As you surely know, Nike released their Olympic Skateboarding uniform collection recently for the four Olympic Skateboard Federations they sponsor: Brazil, France, Japan, and USA. Nike delivered a handsome apparel collection, but not everyone is pleased with it. The decision to not protect apparel as “performance equipment” has potentially negative consequences for the future of skateboarding’s ecosystem.
It’s interesting that there’s not a single uniform, but rather plural: uniforms. It’s a snazzy collection that boasts a variety of options for the skaters to wear in competition.
“It’s more of a kit of parts than an actual uniform,” Kelly Bird at Nike said. “Because we were really cognizant about the fear of the Olympics and that skateboarding would have this homogenized look through a standard uniform. So we created a giant collection of apparel that included anything that we could picture anyone being into. At the beginning, I think it was like upwards of 20 skus. We want people to be individuals when they’re skating. If someone doesn’t want to wear, say, a pair of track pants, then they can wear the khakis. So we created a kit of parts, basically, instead of a single uniform, like, ‘Here’s your three piece outfit,’ and everybody has to wear it and look like the Sims team in the ’70s, you know?”
For those who decry the very idea of a skateboard uniform (which seems to be the angle in most stories I’ve read about these uniforms), may I remind you that uniforms have been a part of skateboarding since the very early days. Back in the ’70s most teams wore a uniform of some sort. Besides the Sims team, there was also the Variflex team (pejoratively referred to as “Varibots” because they looked and skated like robots), and even everyone’s favorite bad boys of skateboarding, the Dogtown Z-Boys, also wore a shop uniform. And while you may think of yourself as an individual, you, me, and all of our dumb little buddies are all wearing uniforms: we dress like skaters.
“From the beginning,” Josh Friedberg, President of USA Skateboarding (USAS), added, “our goal with the apparel for the games was just to make sure that the skaters would be comfortable and be able to skate in the clothes that they’re used to skating in. We worked with Nike who came up with a handful of different options and combinations that the skaters can choose from so that they’re most comfortable. It’s like, ‘hey, let’s make it functional and what skaters are used to wearing so that they’re, you know, not bothered by pants that are too tight, or too loose, or shirts that don’t fit, or any of that stuff.’ So that’s all taken care of. Obviously Nike is super good at what they do when it comes to apparel and I’m actually incredibly excited about their designs. It feels way more skateboarding than what a typical uniform would be.”
It should also be noted that Olympic skaters are allowed to wear their own shoes and ride their own equipment (boards, trucks, wheels, etc.) at all times and the Nike apparel is only mandatory during Olympic events.
“We’ve been purposeful in our team agreements,” said Friedberg, “to allow our skaters the freedom to represent their regular sponsors in all but a few specific situations. They’re only required to wear USA Skateboarding apparel in Rule 50 controlled events, like the Olympics, and at some team specific appearances.”
Rule 50, as well as Rule 40, are essentially the IOC’s attempt to govern advertising, religious, and political messaging during the Games in order to keep the focus on SPORT. They believe in “freedom of expression,” but not at the expense of “peace and harmony” and a “neutral” environment. Rule 40, in particular, has recently been updated to address social media advertising and allow for athletes as well as their non-Olympic sponsors more marketing freedom. In previous Olympics, outside sponsors were not allowed to even congratulate their athletes, and the athletes, in turn, weren’t allowed to mention any entities that weren’t official Olympic partners. While they’ve opened it up a little bit, the rules surrounding Olympic advertising and sponsors is still very restrictive and hostile to individual expression. More on that in a moment.
I think Nike, with their designer Piet Parra, created some lovely uniforms. I like the kit concept and there are a couple of interesting pieces, most notably the mechanic’s suit. The only thing I can find fault with is that they’re maybe just a little too polite. They sort of remind me of the ambient electronica you hear when you board a hip airline like Virgin or Jet Blue. The uniform kit has a distinctly indistinct, inoffensive, modernist neutrality—whatever that means.
