TOKYO(Reuters) - Skateboarding is set to make its Olympic debut at the Tokyo 2020 Games, yet one of the finest Japanese athletes will not be there to showcase the sport in his home country.
Isamu Yamamoto, 15, recently won the World Round-Up competition, which is recognised by many in the community as the world’s premier freestyle skateboarding event, for the second consecutive year.
The teenager will be 17 when the Tokyo 2020 Olympics begin and should have been destined to be a star in his home Games.
However, Yamamoto’s ‘freestyle’ style of skateboarding is not one of the two approved by the International Olympic Committee for inclusion at the Tokyo Games.
In Tokyo, skateboarders will have the chance to compete in the street and park disciplines.
Street skateboarding features stairs or benches, intended to mirror a natural street. Park boarding takes place in a hollowed-out course, usually involving bowls or kickers that give boarders great height, allowing for more complex tricks.
Both street and park boarding are regular on the X Games schedule since its inception in 1995.
Freestyle, however, emphasises on performing tricks on flat ground and does not involve features like kickers that allow big air. It instead focuses on intricate technical moves.
It was also not part of the most recent summer X Games.
Yamamoto is disappointed at not being able to show his skills at a home Olympics but understands the IOC decision.
“It is not too upsetting because of the small number of people that do it,” he told Reuters at a skatepark near his home in Nara Prefecture.
Several top Japanese skateboarders might feature in Tokyo, including 2017 X Games winners Moto Shibata and Aori Nishimura.
Yamamoto, who has to juggle school and homework around his professional skateboarding career, was looking forward to the Games and hoped the Olympics would change perceptions about skateboarding.
“I hope that the reputation of skateboarding could be changed by the Olympics,” Yamamoto said.
“Now, people are often scolded for skateboarding in parks or in the street,” he said with a smile, adding he was still regularly told off by people in his neighbourhood for skateboarding near their house.
Despite the interest in the Olympics, Yamamoto was not ready to change his style.
“I have been doing freestyle skateboarding until now so it would be hard to change my style to park or street,” he said. “That would be odd for me.”
Yamamoto first became interested in the sport at the age of eight when his father Shoji, himself a former skateboarder, first showed him videos of freestyle legend Rodney Mullen.
He started spending more and more time honing his skills at skateparks in Nara, many of which have areas specifically dedicated to freestyle boarding.
Yamamoto, who has met his hero Mullen as well as skateboarding great Tony Hawk on several occasions, dazzles his social media followers with innovative and fast-flowing tricks.
His skills have not only secured him several sponsorship deals but also made him a popular figure in Nara.
Yamamoto’s presence at the skatepark, while being interviewed, drew in a small crowd of locals on a break from work. They wanted to see the kid in action and take some photographs of their own.
Yamamoto said he was happy his friends do not see him any differently despite his fame.
Instead, he hopes his success will bring more commercial opportunities for freestyle skateboarding and lead more kids to follow in his footsteps.
“Recently, there are more commercials for freestyle skateboarding so it is becoming more popular,” said Yamamoto, who wears clothes sporting his ‘Isamuism’ brand while boarding.
“The quality of skateboarders in Japan is improving because there are more and more freestyle skateboarders coming through and a high level of young skateboarders. Lots of youngsters are turning to skateboarding now.”
This was evident at the World Round-Up when nine-year-old Yuzuki Kawasaki claimed the amateur title. Three other Japanese riders also featured in the top 11.
Reporting by Jack Tarrant; editing by Sudipto Ganguly