TOKYO—Showing off a new wave of aerial acrobatics and risky board-flipping tricks, an international field of skateboarders outshined the Americans in the sport’s final Olympic event, continuing the two-week demonstration of the skateboarding’s worldwide reach.
The United States struggled to find the medal stand in a sport that it invented and pushed into the Olympics. Americans skated away with just two of the 12 medals awarded at the Tokyo Games.
There were two bronzes—the first by Jagger Eaton in men’s street at the outset of skateboarding’s Olympic debut, the other by Cory Juneau at the event’s close Thursday in men’s park.
Juneau, 22, did not seem to mind what color his medal was. He recognized that his style, nuanced and a bit lower to the ground than some top competitors, might not have been what judges were looking for as the Olympics put on their first skateboarding show.
“I’m not so much an air kind of guy, but with the level out here, you kind of got to switch it up, change up a few things,” Juneau said. “I kind of just, like, went bigger and switched up a couple lines, and I’m thankful it worked out. And I’m completely honored to take home a bronze medal.”
The park competition—filled with high-flying spins, technical board flips and long grinds on the lip of the deep and contoured bowl at Ariake Urban Sports Park—looked to be the best chance for the United States to pull in medals.
But only Juneau squeaked into the final. His best run there scored 84.13 points, behind Keegan Palmer of Australia, who won gold, and Pedro Barros of Brazil, who earned silver.
The world’s No. 1-ranked park skater, Heimana Reynolds of the United States, and his teammate Zion Wright each fell short of qualifying. Both had arrived with reasonable hopes of earning medals.
Reynolds finished 13th, Wright 11th. But as Reynolds explained, with a smile on his face and a smiley face painted on the nail of his middle finger, the American export of skateboarding—as a sport and a culture—is global.
He seemed unbothered that the United States did not rack up medals.
“Skateboarding doesn’t discriminate where you’re from, who you are or anything like that,” he said. “A lot of these people barely speak English, and they’re some of my best friends. We all share the same language of skateboarding, and I think that’s the most beautiful thing about it.”
Under searing sunshine, Wright and Reynolds finished first and second in the first heat. They had reason to hope that their scores would finish in the top eight among 20 competitors.
But scores rose along with the morning temperature, and their rankings ticked down the leaderboard. First Reynolds dropped out of contention, then Wright, as Juneau skated in the final heat and took over the eighth spot.
Soon Juneau, too, was bumped out of position. He needed a big score in his third and final attempt and got it, a 73.0 that nudged out the 72.24 by Danny Leon of Spain.
“I had done bits and pieces, but I hadn’t made a full run,” Juneau said. “So I just put everything I had on the table, and it all came together.”
Skaters said the results might reflect the coronavirus pandemic. Skateboarding’s contest circuit shut down for two years, so athletes worked privately on new tricks, then sprung them on the Olympic stage.
“When we first got here, the first couple days of practice, I definitely saw some tricks I hadn’t seen before,” Reynolds said. “And it really opened my eyes to like, wow, look at the level that skateboarding is today.”
Luiz Francisco of Brazil, for example, earned the top spot in qualifications thanks to his series of risky flip tricks, where feet leave the board as it rotates. One was a tre flip, where the board spins 360 degrees and flips at the same time.
The final took performances to the next level. Palmer, 18, had two runs in the finals that far outpaced any others and surprised even his friends. He was born in San Diego, lived in Australia for 14 years and now lives in Southern California, part of the geographic heart of the sport.
“It’s a huge honor to be sitting next to these two guys,” Palmer said. “I’ve known them since I was a little kid. No words can describe this. I can’t believe I’m sitting here with a gold medal around my neck.”
Juneau, a few years older, sounded less surprised.
“I’m so proud of him. He’s like a little brother to me,” he said of Palmer. “This is the best I’ve ever seen him skate, so he deserved it.”
Juneau opened the final with a run of 82.15, the third-highest in the contest to that point. The lead did not last long, but he bumped up his score with a third run of 84.13. That score held and claimed bronze.
Those who were knocked out before the finals, including the Americans, highlighted skateboarding’s Olympic arrival more than their personal disappointment.
“I was trying not to let my hopes get too high, because I was in the first heat, and there’s 20 of the best skateboarders in the world here,” Reynolds said. “So I was just watching it and pretty much just cheering on everyone else, because we’re all here to skate, you know. And everyone killed it, so I’m just stoked to be here.”
Reynolds and Wright were not the only big names to miss out. Among others was Oskar Rozenberg of Sweden, considered a strong medal favorite, who struggled to stay upright and finished in 17th place.
Three Brazilian skaters reached the final by finishing among the top four qualifiers. Barros converted it to silver—one of three for Brazil, a skateboarding powerhouse that never captured gold.
Like the other skaters, he made a point in saying that individual results were not the quest; the shared spirit was.
“Today isn’t magic just because I have a medal on my neck,” Barros said. “It’s magic because I was together with my friends, a bunch of kids, writing history.”
Skaters from Japan won gold in the first three events: men’s and women’s street and women’s park. That should bolster the sport’s popularity in Japan, where skateboarding’s long history has unfolded mostly in the shadows.
The other theme for the sport at these Summer Games was the young ages of many top competitors. Skateboarding put no minimum age requirement on the Olympics, so most of the youngest athletes were skateboarders, all of them women.
At the women’s street contest last week, the medal stand had two 13-year-olds and a 16-year-old. At women’s park Wednesday, all the medalists were teenagers, including 12-year-old Kokona Hiraki of Japan, who won silver, and 13-year-old Sky Brown of Britain, who won bronze.
The men’s events skewed older. The qualifying rounds for men’s park included 46-year-old Rune Glifberg of Denmark, who won an X Games medal in 1995, before most Olympic skateboarders were born. Dallas Oberholzer of South Africa, also 46, was in the field, too, sporting a smile and graying stubble.
Each rode as a sort of connective ambassador to skateboarding’s past. They finished 19th and 20th.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.