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Judging the “best?” Maybe. What exactly do contests mean to skateboarding?

By Sean Mortimer

Skating and contests have had a mixed history. Traditional sports are caged within objective regulations that clearly define a “winner.” Get the highest score. Get the lowest score. Cross the line first. But there is nothing wholly objective about skating. Okay, high-jump and slalom are wholly objective, but the comparatively anemic popularity of those disciplines prove that most skaters don’t gravitate toward formats that strip creativity to focus on statistics. Modern skating was created sneaking under fences into schools and pools—breaking rules, not following them.

That said, there has never been a period when skating didn’t have contests, often organized by skaters. Skate competitions have evolved from early formats that borrowed heavily from ice skating and gymnastics and continue to mutate radically to meet skater’s changing demands.

We gathered a handful of pros from the past 40 years to provide commentary on how skateboard contests have mutated over their chaotic history.

JUST LIKE ICE SKATING!

Early competitive skating went through an embarrassing cross-dressing phase. There was plenty of trying on other sport’s clothing to see what looked good on us. During the ‘70s, freestyle contests sampled from ice skating with prerequisite tricks and timed routines to music. Some competitors wore mime makeup and others did dance routines off their boards. A disturbing gymnastic mentality emerged when officials demanded competitors include “strength moves” like handstands. Then creativity was stripped down and skaters pretended to be downhill skiing with slalom.

CRAIG STECYK III [World renowned artist who helped form the Z-Boys, assisted creating Thrasher, initiated skate videos and injected heavy doses of counter culture into skateboarding through articles and videos.] “The early contests were a lot of supermarket parking lot shit. First one I went to was on the Bay Street hill in Santa Monica [1963]. Larry Stevenson who founded Makaha skateboards—and invented the kicktail—may have been the promoter who put on the event. It was won by Squeak Blank riding on steel wheels as I recall. People from all over came together and you got the idea that there might be a movement. I don’t recall much of a formal focus on contests until then.

“Stevenson had seen me skating and he gave me skateboards. My whole conduit to him was to kick down product to everybody around me like Miki Dora, the preeminent surfers. At this stage of the game, a corporate strategist would call that an influencer.

“I went to the 1965 contest in Anaheim. I would have been 15 and might have had some idea about entering slalom because we lived in the hills. They lowered the slalom ramp to make it less of a hill and that was weird. [Stecyk didn't enter.] I watched part of it. That one, the Del Mar contest [1975, featured in Dogtown doc]—the only reason people remember them was because they were marketed.

“I was at the 1977 contest in Carlsbad with Tony [Alva]. Was there a reaction to Tony’s Nudies outfit? [One competitor said Alva skated in 'lingerie.'] I never paid attention to what those people said about anything. It was a bunch of guys wearing bad plastic hockey equipment with skate names screened on them. God, it was hideous.

“[During the '70s] contests weren’t that relevant to me because it was a foregone conclusion that people like Tony and Stacy Peralta, and a number of other skaters I knew, were better skaters than they had placed.”

Shoes? We don’t need no stinkin’ shoes to compete in a sidewalk surfing contest!

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TY PAGE [Nicknamed "Mr. Incredible," Ty was one of the most popular skaters of the 1970s.] “I watched the 1965 Anaheim contest on TV when I was seven. My whole family sat around and watched it. After seeing Bruce Logan [placed second] on TV, I wanted to be the best.

“My first contest was in 1969 when I was 11. The winner got on the Makaha team. Then there really weren’t any contests until Del Mar in ’75 and then there was pretty much one every weekend.

“I took the Del Mar contest way too serious. I didn’t know what to expect. I couldn’t eat before, but I got second in the junior’s division and Jay [Adams] got third. The contest was cool and showed me that there were a lot more skateboarders than I thought. Nobody knew anybody back then. We were just meeting each other at the contest.

“And we were totally clueless. I would just hope that somebody would tell me when a contest was coming up. For the longest time, they didn’t have pro contests and when they finally did, there wasn’t much money, which wasn’t an issue. You might get 800 bucks but you could make that in a  weekend doing demos. I don’t even remember the first time I entered as a pro.

“It wasn’t really that organized. There was maybe a little bit of weirdness. There’d be contests where we’d have to write down the judge’s scores and even then they wouldn’t get it right. People would argue with judges. It was really, really rare that you’d get a really good skateboard judge who didn’t have an axe to grind and knew what he was doing.

