LONG BEACH, Calif. — Being an Olympic sport is starting to bring a different vibe to skateboarding.
With a promise from the IOC to keep the spirit of the sport intact as it makes its debut at the Tokyo Games next year, skateboarders are raising their game as qualifying events begin.
"I mean, it's the Olympics. It's the biggest stage a person, an athlete, anybody can ever be on," Sean Malto, a Leavenworth native who now lives in Kansas City, Mo., said Thursday at the Dew Tour, which is the first global Olympic qualifying event for men's and women's park and street held in the United States.
"It does open a lot of doors," said Malto, 29, who competes in the street event. "It does put a lot of eyes on something that was underground for a really long time. I think that's a real special thing, a special opportunity to be part of."
Malto participated in the first qualifier last month, the Street League Skateboarding event in London. He said that skating "has always been very loose and open," but the qualifiers have made things a bit more rigid.
"It's been an adjustment. It's been tough. But the opportunity is far greater than what that process has been," he said. "It's been pretty fun to figure out, just a little different. We go to these events anyway. We grew up skating X Games, Street League, Dew Tour. Just show up and do your best and everything else will follow that. If you win these events, then you get to go to the Olympics, and that's fair. Just do what you've been doing anyway, just maybe a little better."
Josh Friedberg, CEO of USA Skateboarding, said there was some initial confusion after the first U.S. national team was announced earlier this year. Those 16 skaters aren't guaranteed a spot in the Olympics, just support from the national governing body.
Skaters not on the U.S. team, such as Malto and Curren Caples, of Ventura, can qualify on their own merit.
Once that confusion was cleared up, making the Olympic team became a goal, said the 23-year-old Caples, who skates both street and park.
"I figured why not. If I can make it, it would be rad just to call yourself an Olympian, just to be at the Olympics and represent the first year of skateboarding in it, which would be pretty cool."
This will be the first Olympic qualification contest for Caples.
"I've skated many Dew Tours in the past and this one is definitely different, for sure, because there are a lot of people. The whole vibe of the whole contest is a little different. You can see that people are hungrier and practices are way more intense. It's been a cool experience and I'm stoked to compete.
"Skateboarding in the Olympics is just going to put skateboarding on such a higher scale and maybe be recognized as a true sport instead of just kind of like an action sport," Caples said. "It just puts it in a higher category, which it should be because a lot of risks come with skateboarding and it should be recognized for that."
The IOC was looking at sports that have the greatest impact with young people when it added skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing for the 2020 Games, sports director Kit McConnell said.
"We want to keep that spirit of skateboarding. It's not just about taking skateboarding and making it feel like another Olympic sport," McConnell said. "We don't want to change it, we want to celebrate it."
A total of 80 spots will be available for the Olympics, with 20 per event, which include men's and women's park and street. A minimum of one athlete per continent will be guaranteed a spot for each event, and Japan will be guaranteed a minimum of one spot in each event. A skater can qualify in both park and street. A maximum of 12 skaters from any one country could potentially qualify, three in each event.
Among those competing here is two-time Olympic snowboard silver medalist Ayumu Hirano, who last month won the men's park event at Japan's national championships.