Last weekend at the X Games, down in Southern California, a 12-year-old named Gui Khury did something in competition that no other skateboarder had done before. Competing in the “Best Trick” event on a vertical ramp—basically a bigger, flatter version of a half-pipe—Khury zoomed back and forth and back again, flying up and down and up, and then coiled his body and absolutely went for it, spinning around three times in the air before he and his board returned to land. He looked like the Tasmanian Devil, or like a figure skater doing one of those centrifugal-force spins at the center of the rink. He looked like the future. He looked more surprised than anyone that he’d gone and pulled it off.
The athletes and spectators went wild. “You landed a 1080,” yelled TV analyst Gary Rogers, “in front of Tony Hawk!” Rogers said this as if the second part of the equation were equally as epic as the first. As Khury wiped his happy tears on his oversized white T-shirt, Rogers praised the youngster for the display of emotion. “As men, we need to express ourselves,” the broadcaster said. “We need to cry, we need to talk, and we need to fakie 1080 at 12 years old in front of Tony Hawk!”
It’s true: Tony Hawk was there. Like, there there. Not just in the X Games crowd, but really there up on the vert ramp lip, in his helmet and his elbow and knee pads, high-fiving and hugging Khury (half bro-hug, half dad-pat) and exclaiming: “sick!” It was back in 1995 that Hawk appeared at the very first “Extreme Games,” and now, a quarter-century later, he was still in the middle of the action at age 53, competing for the first time since 2003 (and still landing moves!) and garnering attention and intrigue of his own just by being there and being Tony Hawk.
Perhaps that last part was useful training, or at least a little preview, for what’s coming next. This weekend, when the Olympics kick off in Tokyo and skateboarding makes its long-awaited debut at the Games, he will be a key part of NBC’s broadcast crew. (Other NBC correspondents at the event include popular commentators Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski as well as MSNBC khaki king Steve Kornacki.) For the network, what better guy to bring into America’s homes than one of the great household names? And for Hawk, what better way to showcase the activity that he’s been elevating his whole life?
Hawk first rose to prominence as a kid himself on the strength of his skateboarding prowess, with inventive stunts and skinny-limbed abandon. (It was apt that he was part of a team known as the Bones Brigade.) He charmed audiences in Tokyo as a teenager; he sported a custom Powell-Peralta deck befitting his “Birdman” nickname; he turned the local old-school Dogtown crowd into envious grumps who described his moves as gaudy “circus tricks.” That wasn’t actually a bad thing, it turned out—people like the circus!—and Hawk built his name in two ways.
One was through his bananas athletic progression. A 1986 Sports Illustrated article, written when Hawk was 18, described him as “the Wayne Gretzky of skateboarding,” a phenom who kept winning titles on the National Skateboard Association circuit. (His dad, Frank, had helped establish the organization, hoping to further legitimize the one hobby that captivated his bouncing-off-the-walls son.) More than a decade later, at the 1999 X Games, Hawk was still at the top of his game. During the “Best Trick” event, after 10 failed tries, he finally rotated two-and-a-half times and became the first person to land a 900. (Both he and Gretzky announced their retirement that year, though Hawk would be back.)
In 1984 I was invited to be on a Japanese TV show called “Wonder Kids.” There were caveats to my appearance: they asked me to lie about my age because guests were supposed to be under 15, and to change trick names because the original names didn’t translate. My smirk says it all. pic.twitter.com/VmlW6oUKtD— Tony Hawk (@tonyhawk) May 26, 2021
And the other was through his real knack for maintaining a near-ambient presence: in the zeitgeist, on PlayStation, on The Simpsons, on the blockchain, in the Smithsonian, in ads for Bagel Bites (his peers used to make fun of him for this one, calling him “Bagel Boy”), in Police Academy IV and The Masked Singer, and eventually in the depths of most human brains. Somehow, he has done it all with an energy that comes across less as thirsty and more as just up for whatever. (He just likes Bagel Bites, OK?!) As a result, Hawk is far and away the most widely recognizable person in the skateboarding universe, which is kind of a hectic blessing and a benign curse.
On Twitter, Hawk routinely shares stories of well-meaning randos—TSA workers, COVID vaccination nurses, kids at skate parks with extreme “wanna see me feed a mouse to my snake?” vibes—who ask him whether anyone ever says he looks like Tony Hawk, or who can’t quite place why they know the name Tony Hawk, or who don’t believe that he is Tony Hawk. The phenomenon has become such a meme that sometimes poor Hawk can’t tell whether someone is in on the bit or serious. (According to Hawk, his name wasn’t always so rad: When he was a kid, bullies at school yelled out “Tony Hawk, bony cock,” he told SI.) Another thing Hawk does on Twitter is hint at his location when he’s out and about and then give away cool stuff—his deck, or his helmet—to whoever can find him (and say the passcode, “gleam the cube”) in real life.
