RIO DE JANEIRO -- After months of speculation, it's official. Skateboarding and surfing are Olympic sports. If that looks strange to read, it also feels surprisingly strange to type. Even though Wednesday's unanimous vote to include Tokyo 2020's proposed five-sport package by the IOC's Executive Board seemed more formality than nail-biter, and the eventual inclusion of additional action sports to the Olympic program felt inevitable, the moment IOC president Thomas Bach announced, "it's official," dueling thoughts entered my mind: "What has taken so long?" and "What happens now?"
The inclusion of the Tokyo five -- which also includes sport climbing, karate, baseball and softball and adds 447 athletes and 54 medals to the Tokyo Games -- pertains only to 2020. After 2020, each Olympic organizing committee is afforded the opportunity to recommend a new package of sports to be included only in its Games. That's a welcome sign of evolution to a rigid Olympic structure that previously required addition by subtraction, but one that means a massive amount of build up around sports that could very well become Olympic one-offs.
How well each sport folds into the Olympic batter -- and more importantly, how they impact TV ratings and the host city's bottom line -- will impact their five-ring futures post-Tokyo. But how well they remain committed to the culture of their communities and showcase their sports with integrity will ultimately determine their Olympic success.
Take baseball and softball, for example, two sports the IOC insists on tithing to each other. Major League Baseball has yet to come to an agreement with the IOC to suspend play during the eight-day Olympic tournament or allow its players to participate in the Games at all. If they are unable to do so, the lack of MLB star power will certainly hurt the potential for baseball -- and softball, until it is able to cut ties with its brother sport -- to return in 2024.
"We hope the IOC reaches an agreement with the U.S. pro league as it does with basketball," John Coates, chairman of the IOC's Tokyo 2020 coordination committee, said Wednesday. "If not, baseball competition will not fulfill its potential completely and it will be difficult for it to be included in the future."
On the opposite end of the spectrum is skateboarding, a sport that has proven its telegenic worth during the past 20 years as a marquee sport in ESPN's X Games and with stand-alone televised events like Street League. Of all the X Games sports, skateboarding has always seemed the least willing to accept its place within the mainstream, yet it also seems the most poised to withstand the test in Tokyo, where skateboarding is hugely popular and where the sport will be showcased in a festival-like venue that will be open to the public to skate during non-competition hours.
"I'm not worried about making a case for skateboarding," said Gary Ream, president of the International Skateboarding Federation and chair of the 2020 Tokyo skateboarding commission. "Obviously the success of snowboarding has been huge. But the summer Olympics is five times bigger than the winter Games, skateboarding is relatively cheap to put on compared to snowboarding and when you add in the culture, influence and youth, you say, 'Wow.' In my mind, there is no doubt. Skateboarding will be the star of the 2020 Games."
Of course, it is imprecise to lump these five sports together under an umbrella conversation about how this decision will alter them on a global scale and what work needs to be done to determine how they will be showcased in Tokyo and the roads it will take to get them there.
Karate, a martial art born in Japan, must decide whether to include non-contact karate, which is recognized by the IOC, or its universally popular safe-contact version. Sport climbing will undoubtedly harness the next four years to grow its numbers and promote climbing in emerging markets like Cuba. Surfing, which will hold its contest on natural waves at Shidashita Beach in Chiba, Japan, must create a qualifying process, alter its competition format to allow for a bronze medalist and cross its fingers Mother Nature provides waves worthy of world-class surfers -- or waves at all.
"In addition to the considerable strides we've seen in surfing as a global sport on the WSL tour in recent years, today's inclusion of surfing in the Olympics further highlights surfing's place on the international stage," Paul Speaker, CEO of the World Surfing League, said after the vote. "The WSL's Commissioner's Office will continue to work with the IOC and ISA towards showcasing surfing in the best possible light at the Tokyo 2020 Games."
Skateboarding has perhaps the most tumultuous road ahead. Its dueling governing bodies must hash out their differences -- last week, the World Skateboarding Federation sued the ISF for claims it broke drug-testing rules and blocked the ISF from Olympic negotiations -- and work to establish a drug-testing policy and qualification processes for street and park. And it must convince its anti-establishment masses that the Olympics will be good for the sport.
"Because Roller Sports, or FIRS [Federation Internationale Roller Sports] is the recognized federation for skateboarding and the ISF is the representative of the sport of skateboarding, we formed a commission between the two organizations that will manage the Olympics," said Ream, who had no comment on the lawsuit. "Everything skateboarding related will be done by the ISF and Roller Sports will take care of the institution, drug testing, ethics and betting. Drug testing will work like it does in any other sport and there will be no issue because we don't have a problem. The onus is on us to get this right and not screw it up for skateboarding."
On that last point, he's right. Unlike snowboarding, skateboarding and surfing aren't guaranteed a second chance for repair work. And while the Olympics will provide an incredible opportunity for increased funding and exposure for all of these sports, as they did for snowboarding, most action-sports athletes say the Olympics will never become the defining contest on their calendars.
"This is a great opportunity, exposing surfing to new territory on the world stage," said six-time world surfing champion Stephanie Gilmore. "I'm more than excited to have a possibility of personally competing in the Olympics. Olympic athletes have been a huge inspiration to me from such a young age. However, I still believe the WSL World Title is and should remain the pinnacle achievement in our sport."