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Friday, July 25, 2008

Heaven is a halfpipe

My feature on skater culture and this weekend's Kings of Concrete festival in today's Irish Examiner.

Mention skateboarding to the average Irish person and the first image that will probably come to mind is of Michael J. Fox out-manoeuvring a group of bullies with his board in the time-travelling classic Back to the Future.

Marty McFly’s iconic shenanigans blazed onto the silver screen at the height of the skater resurgence of the 1980s, but until very recently in Ireland, skateboarding itself seemed like a fantastical, futuristic novelty, such was the dearth of facilities and official support for the pastime.

Not anymore, however. This weekend, Dublin’s Wood Quay will leap to life in a frantic flurry of ollies, slaloms, pivots and wheelies, as Ireland’s top skaters congregate for the third annual Kings of Concrete festival.

The family-friendly bash will feature ramp competitions for the country’s skater brethren, as well as celebrating other urban sports like parkour (free-running), blading and BMX-ing, with some music, break-dancing, and street art thrown in for good measure.

This year’s event has broadened in scope, extending over two days as opposed to just one last year, a move that is reflective of the rapidly expanding skater scene here in Ireland. More importantly, argues organiser Dave Smith, the Kings of Concrete festival is the perfect vessel to demonstrate the positive aspects of the skater culture.

“Skateboarding has traditionally been perceived in a negative way – alienated, rebellious youth and all that - when it’s the opposite in reality,” explains Smith, who collaborated on the event with Geoff Fitzpatrick, his partner in their multimedia company Micromedia.

“For instance, if you go to a skate park, you’ll see the older kids teaching the younger ones tricks, and when they master it they all start banging their boards in support. That spirit and ethos comes out in the festival. It’s always extremely vibrant and eclectic, and generates a lot of good will in the community.”

Smith himself has been a keen skater since his teens, despite the woeful lack of resources available in the country. “I’m from west Cork, but I had to travel to Dublin just to buy a board,” Smith recalls. “There was nowhere to practice, and no real outlet for kids who were into more alternative pastimes than hurling or soccer.”

One man who understands only too well the struggle to bring skateboarding to the masses is Clive Rowen, a skating fanatic who opened Ireland’s first skate shop in Dublin’s Hill Street in the early 1980s (the store, Skate City, is now based in Temple Bar).

Rowen started selling boards here in Ireland after making contact with a wholesaler at the European Championships in Lowestoft, England in 1981 – and he spent the next two decades pushing for facilities to help enthusiastic young skaters to master their skills.

“In the early days, we would just roll around on the street, but then I built a mini-ramp in my backyard,” Rowen explains. “The shop on Hill Street was on a quiet road, so I built a series of ramps to put out on the public road every morning in order to hold jams. The guards did give us a bit of hassle over them, understandably, but as soon as the cops were gone, the ramps would come back out again.”

For decades, the major issue holding up the development of proper skate parks was insurance. Indeed, ever-increasing liability costs are held up as one of the main reasons why skateboarding went underground nearly everywhere after the peek of its popularity in the 60s and early 70s.

Here, skater groups spent years lobbying for resources to no avail. However, in 2002, Waterford City Council gave the go-ahead for a skate park, having convinced the Irish Public Bodies Ltd to provide liability cover.

This opened the door for other councils to get similar cover, and in November 2005, the then Environment Minister, Dick Roche, announced some e2 million in funding for the construction of 21 skate parks around the country (with planning input from Irish and American skater experts). The most recent park at Steamboat Quay in Limerick opened just last weekend.

It is initiatives such as these that have brought skateboarding more and more into the mainstream here and abroad in recent years. For example, last month, it was announced that skateboarding will be an Olympic sport in time for the 2012 Games in London. Here in Ireland, the burgeoning confidence of skater culture was exemplified by the launch of the country’s first skateboarding magazine, Wizard, earlier this summer.

Now that there’s greater support from officialdom, the focus has switched to how best to nurture Ireland’s young talent. “It’s like the whole 50m swimming pool issue here: unless you have the facilities you’re not going to be able to produce people who know what they’re doing,” Clive Rowen says.

“Younger kids are coming to these parks to give skateboarding a go simply because the parks are there. When a kid starts a sport at an early age they have no fear and they just throw themselves into it. That’s how we have so many rising skater stars today.”

One such rising star is Gav Coughlan (19) from Walkinstown in Dublin. The Trinity engineering student was inspired to take up the pastime at aged 12 after buying a board while on holiday in America, and crammed in as much practice as he could in makeshift skate venues.

“Generally I practiced beside the school in my area,” Coughlan says. “There were about 5 or 6 of us so we just kept finding new places in the city to skate, like car parks, but you’d be kicked out of them pretty quickly. Bushy skate park is just around the corner from my house now so I’m lucky.”

Coughlan’s dedication is paying off: he has already come to the attention of several influential sponsors in the US.“I have some video footage of my skating, so one of the magazines sent it to the team manager at an American skateboarding firm named Zero, and now they provide me with boards, wheels, and clothes,” he explains.

“I then won a competition in Belfast organised by a shoe company called Emerica, who gave me 12 pairs of shoes to last through the year. I just got talking to their rep, showed him some footage, and he put me on their team.”

The young skater says he would love to go professional, but accepts that it could be a tough road ahead. “I’d love to be able to make a living from it,” he states. “At this point, it’s about getting coverage, making better footage of your skating to show to the right people, and trying to take part in jams in America as much as possible.

“I’m taking part in Kings of Concrete, then going on the America Tour in England on August 16, but then it’s back to college. Hopefully I’ll get a back-up career out of that if I can last it! Either way, I’ll always keep skating.”

1 comment:

Darragh said...

Great article Declan. If you're there yourself over the weekend and spot me (on stabilisers) please say hello :)