Chiba – When Yuto Horigome and other elite skateboarders competed in their sport’s Olympic debut at last year’s Tokyo Games, they performed only for each other in the confines of the unprecedented “bubble” that allowed the world’s largest sporting event to take place in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Nine months later, many of those skaters were given a second chance to hear cheers from local crowds as the X Games — known for igniting the mainstream popularity of action sports and elevating many top athletes into household names — made its Japan debut over the weekend at Chiba’s Zozo Marine Stadium.
“It was really lonely to compete without fans at the Olympics,” Horigome said after winning Sunday’s rain-shortened men’s street skateboarding final, his first competitive appearance since winning Olympic gold in the same discipline. “But we had so many people come today, and I was able to perform new tricks, and I think we were able to show the fun of skating.”
Horigome was joined on the men’s street podium by fellow countrymen Daiki Ikeda in second and Sora Shirai in third — the second all-Japanese podium of the weekend after Olympic champion Sakura Yosozumi, Kokona Hiraki and Mami Tezuka swept the women’s park competition Saturday.
Olympic women’s street skateboarding silver medalist Funa Nakayama wrapped up Japan’s Sunday haul with another silver in the same discipline.
Japan’s three other medals came on Friday, with Kio Hayakawa and Moto Sasaki taking gold and bronze, respectively, in the BMX flatland tournament, and Moto Shibata capturing silver in the men’s vert skateboard final.
Four of the five Japanese skateboarders to finish on a Tokyo 2020 podium — including gold medalists Horigome, Yosozumi and women’s street champion Momiji Nishiya — had previously earned at least one X Games medal, adding to legacy that ESPN Vice President of Programming Tim Reed insists was an important factor in the broadcaster’s desire to bring one of its flagship events to Japan.
“We’ve wanted to bring the brand and the event here for years, and we’ve been trying to figure out how to do it,” Reed told The Japan Times. “So it’s just awesome, because the Japanese (athletes) have been such a big part of our history for many years. And so it’s great to finally bring it here locally, where so many have come from.”
The three-day X Games Chiba event transformed the baseball stadium — which earlier this month was the stage for Chiba Lotte Marines pitcher Roki Sasaki’s historic perfect game — into an urban athlete’s paradise, adding an origami-themed street course, an elevated concrete bowl for park riders, a vertical halfpipe and a flat competition area, all surrounding a giant landing ramp for Moto X riders to land their own high-flying motorcycle stunts.
It’s the kind of environment that American skateboarder Jagger Eaton, who made his X Games debut in 2012 at 11 years old and won gold in Sunday’s men’s skateboard park final, relishes competing in.
“To be able to bring out … all these different events in one arena, and have all of us get along and be friends, that’s its own culture and the pinnacle of the sport,” the Tokyo Olympic men’s street bronze medalist said. “I feel right at home when the lights come on and they say my name.
“The fact that there’s even a crowd here is amazing, and I’m stoked to be competing.”
Organizers were handed the keys to the stadium on April 17 and crews worked over four days to construct the competition areas. Workers could be seen adding the final layers of paint on Thursday, but all work was completed ahead of Friday’s opening.
The feverish finish came after months of coordination between ESPN and local partners, all of which took place online due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.
“It’s pretty remarkable that all of this was put together with not one in-person meeting … It was all created and developed over basically a lot of Zooms,” Reed said. “(The local organizing committee) had a really good natural awareness for what action sports is all about, as well as what the X Games is and what’s important to us.”
In welcoming the X Games, Japan became its fifth Asian host — following Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and China — as well as the 12th overall outside the United States. Its arrival came as a delight to local fans, who until now could only watch the X Games on TV or online.
“I loved skateboarding as a kid, but Japan never had big skateboarding competitions that I could see in person,” Takuro Sasaki, 42, said as he sat outside the venue with his family on Sunday morning. “The X Games is the biggest street competition in the world, even bigger than the Olympics.
“The Olympics are just the starting point for mainstream acceptance, but if you look at how many people are here today, skateboarding has the potential to reach the level of popularity it has in the United States.”
While ESPN was forced to cancel its 2020 X Games events due to the pandemic, the circuit returned to Minneapolis in 2021. Under guidance from the Japan Sports Agency, international participants and crew in Chiba took daily COVID-19 tests, creating a soft bubble between the stadium and a nearby hotel.
“In some ways, (the pandemic has) almost trained us to get better at knowing what processes need to be in place,” Reed said. “And then, obviously, anywhere we go comes with the local requirements, and just working through it.
“I think it’s something that we’re all living through — every one of us — and something that we just knew was a factor for us to continue to do these things, and something that we’re ready to all really come together on and accomplish.”
Officials are already looking toward future events in Japan with confidence despite the weekend’s total attendance of 40,000 falling short of the local organizing committee’s target of 90,000.
“To hold such an important event in Japan places a lot of responsibility on our industry and the action sports community,” said Shinji Kawano, head of the X Games Chiba local organizing committee. “We wouldn’t have done this if it was only for one year, and we expect that this will continue for several years to come.
“We thought we’d be happy if we could accomplish half of what we wanted to in our first year in terms of the competitions themselves, promotion, operations and gaining the understanding of fans, and next year we want to go one step forward and bring action sports further into Japanese culture.”
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Source: The Japan Times