And so I wondered if in designing these kits, and in Nike’s efforts to include “anything that we could picture anyone being into,” they didn’t try to introduce some styles that were a little out of the ordinary. “If I were designing the uniforms,” I said to Kelly Bird, “I would have added all kinds of weird flair to the pieces, like a tail, or giant spikes on the shoulders—like a GWAR costume—did you guys entertain any ideas that were a little outside the box?”
“The IOC would have something to say about that for sure,” Kelly said laughing. “But it’s been my experience so far that they [the IOC] want what we bring to the table more than they want to inject their customs into what we do. They’re looking to skateboarding to bring something fresh to the Games. So I think they were being mindful of not trying to limit the creativity and they weren’t as strict with the uniform guidelines as they are for some of the more traditional sports, which was cool.”
There are, as you would imagine, lots of uniform guidelines and there are a lot of people who are not cool with them. Danny Way, for instance, has very publicly announced his displeasure with the Nike apparel deal.
“If you’re going to get the blessing of skate culture at that level,” Danny said in his TWS interview, “it might be worth working with the culture a little bit more to do things right. I think they could have been slightly more courteous to the culture and also to the other brands that helped pave the way to get skateboarding to the platform that they are trying to capitalize on.”
Upon first reading, I completely agreed with what Danny said, but on closer inspection I realized I didn’t really understand what he was getting at. Who is “they?” The IOC, USAS, Nike? I presented the quote to both Josh and Kelly to get their take on it.
“I don’t know what that means,” Josh said. “I mean—I’m not sure. You know, from our perspective, we are all skateboarders and we’re trying to do this for skateboarding and skateboarders.”
“Well,” I said, “I think there’s a general impression that the apparel sponsorship deal was just given to Nike, but there was a bidding process, correct?”
“No one gave anything to anyone,” Josh replied. “Yeah, it’s a sponsorship deal and literally anyone could have proposed it. Had it been someone that didn’t have any competency in skateboarding, we would have turned it down because that wouldn’t have done us or skateboarding or our team any good. And the idea that Nike’s not engaged with, or a part of, skate culture at this point, that doesn’t make any sense.”
Kelly had a similar response: “I know that the federations talk to anybody that’s willing to come to them with sponsorship dollars,” he said. “So certainly a New Balance, or a DC, or an adidas, or a Lakai can sponsor any federation. It’s certainly a money conversation, I’m sure there are other factors involved, but it’s open to whoever wants to get into it. You’ll see that there are other federations that are sponsored by people besides Nike. I think there’s a misguided belief that Nike just gets everything across the board and it’s not like that.”
While Nike is a gigantic company with lots of dollars to throw around, Kelly pointed out that Nike SB does not have the same budget as Nike Basketball—in other words, the endorsement deal was in skateboard dollars and thus someone like DC Shoes could easily have presented a competitive bid. It should also be noted that, as Kelly said above, Nike is not the sponsor of everyone and everything. In Olympic Skateboarding they are only sponsoring four countries out of dozens. Interestingly, Nike is not the apparel sponsor for the host country, Japan: Nike only sponsors the Japanese skate team and Japanese 3-on-3 basketball team, while the country’s official apparel sponsor is ASICS. In short, I’m sure you can find many reasons to hate on Nike, but I don’t think this uniform subject is a good use of your hate.
“So the conversation wasn’t solely with Nike,” I asked Josh. “There were other companies competing for the sponsorship deal?”
“We talked to a handful of companies,” Josh said. “And it quickly shook out into who had interest and who didn’t. For some companies Olympic sponsorship programming isn’t what they do, but for Nike that’s something that they’re very focused on, so it was a pretty natural fit.”
While I’m not a huge fan of Nike, who else would you choose to create Olympic Skateboarding uniforms? It’s quaint to imagine a core skate brand like Zorlac, or Fucking Awesome, or Whale Cock, or something, being the apparel sponsor, but do you really want some sketchy skateboard company to design, manufacture, and deliver product they have no previous production experience with? I mean, my answer would be “yes,” but that’s because I’m a big fan of the Stupid.
