s uniform?

We’re going to have to do like snowboarding has done and figure out what protective equipment is, you know, and what guys are going to be able to use—what team gear they are going to be able to use. Of course we’re going to work super close with all those people to make sure that the sponsor-branded, Team USA skateboard gear is just, you know, something like tan Dickies and a U.S. blue T-shirt. Like, here you go. There’s also going to be some cool stuff that comes out of it.

My silver lining tendencies lead me to ask, won’t it be sweet to see how skateboarding changes the culture of the IOC or the culture of international sports? Skateboarding disrupts whatever it’s part of and it’ll be cool to see that. I have a lot of faith in skateboarding to do amazing shit.

Yeah. I like how you’re looking at it.

I’ve always been 90/10 on the side of not wanting skateboarding in the Olympics or whether I thought it was necessary or whether I thought it was a good idea. But I don’t get to decide that stuff. We all have opinions about what we’d like to see. So now that it’s really going down, it’s like, “Wouldn’t it be sweet if this scrappy little art project taught the rest of the world how to have a good time?”

Right, totally. We’re fighting those battles. We’ve been on conference calls every morning, fighting for venue preparations in Tokyo. We’re fighting for those competition venues to be left as legacy skateparks in the future, which I feel like would be a huge start.

Wait. So in building those venues, you’re also leaving behind real skate infrastructure that people will have access to after the Olympics?

We’re trying to, yeah. All this is super preliminary. They’ve actually changed the location of the skate competitions in Tokyo a couple times already. But it’s really important for us to leave something there for the skate community in Tokyo. It’s super premature to promise anything, but that’s one of the small things that we’re working on that’s super important to us.

3 Comments

  • Gonçalo says:

    Skateboarding it´s not a sport. This guy has been skating for so long, and like Tony Chicken, they are fully sellouts. They forgot why they started skating in the first place. 100% sellouts.
    This was a very sad day for skateboarding.

  • Ponzie says:

    When the first really uncool, crazy parent trained chinese kid wins skateboard olympics, this will mark the end of skateboarding!

  • OldKid says:

    “We basically had the option to tell these guys to go F themselves, but they were going to go and do it anyway and it’s going to be really bad and skateboarding’s going to look crappy to a billion people.”

    Should have.

Comments are closed.