• Sutton Atkins

Inline for the Olympics... REALLY?

Since I was 17 and I did my first race on skates, I’ve been wishing, hoping, dreaming of Inline Speedskating being Olympic. But as 30 more years have passed, I’ve become a little disillusioned. When I was 17, and didn’t know anything about sport politics, business or life, I thought we were pretty close to Olympics. I was so wrong. The more I’ve learnt about the real criteria for Olympic status, the more I’ve realized how far away we are, despite the fact the sport has grown in South America and in Asia, and is now even beginning to grow in Africa. In my humble opinion, we are further away than ever before. By the end of this ‘opinion piece’, I will explain why, but first lets examine some rumors that have been flying around on social media…

“The sport is too dirty, with too much cheating and fighting.”

The Olympics are “not accepting any new ‘judged’ sports”. And skating is in the grey zone; although it is “fastest man wins”, it is still partially judged. (Although not to the same degree as for example Ice Dance is.) Apparently, the IOC said that there is too much contact and ‘race-fighting’ in our sport (and thus this requires ‘judging’). It sounds reasonable.

Well, on this point we are going in the right direction. Believe it or not, the fighting in speedskating during, and sometimes after races, was much worse 20 or 30 years ago. However, some incidents still happen, (notably this one from Oostende ’13 in the 500m) and it leaves a “bad taste in the mouth” when it happens. But the last time I saw the riot-police on horseback used, was at World’s in 1988. So that’s an improvement.

“The sport is not big enough … because it’s too expensive.”

The rational behind this is that skates are expensive, and so people quit skating. It sounds sensible. Except for one thing; In my 30 years of skating, I’ve never heard anyone say “I’m stopping skating because I can’t afford the wheels”. I’m not saying it’s never happened, but I doubt that tens of thousands of people have quit because of this. But maybe some did. And these people that quit skating because “the skates got too expensive”, what did they end up doing? No sport? or a cheaper sport? Sure, there are cheaper sports out there. I guess football is cheaper (soccer), but not when you get to higher levels and start travelling, and getting expensive coaching, and boots etc. (but then again the gains are much greater if you “make it” to the top). However, I do believe that most sports are either equally expensive, or more expensive than skating. Actually, isn’t the biggest expense in skating actually the TRAVEL and hotel etc. because the races are so few and far between. Most people have to travel a fair distance if they want to race more than a few races each year.

A fitness skater can get standard boots/skates/wheels, for maybe 300 – 600 Euro. An elite Speedskater will spend; Custom boots, elite frames bearings and 5 sets of wheels, 2400 Euro. However, a tennis membership plus rackets and shoes costs more than that, a standard bike frame, tires, rims, etc. 3000 – 5000 Euro, and an elite cyclist will buy a custom carbon etc. etc. … 10,000 Euro or more (and probably need 2 or 3 types of bike and rims etc. … ?). And don’t get me started on Golf, how much is a set of golf sticks? Even an ice hockey player will spend more money than we do on all his protective equipment.

The bottom line is that you can buy a pair of skates for a few hundred Euro, join your local club and train with them 3 or 4 times a week for a relatively reasonable amount of money. Ok, this is not quite the case in Africa, but we can’t solve the African economy… let’s leave that to the multi-Billionaires that have enough money to end world hunger in an instant, but choose not to. True story.

The last reason I don’t buy in to this way of thinking is because Speedskating IS growing in Africa and Asia. And it’s MASSIVE in Colombia! Colombia** hasn’t had the healthiest economy in the last 20 years. So if it’s growing there, then surely the reason it’s NOT growing in Europe is something other than money?

“Equipment changes are making people quit.”