To me the uniform subject was, at the outset of these conversations, a non-issue. It felt as if people were squabbling over a wedding dress when we shouldn’t even be talking about dresses, we should be talking about the absurdity of the wedding itself. The groom sucks—I’m casting Skateboarding, here, as the beautiful, ravishing bride who is the real center of attention in her gorgeous wedding gown/uniform, while the loathsome groom is an ugly, pathetic, incompetent rollerblading kook. She can do better, the girl can do. So. Much. Better. But now I’m learning that the dress actually isn’t a non-issue. It’s an issue.
UNIFORM VS PERFORMANCE EQUIPMENT
The controversy, as I’ve come to understand, developed well before Nike’s involvement—Nike did what Nike does and they did it well—it’s that the Skateboarding Commission (headed by Gary Ream) and World Skate (headed by the rollerbladers) did not define apparel as performance equipment and thus it falls under the category of uniform. As aforementioned, skaters get to use/wear anything they want (within the guidelines of course) that is designated as performance-related equipment.
“Absolutely, 100%,” Josh affirmed. “Skateboards, safety gear, and shoes all qualify as they have a significant impact on performance. Beyond feeling comfortable, it’s hard to argue the same for pants or shirts.”
“So presumably someone could wear a helmet shellacked with a hundred different sponsors on it?” I asked.
“No,” Josh said. “That is expressly prohibited by Rule 50.”
“What about their boards? Can they advertise on them?” I asked.
“You can ride any product that’s in market [for at least six months], but you can’t try and game the system by, like, printing a board loaded with all your sponsors on it. You can ride your board sponsor, you can ride the grip tape company that you ride for, but you can’t integrate other sponsored messaging into that,” Josh said.
But apparel doesn’t enjoy the same freedom in skateboarding because they didn’t insist that it was also performance related. This creates a potentially big issue for Justin Regan, Director of Global Product Marketing Strategy at Vans, who agrees with Danny that this seemingly minor decision about the uniform is not only discourteous to skateboard culture and history, but it could also have far reaching negative effects.
“This is my biggest issue with Olympic skateboarding right now,” Justin said. “In the International Federation’s [IF: the Skateboarding Commission at World Skate] decision not to protect performance skate apparel as equipment, it favored the National Federations [NFs] over athletes by stripping those sponsorship rights from the individual athletes, where they have traditionally existed in skateboarding, and gave them over to the NFs. The athletes are the big losers when the NFs take advantage of their lack of organization to remove their rights at the very moment of highest visibility. It’s very disruptive to the ecosystem skateboarding has developed on its own over the past 40-plus years. This leads to an ecosystem developing more akin to traditional team sports whereby team owners own rights versus individual athletes wherever professional skateboarding is currently less developed (i.e., most of the world). This is the total antithesis of the spirit and uniqueness of professional skateboarding that you and I grew up with.”
Frankly, when I first started talking about the uniform subject with Justin, I didn’t completely understand and I didn’t really care because, as I said, the dress/uniform is merely a symptom of the real issue, the wedding. The wedding is happening, so there’s going to be a uniform, so what? And, as Josh had said, “Long story short, skateboarding apparel doesn’t meet the definition of performance equipment in the eyes of the IOC.”
Justin has a different perspective on apparel as performance equipment.
“Understand that the IOC knows nothing about skateboarding,” Justin said. “It’s up to the IF to determine what falls within the guidelines for performance equipment for their sport. This decision is World Skate’s to make and recommend back to the IOC. Josh and Gary were supposedly acting inside World Skate to inform these decisions on behalf of skateboarding. A decision by World Skate to protect skate apparel as equipment would favor the athletes and help to preserve our existing professional skateboarding ecosystem. A decision by World Skate NOT to protect it gives the national federations, like USA Skateboarding, the rights to sell apparel as part of the ‘on field’ team uniform, the most visible, and therefore valuable, real estate.”
My first reaction was in alignment with Josh: pants and shirts as equipment? Pfft. From my own experience, I learned a long time ago that it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing/riding when I skate because I suck regardless. On the other hand, I recognize that a lot of skateboarders are very particular about their equipment and their attire (down to the color, even) and maybe that should be taken into account.