Follow up: I asked him his name and he said Irving. I told him my name is Tony, to which he replied sarcastically “like Tony Hawk haha”— Tony Hawk (@tonyhawk) October 31, 2019
and then he left.
The net result of all of these self-deprecating stories, and all these generous flash appearances, are that they perpetuate the coolest thing about Tony Hawk: that the same extreme athlete who has spent his life testing the boundaries of space and time via tricks with names like “Hardflip BS Nose Picker” and “Saran Wrap,” the same dude who has also skateboarded and dirt-biked in a fat suit with the Jackass boys in his day, is also just kind of a regular guy like the rest of us, shuffling his way through life, constantly confronted with low-level indignities and backhanded compliments and modeling an admirably mellow response (this one forever being the GOAT). It is a skill set that ought to come in handy while navigating the reliable messiness that is the Olympics, and one that probably already has.
“To be honest,” Hawk told Larry King in 2014, talking about the possibility of skateboarding being added to the Olympics, “I think they need skateboarding more than we need them.” His point was that his now-more-than-half-century-old sport had been lately doing a good job solidifying its popularity around the world even without any sort of Olympic boost. But he was also getting at a mindset that had existed in the skateboarding community for decades. That 1986 SI piece, which characterizes the perpetual cultural rift in the sport as “anarchists to the left, Little Leaguers to the right,” also quoted the editor of Thrasher magazine as saying: “Competition to us means better terrain, better ramps. We don’t want to see skateboarding in the Olympics.”
Still, Hawk knew that over the years, the powers that be behind the Olympics had started picking up on the importance of adding more “extreme” sports to the lineup. They appealed to valuable demographics; they looked good on TV; and it didn’t hurt that influential countries like the USA could beef up their medal counts with the introduction of things like snowboarding and slopestyle to the menu. In 2016, skateboarding was officially added, along with other sports like surfing and sport climbing, to the Tokyo Games. And in 2019, “I received a vague message,” Hawk told TransWorld Skateboarding magazine, “about ‘being the TV voice of Olympics skateboarding.’” (In typical Hawk form, he added at the time that he had then heard “nothing since.”)
Here’s my updated skate edit from Tokyo today, including some USA & Japan men’s street practice. Skateboarding is in the Olympics and I’m here for it… https://t.co/xEjwIUVndy pic.twitter.com/4LTeLdcpHx— Tony Hawk (@tonyhawk) July 22, 2021
Given the shredded global backdrop behind this year’s Olympics, it is maybe an auspicious time to be making a debut. And one small additional irony is that the type of skateboarding that will be in the Olympics is not even the type of skateboarding upon which Tony Hawk built his career. He specializes in the vert category; the Olympics will feature the separate (and lower to the ground) disciplines of street and park.
But Hawk sees a bright side to that. One of his life’s grand ambitions has always been to make skate parks as omnipresent in communities as soccer and baseball fields are. The types of skating that will be showcased by the Olympics are probably better aligned with those efforts; the enormous death-defying vert ramps preferred by Hawk and by young rising stars like Khury can always be incorporated into future Games. Hawk is a father of six, someone who has seen that life is a long game. He has excelled at rolling with the punches ever since he was a young skater being mocked as a sellout for endorsing McDonald’s and a showboat for being creative with his performances. Hawk just wants skateboarding to have proper representation, whether in the form of an emoji or in the form of major international competition. Skateboarding is a sport of progression, and skateboarding in the Olympics is progress for the sport.
And there is a lot to look forward to in Tokyo, from the debut of the British Japanese 13-year-old Sky Brown to the medal hopes of five-time world champion (and renowned hypebeast) Nyjah Huston, who calls skateboarding the “funnest thing on earth” and will now get to show off for the world. “Never underestimate the power of television,” Hawk told SI in 2002. “I never liked the way they manufactured rivalries between skaters, but TV made a difference.” Over the next few weeks, TV viewers will get to see skateboarders and other athletes put their stamp on these Olympics by going ever faster-higher-stronger. What’s more, they’ll get to see them go ever faster-higher-stronger in front of Tony Hawk. And for the sake of this man, hopefully it will help even a few of those well-meaning flight attendants and receptionists and lil skater kids out there finally put a face to his famous name, and a name to his famous face.