Tokyo Olympics: Sky Brown’s final flourish creates history with skateboarding bronze medal aged 13

Tokyo Olympics: Sky Brown’s final flourish creates history with skateboarding bronze medal aged 13

August 4, 2021

Sky Brown was crowned Great Britain’s youngest Olympic medallist (Adam Davy/PA)

Sky Brown left it late. As she stood over the drop and composed herself before her final run, the small crowd broke into an encouraging cheer. Twice she had failed to land the same high-tariff trick, a [checks notes] kickflip indy, sliding down into the bowl on her knees. But on the third and final attempt she nailed it, and this time she slid across the floor with joy and maybe a little relief too.

It would be enough for bronze after the last to go, the favourite Misugu Okamoto, slipped at the end of her medal-threatening run, and aged 13 years and 20 days it made Brown Britain’s youngest ever Olympic medalist. “I’m so stoked!” she said, beaming with the medal hanging around her neck. “I can’t believe it. It was like a dream.”

She was joined on the podium by 12-year-old Kokona Hiraki who won silver to become the youngest Olympic medallist of any nation for 85 years, and gold-winning Sakura Yosozumi, the first Olympic champion of women’s park skateboarding who seemed positively ancient at 19.

Brown grew up in Japan skating with both of them. “I thought I was going to get it on the first and second run so I was a little shocked and a little… ‘am I going to make it?’ But Sakura said ‘you’ve got this, Sky, we know you’re gonna make it’, and that really made me feel better.”

Brown might not have been here had the Games gone ahead as planned in 2020, after a horror fall left her in hospital with a broken arm and a fractured skull – “it was a hard time for my parents, for a lot of people”. But she said the accident made her stronger. “I really hope I inspire some girls. I feel like people say ‘I’m too young, I can’t do it’ but honestly if you believe in yourself you can do anything. I believe in myself, and I’m here.”

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She put on a show at the Ariake Skatepark in a compelling atmosphere, despite Tokyo’s ban on fans. Plenty of British supporters had found their way into the stands, including Olympians like double gold medallist Alastair Brownlee, many hoping to see Brown do her thing for the first time.

In sweltering 34C heat the athletes sought water and shade, as a DJ blasted out music while an American MC talked through every trick with his unique brand of commentary. “Australia is in the house!” he shouted as Poppy Olsen began her run. “Authentic sounds from the motherland,” he said as some vaguely Spanish music accompanied Julia Benedetti into the bowl. You don’t get that at the archery.

This is the point, of course. The Olympics wants to attract new fans through sports like surfing, skateboarding and 3×3 ‘street’ basketball. Brown is exactly the kind of modern superstar they desire: young and fearless; a pioneering female in an historically male sport; international, with a Japanese mother and British father, raised in Japan but living in California where she competes and goes to school two days a week. “I’m so happy to be back in Japan and eat Japanese food and speak Japanese, it feels like home,” she said.

Sky Brown in action during the women’s park final

Her gift is self-taught, first joining in with her dad Stewart and his friends before watching YouTube to learn new tricks. Cynically speaking the Olympics is a brand, built on inspiring human stories, and there is powerful universal appeal in the talent and joy of young people like these skateboarders which the Games hopes to harness.

Even for the uninitiated it was clear that Brown was on another level to most of the morning’s 20 qualifiers. It was the height she generated which really stood out: once she was up in the air she had space to spin and grab and bend the board to her will, with little elements of flair at every turn. “So sick,” our MC confirmed.

The final came down to three runs of flowing jumps, spins and grinds judged on skill and difficulty, with athletes ranked by their highest score of the three attempts. The event was ultimately shaped by eventual champion Yosozumi’s stunning first run, which posted a monstrous score of 60.09 and virtually tied up gold before most had competed.

Brown’s first run played out to Blur’s Parklife, a song 14 years older than her, and she was in full flow when she tried and missed the kickflip indy to limit her score at 47.53. In the second round 12-year-old Hiraki showed her blossoming talent with a flawless run worth 59.04, pushing another medal into almost out-of-reach territory. Sky attacked with speed but slipped again, and lay in fourth.

But she wouldn’t be deterred, mesmerising with her final run to capture a medal and slumping into a ball of relief as her dad celebrated on the side. “I just wanted to land my trick, I didn’t really care what place I got,” she said.

Perhaps this was the most noticeable difference from much of the rest of the Games, where competition for medals is usually so fierce and the pressure feels palpable. There was something uplifting in watching what was essentially a group of friends having fun, all rushing to hug the person climbing out of the bowl whether they had flown or fallen.

Brown enjoyed it so much that she wants more, and not just skating. She is multitalented, having won American TV show Dancing in the Stars and released a music single, and she is a skilled surfer too; it is something she has ambitions of trying at the Olympics. “Maybe,” she said of the surf-and-skate double up at Paris 2024. “I really hope so, I’m definitely going to try surfing.” She will be 16 then, and who would doubt her to break new ground.

All that can wait. How does a 13-year-old celebrate winning an Olympic medal? “I’m gonna go surf a lot, and probably gonna party with my friends.”

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