I’ve heard many respected voices say that wheel size (110mm, and now 125mm?) is preventing the sport growing, and thus a barrier to Olympic status. I don’t buy in to this at all. Sure, African skaters and maybe even some South American skaters will have problems buying the latest wheel upgrades if they want to compete at worlds or Olympics… but if they want to COMPETE at worlds or Olympics aren’t they going to need custom boots, decent frames, ceramic bearings etc. All that costs more than a few sets of wheels. … and then there’s the air fare, hotel, etc etc. And what we are forgetting is that 110mm wheels are not aimed at MOST skaters, they are aimed at elite skaters. The size of our sport is judged by how many people are on skates, including 90/100mm skaters who complete a marathon in 1hour 45mins, these are the important people for growing the sport. THESE people did not have to change wheels because the top guys started using 110’s. … But anyway, this is not the main problem; the size of our sport is not the MAIN barrier to entry to the Olympics.

“Equipment changes is preventing people from starting.”

I don’t buy this one either. Beginners on skates don’t need 110mm. They need 90mm, or 100m wheels. So actually, when all the elite skaters changed to 110mm there must have been a lot of 100mm wheels and frames being sold, used and relatively cheap. So it was actually cheaper and easier for people to start in the sport. I can’t imagine THOUSANDS of people said “Oh, I hate those new 110mm wheels, I’m going to play tennis instead”. Yes, people left the sport since 2008, but for another reason than this. (I’ll get to that later – Kia, Rollerblade, Fila, Salomon).

In fact, the reaction I normally get when “non-skaters” see my skates with 110’s on is; “Wow, cool skates, how fast do you go on those”. Actually, when I was testing the 125’s out in the Danish country side, I was just skating along enjoying the freedom, and this car overtook me, he stopped further up the road, got out, waved his arms to stop me, and asked “Wow, where can I buy those?”. So in my experience, people are excited by new technology, in all sports, not just skating. New technology will help distinguish inline SPEEDSKATERS from just kids in the street on 80mm wheels. It makes us look different. It makes us look like a sport, instead of a kids toy.

But the main reason I don’t buy in to this, as a “barrier to entry” to the Olympics is that Inline already has as many countries participating at worlds than many Olympic sports do at their worlds. Our sport is almost EQUAL in size (number of skaters and national federations) than many present summer-Olympic sports. If we look at the list of smaller Olympic sports below and then go on the Internet, it is easy to see that they often quote “participation” numbers. This includes any one person that has done this sport even just ONE time this year. (For example, if your granddad goes canoeing, one time, for a birthday treat, then this counts as ‘active participation’ in the sport, and so is added to their ‘participation number’. However, I wouldn’t granddad him a “canoeist”, would you?) If we were able to count how many people had ONE time put skates on this year, it would be millions and millions. It seems other sports know how to “massage the figures”, and “count participation” in their favor, but in skating it’s not done well, because it’s so difficult to count every time a person puts skates on.

The “smaller sports” in the summer Olympics are; Canoeing, BMX, Diving, Equestrian, Fencing, Handball, Judo, Rowing, Shooting, Synchronised Swimming, Taekwondo, Trampoline, Water Polo, Wrestling.

How many people do you think were trampolining this year on a competitive level? There was 6000 skaters in Berlin, and 5000 at Le Mans! There was 45 countries represented at the last Worlds. At the last count there were 116 national speedskating federations registered with FIRS, on 6 continents. (Asia, Africa, N. America, S. America, Europe and Australia. Over 20 countries from Africa participated.

You can compare yourself: Equestrian has 121, only 5 more than skating. However, I question the way these figures are calculated. Apparently, Syncro-swimming has 187 countries registered, this making it one of the most “world-wide” sports in the world. Can this be a realistic picture of how it is? If our sport is in reality as big or bigger than these Olympic sports, it makes me question how much weight the IOC put on these figures. Surely it seems that something else is far more important to IOC than participation rates (sport size). So , in my opinion, the size of our sport is not biggest barrier to entry (it seems). Of course, we still need to grow, we need more skaters, but more importantly we need more countries. But this is not the biggest limiting factor for Olympic status is it? I believe, something else is…

“We’re in the Youth Olympics, we’re nearly there!”

It’s a good sign, but maybe not as big sign as we think. The Olympics is a business that tries to portray itself as a “good cause”, by promoting sport, fitness, health and portraying great role models for young people. But is it really? Or is it just a business that is headed by people who want power, fame and glory? Most research I’ve read actually shows that after a city holds an Olympic games, participation in sport in general does not increase in the general population. Furthermore, most research shows that “sporting idols” do not encourage people to do sport, it encourages them to watch their idols on TV. And any “surge” in participation is usually only for a few months after the Olympics, and then things return to normal levels. (Though a few rare exceptions do exist.)