Justin continued: “The first problem is that this defaults to the performance argument, which any good skate performance apparel manufacturer can prove quickly and easily that skate performance apparel can and does indeed meet the definition if asked to do so. We can claim performance and we can back up that claim. Skateboarders have signature pants and signature items of clothing. At Vans, for example, we have hard drives full of research and development, design, and athlete and consumer insight data to support the specific skate innovations in our pants and tops.”
To illustrate an alternate path that skateboarding could have taken, Justin pointed to other Olympic disciplines where the apparel is defined as performance equipment. The most interesting: Women’s Beach Volleyball. Those tiny, two-piece outfits the female athletes wear are defined as performance equipment and thus each athlete can work with their own sports apparel sponsor to manufacture their attire to their exact specifications. There are, of course, more guidelines that need to be followed (the Olympics is nothing if not rules, rules, and more rules), and all the uniforms collectively look uniform, but the individual athlete is able to wear what they’re most comfortable wearing, represent their sponsor, fulfill their contractual obligations, and get paid for it. Note in the below photo, the two women are both wearing apparel that conforms to the International Beach Volleyball Federation’s uniform guidelines, but one is made by Mizuno, the other by ASICS.
If Women’s Beach Volleyball was able to present an argument to the IOC that the scant amount of material that comprises their bikinis is “performance equipment” (reason: “They prefer to wear a two-piece because there are less places for sand to hide. They don’t view it as swimwear or anything like a fashion statement, for them, that’s their uniform.”), then it would seem even easier to make the case for skateboard apparel.
“In skateboarding, the athlete is in control,” Justin said. “The athlete gets to negotiate their deals and when the check comes in, it goes to their bank account, right? But if you take away apparel as protected equipment, the athletes don’t get to pick what they wear and it becomes the team that gets to pick, and that’s literally money out of athlete’s pockets and into the team’s bank account.”
At least the athletes will still get to use their preferred equipment from their hard good and footwear sponsors, though. True, but Justin says that even those areas aren’t safe. He went on to describe what he calls “the knock-on effect” and provided the story of 2014 Sochi Men’s Half Pipe gold medalist, Iouri “I-Pod” Podladtchikov as an example. He showed me an image of I-Pod’s victory celebration and asked, “What’s wrong with this picture?”
If you’re like me and don’t know anything about snowboarding, the answer is: his board. Quiksilver does not manufacture snowboards.
“Quiksilver,” Justin explained, “is his primary sponsor, but he wasn’t able to wear Quiksilver outerwear because it wasn’t protected as equipment and Team Switzerland sold that sponsorship to some other company. And so Quiksilver said to I-Pod, ‘Okay, well how can we get credit for everything we’ve done for you and your career? Oh, well you’re only making 500 bucks a month from your board sponsor? All right, we’ll buy you out of that and we’ll make you a token board.”
Quiksilver had a board made six months prior to competition, put it on a retail shelf somewhere “for sale,” and voila, it met all of the qualifications for official Olympic performance equipment. On the one hand, I think it’s ingenious and hilarious what Quiksilver did (sneaky devils), but at the same time his board sponsor, who was obviously not big enough to compete with Quiksilver money, really got screwed. As Justin insinuates, the knock-on effect could also arise in skateboarding: when apparel is not protected, the hard-good brands are at risk.
“We should all agree that we need to protect apparel,” Justin said. “It’s the biggest problem and no one’s talking about it. Every athlete agent should be up in arms about this. For the good of skateboarding, this decision should have favored the individual athletes over the team. This creates a new and alien ecosystem in skateboarding shifting it from individual sport to team sport. This may not seem like a big deal to the uninitiated, but in my belief this single decision almost certainly guarantees that the Olympics will have a disruptive effect on the existing professional culture of skateboarding that we know and love today. That’s not to say that many good things won’t come out of the Olympics for skaters and for the competitors—there will be good things—but we could have done it so much better in ways that preserved and protected our endemic culture. I truly believe Josh means well and his decisions are informed by what he thinks will be in skateboarding’s best interest. It was never going to be perfect and as skaters we may just be up against an insurmountable opponent in the Olympic machine.”
