On 3 August 2016, when skateboarding was officially approved for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics, Momiji Nishiya was looking forward to her ninth birthday later that month. Five years and one pandemic postponement later, she became her sport’s first female gold medalist, winning the street event in Tokyo earlier this week. She is just 13 years old.
Rayssa Leal, the Brazilian who took silver, is eight months younger. And the third woman – or in this case, girl – who collected a medal Sunday, Funa Nakayama, is a comparatively ancient 16.
Olympic officials estimate it may have been the youngest podium ever – but it may not be the last all-teen medal ceremony this summer. There is, after all, another women’s skateboarding event.
At the Ariake Urban Sports Park in Tokyo, the kids aren’t just competing. They’re winning.
Over the past 50 years, skateboarding has evolved from counterculture to mainstream, from the X Games to the Olympics. And with that final ascension, the sport is determined to further establish itself and attract a new generation of fans – and aspiring superstars – with its platform. The women’s game, especially, could use that bump, and in Tokyo, it may just capture its future audience by putting its future stars on the worldwide stage.
To that end, skateboarding has no minimum age requirement. That’s true of many Olympic sports, but some, like gymnastics and boxing, do have a cutoff set by their governing bodies. Skateboarders, though, are only subject to their home countries’ minimum age requirements, which for the majority of nations, including the United States, is 13. (Thirty-five countries do have higher minimums, the most restrictive of which – Colombia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russian Federation – require competitors to be 18.) National Olympic Committees are known to make exceptions, too; 12-year-old Syrian table-tennis prodigy Hend Zaza competed in Tokyo, and another 12-year-old, Japanese skateboarder Kokona Hiraki, will get her shot in an event next week.
That’s all to say: Had this summer’s games not been delayed a year, the field might’ve looked wholly different. Yes, countries and sports federations are known to have granted exceptions to age minimums, but without a waiver, Nishiya and Leal would’ve been too young to compete. Same goes for Britain’s Sky Brown, the youngest professional skateboarder in the world, who was just 12 when she qualified for the Games. Brown, who turned 13 just 11 days before the opening ceremony, is expected to contend for a medal in park skateboarding on 5 August – but she won’t even be the youngest competitor in the event. That distinction goes to Hiraki, who turns 13 next month.
Age trends across Olympic podiums have swung in both directions over the years. Gymnasts in their 20s dominated the sport in the 1960s and ‘70s, and the sport’s minimum age requirement of 14 was almost irrelevant. But as gymnastics evolved toward more difficult tricks and routines, ages ticked down, and the International Gymnastics Federation was required to enforce its minimum age threshold and then gradually increase it.
In swimming, which requires Olympic competitors to be 14 or older, athletes in their late 20s and 30s have had great success in recent games as they’ve learned to extend their careers – and their primes. But a new generation of swimmers is taking over Team USA in the pool; this summer, Katie Grimes, at 15, became the youngest US Olympic swimmer since 1996.
There’s no arguing, though, that skateboarding represents the biggest injection of youth the Olympics has seen in generations. Leal, the 13-year-old street skateboarder who took silver, was the Games’ youngest medalist since 1928. If Brown makes a podium next Thursday, she’ll capture that distinction. And if not, she’ll have another chance in three years in Paris, and likely another four years after that. The future of women’s skateboarding is a pack of girls who have already arrived.