'Action sports' making their debut at a time when loyal audience is aging

Organizers are hoping a surge of young fans tune in to the coverage of the new Olympic sports.

Youth-oriented 'action sports' making their debut at a time when viewers are aging

Letícia Bufoni is a 28-year-old skateboarder from Sao Paulo, Brazil, who is considered one of the favourites to win a medal in the street competition. Skateboarding is one of several new sports added to the Olympics in an attempt to attract younger audiences. (Jason Burles/CBC)

The 7,000 seats at the Ariake Urban Sports Park in Tokyo will be empty when the street skateboarding competition kicks off on Sunday, but organizers are hoping a surge of fans tune in to the coverage and that the new Olympic sport helps make the Games more relevant to a younger population.

Skateboarding, which started to emerge on the streets in the 1950s, is making the jump this year to the Olympic stage along with other new events, including surfing, sport climbing and karate.

"I am really stoked to be here," said Letícia Bufoni, a 28-year-old skateboarder from Sao Paulo, Brazil, who is considered one of the favourites to win a medal in the street competition. 

The event will be held in a temporary venue that was constructed for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. It features a course with handrails, curbs and slopes, where skaters perform tricks and are evaluated by judges on difficulty and style.

Bufoni, who spoke to CBC News after a training session under a scorching sun on Wednesday, said it was amazing to be in Tokyo because she never thought she would be an Olympian.

"It is going to be huge for skateboarding, but also for the Olympics," she said. 

The push for a younger audience

When the International Olympic Committee announced in August 2016 the addition of five sports for Tokyo 2020, the president said it was an effort to "take sport to the youth."

"With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them," Thomas Bach said at the time.

Sport Explainer: Skateboarding

10 months ago
Duration 3:20
Skateboarding is a new Olympic discipline at Tokyo 2020. Get to know the sport.

One expert says the IOC is hopeful so-called "action sports" can bring in younger viewers at a time when the loyal Olympic audience is aging.

Belinda Wheaton, a professor at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, has been studying the topic for years. She said the research shows that in North America, which boasts the largest television audience for the Games, the age of viewers is creeping up.

During the last Summer Olympics in Rio, the median age of viewers in the U.S. was 53. And compared to the 2012 London Games, there was a 30 per cent drop in viewing among the 18 to 34 age group, said Wheaton.

"The people who are watching are older men," she said. "They are really concerned by that because, obviously, they need young people to stay relevant."

No spectators

According to the IOC, 73 per cent of its revenue is generated by broadcasting rights, and Wheaton says the model only works if people are watching.

In Tokyo, organizers had hoped to create an interactive fan experience around most of the new sports and disciplines, including 3x3 basketball, where games are played on a half-court and last 10 minutes, at most.

But the pandemic and bans around spectators have quashed those plans. 

Wheaton says the ultimate goal is to get people watching on television and, in particular, online. 

"[These sports] have big followings from their fans," Wheaton said. "They are very media friendly. They have a lot of sponsorship and advertising and the IOC is really aware."

Snowboarding debut 

She says organizers would love to repeat the success of snowboarding, which helped to reinvigorate the Winter Games. 

It was added in 1998 during the Nagano Winter Games, despite opposition from some of the world's best snowboarders who saw the Olympic movement as too corporate and capitalistic. 

In 2015, Wheaton surveyed more than 900 athletes who participate in action sports and she said they had a range of views about the Olympic movement. Some didn't think the Games would ever be the pinnacle of sports like skateboarding and surfing, but others saw it as a chance to grow interest.

Looking ahead 

While officials will evaluate how popular these new sports are for the Olympic audience, there are already new additions for the 2024 Summer Games in Paris.

Those Games will feature kiteboarding and breaking, also known as break dancing, and there are discussions around trying to include parkour in future Olympics.


Briar Stewart is the Moscow correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at or on Twitter @briarstewart