The Evolution of Skateboarding

The Evolution of Skateboarding

For a sport that’s been around less than 100 years, skateboarding has made a considerable impact on the world of extreme sports. Despite its various ups and downs during the 20th century, skaters held tight to their boards and the culture they created. But skating is no longer the small, underground phenomenon that it once was, a craze tied to the streets of a California beach city. Now, as it makes its way into the upcoming summer Olympics of 2020, it’s safe to say that skateboarding isn’t going anywhere.



No one quite knows when the first skateboard was invented, although we know it was sometime in the late 40s or early 50s. Many have claimed responsibility, but a lack of proof has led to a general acceptance that a few different people came up with something around the same time. The first boards, originally created by surfers who wanted something to ride when the water was flat, were simply made by attaching steel roller skate wheels to a wooden plank. This obviously did not make for a smooth ride. One early skater Bob Schmidt described it: “it was wobblier than hell, moved way too fast, and vibrated on the asphalt enough to jar every bone in your body and loosen every tooth. It was more like getting electrocuted than anything else” (qtd. in The Concrete Wave, 1999).



Skateboarding began to gain popularity and it was much more common to find skateboards in stores. As a result, the shape of the skateboard started to develop some consistency — a standard popsicle shape without kicktails. Although standard decks began to take shape, skaters were still using metal wheels, which made it difficult to do anything but go straight.



When the market for skateboards crashed, most assumed the sport was simply a fad. But skaters stuck around. They began building their own skateboards, and the use of clay wheels arose. Albeit softer, they still didn’t offer much traction and weren’t much easier to control than the metal wheels they were using previously.



Urethane wheels were invented by Frank Nasworthy of Cadillac Wheels. These wheels, which are very similar to the ones used today, sparked a renewed interest in skateboarding and led into what is often referred to as the golden age of skateboarding. This was also around the same time that decks began to be manufactured with a kicktail, making it easier to do “difficult spinning or pivoting maneuvers such as wheelies” as was described by Larry Stevenson in the 1969 U.S. Patent.



The Ocean Festival was held in Del Mar, California, which featured a slalom and freestyle skating contest. There, a group of 12 skaters called the Zephyr team (later referred to as the Z-Boys) had spectators in awe. No one had before seen their low, smooth style of skating that spurred modern techniques. The Zephyr team also sparked the rebellious, anti-establishment personality that became skateboarding as many young skaters attempted to imitate them.



Alan “Ollie” Gelfand introduced a new style of slamming the kicktail of his board onto the ground, popping himself up into the air. This became known as the ollie, the trick that birthed most tricks today.



The skateboard market crashed again as insurance rates skyrocketed because of the dangerous activity. Skateparks closed and skateboarding became less popular in the public eye, but underground skaters continued to skate wherever they could, building their own backyard ramps and finding places to skate in their everyday environment. This continued to fuel the anti-establishment personality of the skateboarding community.



Skateboarding became almost completely a street sport. Boards decreased in width and wheels became smaller, allowing faster board rotation for flip tricks. The rise of punk rock music seemed to coincide with the revival of skateboarding and its rebel culture, each pushing the other further into the spotlight. In 1995, ESPN hosted its first Extreme Games (or “X Games”), which launched the sport of skateboarding into the mainstream media, where it has remained ever since.


While it’s difficult to know where skateboarding began, it’s clear where it’s going. The sport continues to grow, evolve and expand internationally, uniting skaters everywhere.


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