With the opening of a new skate park in Gardens, Cape Town, and the rise in skate competitions, what lies ahead for this increasingly diverse sport?
Judas Priest’s lyrics, “Breaking the law, breaking the law!” bursts out of the speakers, entertaining the packed venue known as The Pit.
The Pit, a skating bar in Cape Town’s city “bowl”, is hosting the Vans invitational skateboarding competition on a cloudy Saturday evening. Skaters speed from one end of the fluorescent lit bowl to the other, performing grinds and wall rides on each end.
The association attached to skaters is normally that of reckless trouble-makers and vandals but watching the skaters and crowd, I don’t see the connection.
There are no fights breaking out; even when a board accidentally goes flying into someones face or a beer is spilled onto a spectator’s camera. There are no vandals destroying pot plants or mail boxes. If anything, there is a general camaraderie and respect between everyone present.
Quinton Robertson, one of the skaters taking part in the competition at The Pit, spoke about what he thought a skate park brings to the community.
“Kids will have a facility where they can hang out after school and when they are finished their homework. It doesn’t matter if they are bored, they can just watch and this helps to keep them off the streets.”
The skate park hosted hundreds of young kids, some as young as 8, and people from all backgrounds.
Marco Morgan, a founding member of the National Skate Collective, an organisation hoping to advance the culture of skateboarding in Cape Town, believes however that this diversity has not always been present in the sport.
“Skateboarding has always had stigma of rebellion or dare-devils attached to it, and for that reason it has been attractive to some and less attractive to others.
“In South Africa, these stigmas ran a bit deeper and skateboarding was seen to be exclusively “white” with the type of slang, fashion and music associated.
“…looking at the skateboarding community today, these walls of exclusion have been broken down, and the South African skateboarding community shows diversity in its sport and culture.”
There has also been an increase in gender diversity. The Pit’s competition includes a female, Melissa Williams.
Williams is the only female competing against 35 male competitors.
“Gender has always been an issue in skateboarding, as it has always been seen as a masculine activity; however with the increase of females participating in the sport, we are seeing a much more diverse community, illustrating a real sense of accessibility,” says Morgan.
“At a competition level, we have seen organisation such as SAGRA [South African Gravity Racing Association] and KDC [Kimberely Diamond Cup] cater to the demand for female competitors.”
Unfortunately Williams couldn’t comment on gender in skating as she had to be taken to hospital after severely breaking her finger in one of the heats of the competition.
Injuries are synonymous with skating.
A search for “skateboarding fails” in YouTube, offers days of footage that will make your eyes water and steer most people away from the sport.
So I asked Leigh Soulink, a young man with dreadlocks and a massive red rose tattoo covering his neck, what he thought drew people to skating, even with such high risk of injuries.
“It makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something and you’re doing it solely because you want to have fun.
“I just like hanging out with my friends and being happy for the guy when they land a trick. That’s what skating is all about, just having a good time with friends.”
Sheldon Klopper, a spectator and skater himself says,
“It starts off with the people. They are very accommodating and it doesn’t matter if you’re starting out [with skating] or been doing it for 20 years.
“Skateboarding takes away that team sport vibe of being shut out if you’re not good enough.”
It seems this accepting environment is one that sets skating apart from most other sports.
Today’s park opening and the regular competitions are a sign of the sport’s increasing popularity. More importantly, skating has an opportunity now by using the parks to shrug off the stigma associated with skaters.
By setting up the Gardens Skate Park , skating is granted more awareness and with this, acceptance.
Although a positive step forward, Morgan believes that throwing more skate parks at the issue of bad reputation, is not always a good thing.
“Skate parks are often the easy answer to dealing with the spatial antagonism between skaters and other users of public space.
“Although skate parks are awesome spaces for skaters to connect and congregate, it is seen as a way for authorities to control skaters spatial mobility and fence an activity, which most likely will result in facility-based mentality that supports the sport without supporting skateboarders’ needs.
“Most times we are not consulted about skate facilities and in these cases; these spaces do not fit our real needs.”
Morgan and the National Skate Collective are attempting to introduce a by-law that will allow skateboarders to skate on the roads legally.
“We have set up a task team with the City of Cape Town, to work together on developing future skate parks/skate facilities and integrating skateboarding into the urban fabric of the city,” states Morgan.
There have also been talks about a new skate park being constructed in Woodstock using these task team approaches.
This accepting community of skateboarders seems to be making progress in communities around the world. In South Africa, the diversity is striking and promises positive change.
But will this diversification and exposure lead to more facilities and support for the sport? Or will it serve to isolate the skateboarder even more by confining them and “fencing the activity” to spaces catered for them.
A greater question is raised: Will skating only be practiced in cordoned off, ‘legal’ areas in the future or will it be accepted for its freedom of expression and allowed to be practiced wherever the skater chooses?
As for now, the growth of this niche sport is on the up and skaters around Cape Town all seem to be winning.