This year is YOG year, and qualifications take place at Worlds in Holland in July. I really hope it goes well, and the IOC see what they want to see.

But like ANY good company the “Olympic company” likes to do positive marketing. The Youth Olympics is their positive marketing; “doing something good for the youth of today”, encouraging youth sport. It’s marketing. They spend money on it, just like other companies spend money on marketing”. The Youth Olympic status does not mean a direct passage for Inline Speedskating to the real Olympics. I really wish it did. We can only hope…

“Speedskating is dying in Europe and North America?”

So, why is the sport stagnating in Europe and Northern America*? And is this leaving us even further from Olympic status?

Well, in the modern western world, people between the ages of 10 and 30 have a lot more choices and distractions than we (older folks) did 30 years ago. Just purely the number of sports available is greater than before, so the population, although expanding, is being spread out among many more sports, and at the same time the biggest sports are getting better at marketing themselves (due to the fact they are now run by businesses and marketed by PR agencies with billion-dollar budgets – they (football, athletics, basketball etc.) have gone ‘pro’ at creating “hype” about their super-star players, and kids get sucked in to that.) Combine this with the social media explosion, video-game culture exploding, and before you know it most kids are not looking at skating as an option, they have many better offers. I have very few solutions for this problem. I think FIRS needs to market the sport better, more professionally, and their PR/communication needs to improve. But as I said before, they are pressed for time and energy themselves; it needs a professional marketing company to step in. But then who is going to pay them?

I think the skate companies that are marketing their skaters as “super-stars” and giving us personalities (Powerslide, EO/Atom, MPC, Bont, etc.) are doing a good job, it’s what kids want to see, and it helps pull people in to the sport if they see PERSONALITIES. Here are two good examples;

Maple marketing their team as personalities;

This is interesting use of the latest “Pull-marketing” techniques, and proving to be more effective for sales, but also in creating interest in the sport, and making the sport in general feel more appealing to the general public and new-comers. Also making super-stars more approachable than in years gone by. Maybe FIRS could begin to use this strategy to develop the sport further?

So what IS the limiting factor? Where is our weakest link?

The limiting factor is our ability to be “marketable”. It always comes down to money in the modern world. In other words; is Inline Speedskating a “product” that can be sold to make money? Right now, the answer is no. Why? We have a very limited business network.

One possible solution is to create a big project that attracts people to get involved. The last time skating was BIG was between 1998 and 2004 when the World Inline Cup was at it’s height. This was a key moment in our history. The sport had good sponsors, with a global race series, that also involved many “fitness skaters” at each marathon. We were never closer to Olympic status than this moment. Why? Because we had multi-national businesses from outside our sport, involved. And to be honest, that is what the IOC (International Olympic Committee) are interested in; Big Business and TV time. (Did I mention “money and power” earlier?) We had Kia (cars), Rollerblade, Fila, Salomon, and more. These companies make OTHER products than just skates. (Right now, the biggest company we have involved in skating is Powerslide. A very big company, but only in skating.) These companies were ready to go the next level, but we missed out, only just, because we didn’t have enough TV time (either Eurosport, ESPN, or substantial time on national TV channels – we were lacking – “close, but no cigar”.) The ProRollerTour is a great initiative, by Pascal Briand. Lets hope this stimulates the WIC and marathons in general, back in to life.

