Japan's skateboarding youth turn street culture into Olympic gold

Japan's Onodera Ginwoo has been named in Japan's skateboarding team for the Paris Olympics (WANG Zhao)
Japan's Onodera Ginwoo has been named in Japan's skateboarding team for the Paris Olympics (WANG Zhao)

Japan used to think skateboarding was a pastime for delinquents but the country has grown into a global powerhouse in the sport and is expected to dominate at this month's Paris Olympics.

Children as young as six can be seen zipping up ramps and grinding down rails at skate parks all over Japan, with instructors teaching tricks while parents wait patiently nearby.

It is a far cry from skateboarding's original street culture image, but it is producing spectacular results, with Japan winning three of the four available golds on the sport's Olympic debut in Tokyo three years ago.

National team coach Daisuke Hayakawa told AFP that the number of skaters in Japan had tripled since and believes his team can clean up at the Paris Games.

Ominously for everyone else, he says they will have a steady production line of talent for years to come.

"It's become something that kids take lessons in," said the 50-year-old.

"Parents used to tell their kids to stop skateboarding. Now parents take their kids to skate parks. If their shoes or boards wear out, they buy them new ones.

"It has become a very well supported sport," he added.

Hayakawa was speaking at a Tokyo skate park that opened in 2022, one of several to spring up since the Olympics.

Despite the punishing summer heat, the sound of wheels clacking against concrete and wood scraping against metal hangs in the air as skaters young and old practise.

"Things have completely changed because of the Olympics. It has had a big impact," said Takumi Shimabukuro, a parent watching his nine-year-old son Yuya fearlessly fly up and down a halfpipe.

- Teenage kicks -

International competitions are regularly won by young skaters but the ages of Japan's medallists at the Tokyo Games were eye-catching by any standard.

Kokona Hiraki took silver in the women's park competition at the age of 12, while women's street gold medallist Momiji Nishiya was 13.

Japan will head to Paris with another fresh-faced squad featuring a pair of 14-year-olds in men's prodigy Ginwoo Onodera and women's street skater Coco Yoshizawa.

Hayakawa believes the fearlessness of youth was a big factor in Japan's Tokyo Games success.

"They were too young to understand the importance of the Olympics," he said.

"They didn't really know how big a stage they were competing on, so they weren't nervous."

Japan's team for Paris will also feature defending men's street champion Yuto Horigome, who clinched his place by winning the qualifying competition in Budapest in June.

The 25-year-old was on the verge of missing out after a disappointing showing at the previous qualifying event but he came through when it counted.

Hayakawa describes Horigome as an elder statesman who has been an inspiration for Japan's younger generation.

"He set his sights higher, he entered international competitions, he got better and better and became recognised as the best street skater in the world," said Hayakawa.

"Young kids here saw that and thought, 'If Yuto can do it, we have a chance as well.'"

- Strength in depth -

Horigome is determined to retain his street title in Paris but he will face stiff competition from his own team-mates.

Sora Shirai is the reigning world champion, while Onodera finished second in Budapest, where half of the eight finalists were Japanese.

Competition for squad places was so fierce that world silver medallist Kairi Netsuke missed the cut.

"It really feels like you're representing your country," Horigome said after locking up his spot.

"It's different from other competitions."

Coach Hayakawa started skateboarding almost 40 years ago and has seen it evolve from its shady roots on the streets to become an Olympic sport.

He says he will be happy if the Paris spotlight brings more kids to skateboarding and believes Japan can remain a hotbed of talent.

"We're diligent and we put in a lot of practice," he said.

"We think about how best to win a competition. We're also not so big physically, so the way we move our bodies is suited to skateboarding."