Toby Young

I was a skateboarding pioneer

I was a skateboarding pioneer
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I was 12 when I got into skateboarding: the same age as Sky Brown, the youngest member of Team GB’s skateboarding squad at the Tokyo Olympics. And unlike most old fogies, I’m pleased that boarding has finally been recognised as an Olympic sport. When I took it up, I was constantly being told that it was a passing fad and would soon go the way of the hula hoop, the space hopper and the pogo stick. But I confidently told the doubters it was here to stay and it turns out I was right.

I made my first skateboard by pulling apart some roller-skates and nailing the bits to a piece of wood. The first time I tried it out I fell off and cut my toe so badly I had to have stitches. But I saved up and got myself a proper board from Slick Willie’s, the only skateboarding shop in London at that time, and gradually got better.

There were no skate parks then, so my friends and I used to get the Tube to the Undercroft at the Southbank Centre, now recognised as the birthplace of British skateboarding. While other kids were at the football, we spent Saturdays trying to perfect a ‘540’, which involved propelling yourself to the top of a steep concrete slope, spinning around one-and-a-half times — a 540-degree turn — then hurtling back down again.

Believe it or not, a 540 was not my most impressive trick. I could also do a handstand on the board and stay upright while it was moving. It looked like something you’d have to spend years practising, but it was surprisingly easy — far easier than doing a handstand on the ground. When my mother first saw me do it she let out an involuntary shriek of alarm.

I loved everything about being a boarder, partly because it was such a tight-knit community. There were only about two dozen regulars at the Undercroft and we all knew each other. The other place we used to skate was Hyde Park, which had a smooth, wide asphalt path running through the middle of it, but Westminster Council put a stop to that by doing something to the surface that made it impossible to skate on.

The fact that there were so few of us, and the authorities were so hostile, meant we thought of ourselves as outlaws — punks on wheels. And even though I told all the doubters that it would become an established sport one day, I’m not sure how I would have felt if skateboarding had been recognised at the 1976 Olympics. Fairly ambivalent, I expect. We were the pioneers and, as such, felt a strong sense of ownership. We had the arrogance of early adopters, too, referring to new kids who turned up at the Undercroft as ‘gremlins’.

My family moved from London to Devon when I was a teenager and my little skateboarding community shrank to a membership of one, which was a bit too exclusive. My friends at King Edward VI Comprehensive School in Totnes had no interest in any form of transport unless it was propelled by an engine and I turned my attention to refurbishing an abandoned 50cc Vespa. But I’ll be watching when Sky competes on the world stage and maybe even feeling a tinge of pride. If it hadn’t been for me and my tearaway friends pulling apart our roller-skates 45 years ago, there might not be a British Olympic skateboarding team.

Written byToby Young

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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