In Josh’s and USAS’ defense it should be noted that Olympic Skateboarding federations around the world are under enormous financial pressure because of a funding gap—no one receives any Olympic money until after the 2020 Games. Also note that the US is one of the few countries in which the government does not provide funding for its Olympic program. Justin would argue that they/we could have been more creative, but the Nike deal was surely an attractively simple financial solution for USAS.
“Financially, our apparel deal with Nike SB has been one of the cornerstones that has allowed us to support American skateboarders during qualifying for Tokyo,” Josh said. “Unlike many NGBs, we don’t reserve any of our athletes’ individual sponsorship rights. Our goal has always been to make sure the skaters are the ones that benefit from this Olympic inclusion. Along with the monetary support we’ve been able to provide, many of our skaters have been able to add new sponsors since we first started naming USA Skateboarding national team members last March.”
Like it or not, skateboarding is about to change. Again. As Mark Waters (USAS Men’s TM) so eloquently said recently, “When hasn’t skateboarding changed?” True, but it’s always preferable when those changes are initiated by skateboarders for the good of skateboarding. While there is obvious disagreement over the outcome of this uniform decision—who knows how this is going to pan out? —we’re all friends and skateboarders here. Now, more than ever, skateboarders throughout the world should be united and informed so that we’re better equipped to make decisions that preserve our dysfunctional community and protect the spirit of skateboarding as it rolls into this new future. But if I know skateboarding, that’s not going to happen. Unite? Pfft. The only thing certain about skateboarding is that it’s always going to be one big, stupid, wild ride. So fasten your seat belt, sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight.
Now, cue up Virgin Atlantic Airlines’ ambient electronica playlist…
Destinations around the internet that posted stories about the uniforms were very amusing to me because the majority were assigned to writers who have no idea what they’re talking about. These were some of my favorites:
“They kind of look like something workers would wear at the official Olympic village McDonald’s. Just the thought of skateboarders wearing uniforms seems absurd. Skateboarders are supposed to be cool, young, individuals. The French team looks like they belong caddying the golf event.” —Stephen Douglas, thebiglead.com
As Brian Eno said about ambient music, “It must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
“Here’s the thing about skateboarding: anyone who can skateboard is legally mandated to be hot. If you can do tricks on a skateboard, you are automatically a cool and hot person. Tony Hawk, for example, is cool and hot.” —Sophie Kemp, Vice.com.
Much like the Vice-produced documentary, All This Mayhem, this quote perfectly illustrates Vice’s long and intimate relationship with skateboarding. Way to go, Sophie!
“But the boiler suit Nike designed for the French women’s team? That is bon, bébé!… It’s the cloth embodiment of skateboarding je ne sais quoi. We’re not saying you should root for France or whatever—although the idea of Brigitte Macron on French morning television, standing and maybe even moving on a Louis Vuitton skateboard, is really making me think we should Photoshop a skateboard under the feet of the female figure in Liberty Leading the People—but the uniforms are definitely where ~it~, as they say, is at. If a women’s blog wants to turn out a magnum opus on how to skate like a French girl, we would definitely study it in Proustian depth.” — Rachel Tashjian, GQ.com
Um? Rachel was very ambitious (or drunk?) when she wrote her review, but also WRONG. All of the silhouettes in the entire kit are available to the athletes in all four countries. In other words, Brazilians, Americans, and Japanese skaters can also don the bon bébé boiler suit.
“I don’t think we’ve seen designs quite as bold since the Grateful Dead helped the Lithuanian basketball team get to the 1992 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.” —Francis Xavier, unofficialnetworks.com.
Not entirely true because there have been some pretty wacky Olympic uniforms throughout its modern history, but I appreciate how Francis worked that Grateful Dead reference in there.
“All of the skating attire will be paired with Bruin React sneakers, which feature a suede upper part and a react foam sole covered in a zonal herringbone pattern to provide traction. Nike created the shoes knowing athletes like to feel the board through their shoes while they move.” —Kristine Klein, dezeen.com
WRONG. Shoes are performance equipment and so competitors are able to wear their footwear of choice. Presumably so that they can feel the board while they move.
This article originally appeared on Skateboarding.transworld.net and was republished with permission.
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