How Olympic Skateboarding Almost Didn't Happen
Working with skateboarders and the Olympics was never a life goal for Gary Ream, but now the president of the International Skateboarding Federation is tasked with helping steward the sport's Olympic debut.
Photo by Josh McElwee/Courtesy Woodward
Gary Ream, the president of the International Skateboarding Federation, will never forget the number: $1,262.41. That was the monthly mortgage on the piece of Pennsylvania farmland he bought with his father in 1978; it was home to Camp Woodward, one of the top gymnastics camps in the country, which had fallen into some financial difficulties.
Just two years later, Ream himself was wondering how he was going to pay the note on the property: Team USA had just boycotted the Olympic Games in Moscow as a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Ream worried that gymnastics would suffer from the resulting lack of exposure—and would leave him short of money.
So to diversify his revenue sources, Ream looked for sports that were not already served by collegiate programs and that had what he calls "watering holes"—magazines and associations. In 1982, while sitting with members of the American Bicycle Association in a Mexican restaurant in Arizona, Ream flipped over a placemat and drew up a loose plan for a BMX racing camp at Woodward. Six years later, he added skateboarding, fully integrating two unlikely groups: gymnastics and action sports.
That was Ream's introduction to skateboarding, and he noticed early on that skaters were slow to warm up to Woodward. It took time, Ream says, to prove that the camp valued skate culture along with the sport. "When you earn the respect of skate, everything else in life is easy," Ream told me. "They are the hardest because they're the most protective. But they are also the most faithful."
Today, Ream is once again looking to earn the trust of skaters—this time on a global scale. On August 3rd, the International Olympic Committee announced that skateboarding will be an Olympic sport in Tokyo in 2020, where 80 skaters will compete for 12 Olympic medals in men's and women's park and street events. Ream, who has been involved in the skating-in-the-Olympics conversation for the past 13 years, will oversee the logistics of the competitions.
On the morning of July 31st, less than 24 hours before Ream would leave for Rio de Janeiro to attend the IOC general assembly's final vote on the matter, I stood with him in his "active" office, one of three rooms he keeps in the converted farmhouse that functions as Woodward's administrative building. Stacks of papers and legal pads were meticulously fanned and collated on the floor—notes and documents dating back to 2003, when he received the first phone call about skateboarding becoming an Olympic sport.
Getting skating into the Olympics, however, was never Ream's mission. He felt that would happen whether he cooperated or not. But the IOC requires every Olympic sport to have an international federation, and the fear was that an organization with little to no experience with skateboarding or its culture, rules, or people would wind up in charge. So Ream and other icons of skate formed the ISF in 2004. In describing his overall role regarding the Games, Ream said he was "very active in protecting skateboarding in its relationship with the Olympics."
Also in the Olympic conversation was the International Roller Sports Federation (FIRS), which was founded in 1924 by two Swiss men with close ties to the IOC. FIRS, based in Rome, governs various roller-skating and inline disciplines, including roller hockey, which was a demonstration sport at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. According to Simone Masserini executive director of FIRS, the IOC approached FIRS in February 2014 about pitching skateboarding as an Olympic sport at Tokyo. The same request to bid was asked of the ISF, according to Neal Hendrix, a former professional skater and an original committee member with the ISF who now works as Woodward's brand manager.
As the discussion about which organization would oversee Olympic skating ramped up, many in the industry criticized FIRS for a lack of experience in skateboarding; their history is in roller skating. FIRS, on the other hand, said that its working relationship with the IOC and membership within SportAccord, an umbrella organization for international sports federations, offered critical footing for the sport's successful Olympic debut. Although FIRS has never overseen an Olympic sport, the organization is an official IOC-recognized federation. The ISF is not. The IOC, however, eventually realized it would need both organizations.
"As part of the process only International Federations recognised by the IOC were invited to apply to Tokyo 2020 to have an event added to the programme of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020," said IOC Sports Director Kit McConnell in an email shortly after the Rio Olympics. "Through the discussions that the IOC has been engaged with over the period, it became clear that for skateboarding to be in the Olympic Games it needed to be led by and managed by skateboarders. This would ensure that the unique culture of skateboarding is respected, and that the community would be enthusiastic and passionate about being involved with the Olympic Movement."
