FORBES: Tony Hawk Discusses Pioneering Skateboarding Influence, Mixed Feelings On 2020 Olympics
First Published On: Forbes
Just before receiving his lifetime achievement award at the Clio Sports Awards, which honors innovation in advertising, the legendary, iconic Tony Hawk still thought after all this year that it was surreal that someone involved in skateboarding would be honored.
"I’m always thinking these awards go to more mainstream companies, more mainstream athletes," Hawk said. "And so to sort of break into that world still to me is a little bit foreign.”
A part of Hawk still thinks that skateboarding is unconventional, a sport for the misfits and outcasts of the world.
"I’m not trying to change that perspective at all," he said, "but I know that it has changed greatly over the last decade or so.”
Hawk, 51, is largely responsible for skateboarding's massive rise over the last 25-30 years from frowned upon afterthought to an industry worth billions that will be in the Olympics for the first time next year in Tokyo. His skating innovation and excellence helped put the sport on the map, inspiring many competitions, commercial success, a wildly successful video game franchise and so much more.
Hawk turned pro at age 14 in 1982, and at the time he never thought about becoming the pioneer in the skating world, which he said he only is "in some ways," maintaining his humble, approachable, down-to-earth Southern California cool.
"I was always very focused on learning new tricks," Hawk said. "I created a lot of different moves through the years, some that have sort of become foundations of skating, some that were forgotten about. But that was always my drive."
Hawk said he created his own brand of tricks over the years, and famously became the first skateboarder to land a 900 nearly 20 years ago to the day. He claimed that he wasn't focused that much on being considered the best or competing all the time, rather to just try to improve as a skater himself.
"And even if I was out on the ramp alone, I was still trying new tricks," Hawk said. "And so in that sense, I guess I was considered a pioneer. But at the time, it felt very isolating because people just weren’t embracing that style of skating. So it’s weird to come this far and to think that was affecting anything.”
To say that what Hawk was doing had an impact would be quite the understatement. From his 12 straight world championships to helping further popularize the sport with the X Games and his ubiquitous video game, Hawk was instrumental in shaping skateboarding's integration into modern popular culture in the 1990s and 2000s.
“I would like to think that I helped by keeping it authentic," Hawk said. "By showing our world as is truly is, but maybe making it more approachable for the outsider."
Hawk described skating as being this sort of clique of skaters and their friends who weren't necessarily welcomed by society's gatekeepers, some who didn't want to be anyway. That changed when Hawk helped the sport become more popular, accessible and marketable.
"I feel like through my bigger opportunities, especially with advertising," Hawk said, "I was able to show that this is something that’s really beneficial for kids. This is something that is a positive influence, that you don’t have to be super cool or have deep knowledge of it to get into it."
Hawk started his eponymous foundation to expand the number of skate parks and ramps around the world so more fans can safely access the sport they love. His success and influence helped create businesses and industries and inspire millions, helping create an enduring, lasting, global culture.
“I don’t think I ever get that lofty with thinking of what I’ve done or a legacy," Hawk said, trying to downplay his accomplishments on a night he was accepting an award honoring them. "I love to keep getting challenged and to keep figuring out new ways to promote skateboarding."
Perhaps the biggest way Hawk promoted the sport was through his video game franchise with Activision. Tens of millions of copies of the game's various iterations and spin-offs were sold around the world, generating an estimated $1.4 billion in sales. Hawk said there were a few different factors why the video game was such a tremendous success, starting with the timing of the game's release in 1999, when the sport was rapidly growing in popularity.
"I think that the game itself has a replay factor that’s very high, where people will keep coming back to the game even though they already finished all the challenges," Hawk said, adding that he'd be on board to do another video game if the opportunity arises. "And the authenticity factor, that we made it look and feel like real skating and put in real skaters, real skate spots and genuine challenges. I feel like that turned a lot of people on to skating. That was their first entry to skateboarding, and that actually inspired them to go try it themselves.”
Nowadays, Hawk is busy taking care of and raising his four children, running his Birdhouse skating brand and other business ventures and doing a lot of speaking gigs, "which is something I never imagined,” he said. As he begins his sixth decade on earth, Hawk still tries to skate himself, even attempting tricks he did when he was younger.
"I feel like I’m in a strange sort of litmus test," he said. "How far can you take it and stay relevant? At what age? But regardless, I’m enjoying it for the time being, and I am still very proud of being considered a skateboarder.”
In his younger years, Hawk never thought that skateboarding would ever be in the Olympics because of how people felt about the sport back then. He just didn't imagine at that time that the sport's reputation would ever turn around.
"But I think it’s exciting, it’s exciting for the new generation," Hawk said. "It’s exciting for the global rise of skateboarding."
But at the same time, Hawk still has mixed feelings about the sport's inclusion next year in Japan.
"Part of me feels like it’s about time," he said. "Why didn’t they figure it out before? Skateboarding is just as valid as any summer sport. On the other hand, we like having our own sort of vibe and our own culture, one that isn’t accepted by the mainstream. So I understand both arguments, and I think it will be represented well because it’s going to be the best of skaters that will be in it."
The Olympics will certainly be seen as a major validation for a sport that Hawk was so instrumental in popularizing, even though a part of him still doesn't think the sport wasn't meant to be accepted in this way. It'll be a crowning achievement for skating, one that wouldn't have been even remotely possible without Tony Hawk's incredible success and undeniably enduring influence.