“Later on, I got hooked up with California Free Former, a company that was doing 20 million a year back in the ’70s. The guy that ran the company was a super headcase. After 1977, he told me that I couldn’t enter other contests, only the ones he put on that were the world championships. I was under contract. He owned me. It was a nightmare. All I could skate was the few major contests.

“I was always nervous and only skating these big contests made it worse. I’d inevitably always got third. But Ty Page is a pretty good stage name and I’d travel a lot and do demonstrations sometimes in front of 10,000 people. So skateboard contests [placing] didn’t always transfer into popularity. I could skate awesome in front of people, but I dreaded contests. For the 1977 World Championships, I worked on a routine for nine months until my hardest tricks were easy for me. I hit every one of my tricks the first half, and then said to myself, All right dude! You’re ripping! The rule of the contests was that you had to hit every trick in order—the judges had your tricklist in their hands like an Olympic gymnastic routine. I came out of spinning 360s and forgot my next trick. I was skating around with my hands on my head saying ‘Oh no! Oh no!’ Anyways, I got third. I’m like a genius in some ways, a retard in others.”

LANCE MOUNTAIN [Member of the Bones Brigade, one of the most popular skaters in history.] “Tony Alva was a bank and pool skater who could ride everything and compete with skaters who specialized in specific events, like slalom. Bank and pool riding was taking skateboarding by storm, but the contests were behind and still focused on slalom and freestyle. Tony’s name was so big because he was the best at something popular, but there weren’t any contests for it at the time [1977].

“Tony was also the first skater to understand what contests were about—it’s entertainment, it’s showmanship, it’s theater. He knew that and he was competitive and he was able to put it all together. He was the first to make it his own. He wanted to be a rock star. Tony wanted to win but he knew a different way to win and that’s been the standard for any skateboarder since.”

Alva shredding the cones in his infamous Nudies outfit.

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TONY ALVA [Former World Champion, brought showmanship on a board to cosmic level.] “In the ’70s, you needed to do well in contests to get coverage and there was something to prove then. There were age limits. We started in the juniors division that Stacy [Peralta] and I pretty much dominated until we turned 16 and got to break into the professional ranks and skate against our heroes. You had to be 16 to be pro and you had to skate contests to be considered pro back then. We were skating against guys who were 25 years old. We had something to prove and that came into play. The older guys were fearful of us. So, in a way, the competition created progression, but in other ways it took a little of the fun out of it.

“I was 19 when I won the 1977 Overall World Professional Championship at Carlsbad Skatepark. I skated in cross country, bowl, freestyle, downhill and slalom but the only thing they showed on TV [ABC, the most popular channel at the time, showcased the contest on Wide World of Sports] was the slalom event.

“I was pretty flamboyant at a young age. I was influenced by Led Zeppelin, Ozzy, Bowie, Alice Cooper—a lot of rock’n’roll and surfing. The suit I wore for the contest was a custom Nudies design—he designed outfits for Elvis, The Rolling Stones and other celebrities. It cost a couple thousand dollars. I knew that there was going to be a lot of media at the contest. It was a rock or shock value. I came to the contest in a limousine with Bunker Spreckels [surfer and heir to 50 million dollars]. The attitude had a lot to do with the physicality. That’s why the outfits went hand in hand with my attitude.

“They had contests at the Long Beach arena, at the LA Sports Arena and a lot of times the aesthetics were geared towards a show with spotlights and big cheesy ramps that were unrideable. They were creating this show and not really knowing what skateboarding was all about. And it’s never been easy to judge. The racing part was easy, but the freestyle—that shit was super biased, really one-sided and sometimes geared towards the riders of bigger sponsors. There was always politics involved.

“A few times I’d get really angry and feel that I’d been ripped off. I’d throw a fit. Sometimes I’d let my ego turn me into a complete asshole. I had an element of grace, but at the same time I was usually pretty cocky. I was like, ‘I’m number one!’ Straight up in the face of my competitors and into the media cameras. I’m not ashamed of that behavior but I wouldn’t advocate it to my team riders or young kids out there. But that flamboyant aspect, that Ted Nugent, Mick Jagger aggressive, in-your-face attitude—that shit works. It gets attention and it sells product.

“People probably thought I was overrated and that’s why I’m proud of Carlsbad because it was the first big [overall] contest. I trained in La Costa downhilling with really good racers. My goal was to be the best and get that title. Anybody in professional skating really wanted that victory. It was like a heavyweight belt. I used that 1977 World Champion title as a platform to start my own company.”

To be continued…