“Branding” influences everything. Branding makes a sport cool, or not cool. When we had major brands involved, the sport was ‘cooler’ than it is now. And that affects participation rates. You may be wondering why skating isn’t “cool” right now in the general population? Rollerblade, Fila and Salomon each were bought by bigger conglomerate “parent companies” that pulled the strings, and pulled them OUT of skating. Their marketing agencies advised to promote other sales areas than skating, e.g. free-style skiing, snowboarding, running, and all the other sports that have recently become “cool” again, at the expense of skating. They pulled out between 2004 and 2008. The big question is; “how do we get them to take another look at skating?” How do we get them to decide to make skating cool again?” Well, it starts with money. We have to convince them that they can make money from skating, big money. How do we do that? I don’t know. But then I’m not a PR guy, I don’t wear those cool looking thin glasses, I don’t wear a black polo neck jumper, and I don’t drive a big black Audi. But the “right guy” to change the sport, and move us closer to Olympic status will have a world-wide network, contacts and a great imagination of how to develop this sport to it’s greatest potential.

But maybe we need a big event that corporate business can get in to, and in turn make us cool again. I heard a rumor that there is movement to breath life back in to the World Inline Cup. This is one idea that may work. Although I’m not sure if re-visiting the same idea that died is going to work. I hope so. But we’ll see. Another project that is trying to explode, but hasn’t quite done so yet is the European Inline Cup, all track races, very exciting, but a little bit “niche”, because it’s track. And to your average fitness skater, it’s not easily accessible, not easily understandable, and non-participatory. But it’s a good initiative nonetheless. (By the way, I love track, I think it’s the best skating in the world, EIC is great! J ) But it’s not reached the heights we need for it to positively affect our Olympic ambitions. And because it’s on track it means that only speedskaters see it. The general public does not see track races. The general public only sees races when they are on road in a city center. Then we get good publicity. It’s the same in cycling; track racing is great, but nobody knows it… everyone knows the Tour de France.

Either way, it’s going to take some serious networking. We need contacts to big business, and we need to use branding to popularize the sport again. But there is a “light at the send of the tunnel”, there is a new owner of the World Inline Cup, hoping to breath new life in to it. And to quote Yann Guyader directly; “Big thank again to the new owner of the WIC for giving us the chance to promote our sport on a worldwide scale…As the owner of the athletics Diamond league he knows what to do to make it big again. Let’s hope that our sport has an upcoming bright future.” I couldn’t agree more!

Unfortunately, it’s money that counts. So let’s hope this is the next event-project that is going to build the next Inline Speedskating boom?

I admit that the issues are probably more complicated than my summary here, and maybe I’m missing some info. After all, I do not have direct information from the IOC or FIRS. But it might be nice to hear from someone at the top about what we actually have to do to be Olympic, because, right now, nobody seems to be able to answer that question. I hope this article prompts people to ask questions and talk about solutions. We are millions of skaters in the world. We deserve to be Olympic.

I’ve left the comments box open at the bottom of the page on this article if anyone has any ideas or comments. I’m sure people will say “FIRS should do this…” or “FIRS should do that…”, but to be honest, FIRS do not have so much money, and they already work pretty hard to just keep the sport running. And then people say “the manufacturers should do it”, well, most manufacturers already do something for the sport, with events etc. And I think that most manufacturers are fighting for survival (not ALL, but some). So it needs to be an idea that doesn’t cost too much, and that doesn’t take too much organising, or that involves other interested parties than just FIRS. That’s a difficult set of circumstances.

The only other possibility is for ALL the interested parties (FIRS, manufacturers, national federations etc.) work together in a fantastic “team work” to get the sport to the next level. I don’t know if that can happen. It seems to me that the reasons we are not Olympic, have nothing to do with sport, and all to do with business.

My final sobering thought, is that IF we did become Olympic, how would that affect our sport? We assume that it would bring money in, bring new people to skating, bring more sponsors and the sport would grow etc. But WOULD IT? Really? Synchronised Swimming is an Olympic sport, and has been for years, their athletes are not professional, their sport is not big, in fact, their sport is often used as the butt of a joke.

If Olympic status hasn't made these sports big: Canoeing, Diving, Equestrian, Fencing, Rowing, Shooting, Synchronised Swimming, Taekwondo, Trampoline, Water Polo, Wrestling, why would Olympic status automatically mean speedskating would grow exponentially? Or why would Olympic status automatically mean that people would respect speedskating more? Wouldn't "roller-skating" (as most average people see our sport) replace synchronised swimming as the butt of jokes?

Food for thought.

Coach Sooty


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