As recently as May 2016, however, the whole deal nearly fell apart.
During a May 24th conference call between the IOC Sport department, the ISF, and FIRS, the ISF learned that FIRS wanted to host and govern its own world championship skateboarding events. The ISF crew interpreted that as a direct attempt to infringe on the existing international competition infrastructure.
"That had never been breached in any previous meeting," Hendrix said.
Street League Skateboarding and the Vans Pro Skate Park Series, of which the ISF is a partner, handle the world championship events for the respective skating disciplines. Hendrix says that the ISF responded by telling FIRS and IOC Sport that a new venue and new organizer for those competitions wasn't on the negotiating table.
"Their attempt to do their own world championships was a direct threat to our partners and established skate events," Hendrix said. The conference call ended at an impasse. But with an IOC executive board meeting looming in early June, a deal had to be made.
The ISF members on that conference call, including Ream and Hendrix, felt that FIRS was angling its relationship with the IOC in an effort gain control of the biggest competitions in the sport.
"It was them trying to wield power as a governing body," Hendrix said. "That's what they do." After the call, the ISF members spent the following day talking about the next steps.
"That was the first time we came up with a plan and strategy to walk away [from the Olympics]."
Although the dialogue between FIRS and the ISF continues to run hot, the conference call in May nearly reached a boiling point.
Shortly thereafter, McConnell called and requested all parties meet in person on May 30 at 9 AM at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. They didn't care that it was Memorial Day in the U.S.
"Neal and I and Josh Friedberg flew there, and after nine and a half hours in the IOC boardroom we made a deal," Ream said, recalling the marathon meeting. Ninety-six years after being founded, FIRS will finally oversee an Olympic sport as the officially recognized governing body of Olympic Skateboarding—but it will not govern the world championships of skateboarding; the ISF will handle Olympic competition formatting, judging, and course design.
Together, the federations make up the Tokyo 2020 Skateboarding Commission (TSC), which is "in charge of all aspects of producing the Skateboard Street and Park Terrain events at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games," according to a press release. Ream, Hendrix, and Masserini sit on the three-person panel of the TSC.
"Is it a deal with the devil?" Ream added. "Or is it a deal where we, skateboarding, unite and change the world in 2020?"
Ream, 62, isn't a skater. Never has been. Working with skateboarders and the Olympics was never his life's goal. There was no plan. The son of a serial entrepreneur, Ream grew up in Aaronsburg, Pennsylvania (population: 613), five miles from Camp Woodward. After graduating from Penn State University with a degree in business management, he moved to Philadelphia to work for Marriott in 1976, but knew it wasn't where he wanted to be long term. Soon enough, he discovered the gymnastics camp near his hometown was in financial trouble, and the rest is history.
Nearly 40 years later, Woodward is now home to 12 different programs, including gymnastics, skateboarding, BMX, and parkour. Along with the 9,000 kids ages seven to 17 who come through the place each summer, some of the top pros in the action sports industry go to Woodward to hone their skills, train for upcoming events, and teach the campers.
As a small gymnastics camp, Woodward directly benefited from that sport's worldwide exposure at the Olympic Games. Now the camp stands to be a major proving ground for the first generation of athletes who will have the opportunity to skate at the Olympics. Like Tyler Edtmayer, a 15-year-old German ripper who spent two months there this summer.
Meagan Guy, 17, once yearned to simply attend a week at camp. The high school senior from Palm Bay, Florida, had been nagging her parents to send her to Woodward since she was nine years old.
Her opportunity to attend the camp this summer came via an Instagram video contest last year; the top prize was a trip to the Exposure Skate Contest in Encinitas, California. She cried when she found out she won; she was in physics class at the time.
At Exposure, she finished second in the 15-and-over division, and also caught the eye of Woodward's Hendrix, who was announcing the event. He invited her to be one of the select characters on Woodward's online TV show, an exclusive, expense-paid opportunity. After eight years of watching her friends leave for Woodward, Guy finally got her chance.
"I was shaking when I got off the plane," she said.
A street skater, Guy will be 21 during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and she's totally stoked at the idea of competing there. "It's totally a goal of mine," she said. "Skating in the Olympics for USA would be absolutely mind-blowing."
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