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As youths flourish in new sports, concerns arise over Olympics becoming 'a circus'

Japanese surfer Kanoa Igarashi is seen performing in the men's semifinal at Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach in Chiba Prefecture on July 27, 2021. (Mainichi/Rei Kubo)

TOKYO -- Surfing is one of four debut Olympic sports where athletes perform tricks while riding waves and participants applaud each other's skills regardless of which team they're on. Like skateboarding, in which Japanese athletes won the gold in both men's and women's events, surfing is a sport that has become popular with youths, different from traditional sports at the core of the Olympics.

    These new sports were introduced to the Tokyo Games in response to the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s attempts to attract more young people. The move comes as the IOC feels a sense of crisis about the lack of interest in the games among youngsters and cities.

    As one of the highlights of the medium- to long-term reform package Olympic Agenda 2020, adopted in 2014, the host city became able to propose new sports for the program. The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games benefited from this by having baseball/softball return to the games and karate make its debut.

    Meanwhile, skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing -- popular among youths -- were proposed in accordance with the IOC's intentions, making it a win-win deal for both Tokyo and the IOC.

    The three new Olympic sports popular among young people are rarely seen at school clubs in Japan, and aren't thriving among corporate sport teams. Kanoa Igarashi, who won the silver in the men's surfing, and Yuto Horigome, who took the gold in the men's street skateboarding, have based their activities in the United States and polished their skills by competing all over the world. Like them, many youths are improving their performances without being bound by customs of traditional sports that value seniority.

    There are also Japanese medal hopefuls including Tomoa Narasaki in sport climbing, which will begin on Aug. 3. The success of such Japanese athletes will surely lead to a paradigm shift from the "painful, hard and tough" traditional physical education and club activities here to more "enjoyable" sports.

    However, flashy skills are essential in competitions that require athletes to be telegenic, and participants are always at risk of danger. Some skateboarders don't wear helmets, and if they fall they can slam into a road. During this Olympics, at least one skateboarder performed while having their arm in a sling.

    Similarly, at the Winter Olympics, high-risk events such as snowboarding big air have been adopted, and the more difficult the course, the flashier it becomes. Some individuals linked to athletic organizations are warning that sports are by no means a circus, and that people should refrain from making them into a show.

    (Japanese original by Yuta Kobayashi, Sports News Department)

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