January 15, 2014

Cruelest Sport

Jamie Baker photo via The Independent and Nate Jones by Jonathan Mehring via Skateboarder.

Skateboarding continues to prove to be a difficult pursuit in which to make it. Everybody is good now, right? The best thing Jack Olson, a red-headed kid from St. Louis Park, Minnesota, could do to advance his fledgeling career is win Tampa Am (a contest in which he'd already already finished 27th, 4th, 11th and 19th). Tampa Am isn't fun; it's masochistic and hellish, though necessary. Even for dudes like Jack, it can't be that fun, at least until that winning shit is done and your remaining runs are just victory laps. It's also a guarantee of absolutely nothing. Send Nathan Smith our regards.

Yes it's hard if you want to do it. I, for one, never really did want it [ed. note: after the age of 17 or 18 or 19, or so], but I watched a lot of dudes suck the fun out of skating in the pursuit of something, and I know guys that have not much to show for attaining that something, as well.

I don't know of any real good pieces about the also-rans and never-beens of skateboarding, but this story "Jamie Baker's break point: A tennis nomad exits the planet’s cruellest sport" seemed to touch on a lot that parallels skateboard world. Like:

"At 27, the average age of a male top 100 player, Baker should be in his prime. But in the end, he just got sick of the life that he had worked so hard to make possible. At his peak, in a sport with total annual revenues estimated in 2009 at £1.6bn, he was ranked 185 in the world. Last year, the 185th best male golfer on the planet, Greg Chalmers, got about £387,000 in prize money – more than £100,000 more than Baker managed in his whole career before you even factor in his expenses."


"'For such a global game, there aren’t nearly enough people making a living out of it. Think about how many people play, how many people go to these events, how many watch on TV. And it can only support 100 or 150 players in the world? It’s crazy.'"

Hometown heroes take note:

Although Baker was a prodigy at Center Parcs, he didn’t seem to be anything special at Loughborough at first. Even at that age, you could see the game beginning to stratify. Andy Murray won the prestigious Junior Orange Bowl tournament in Florida at the age of 12; the year before, Baker had played an overseas tournament himself and found himself 'absolutely smoked' by Raphael Nadal. 'I thought, that’s a bit different,' he says. 'I knew I wasn’t in the top little bunch. I was one below that.'"


"Baker thinks back to the extraordinary belief that had sustained him through those early years. 'I remember being 19, winning my first title. And thinking, yeah, I can do this. But say I started again, knowing what it’s like? I wouldn’t be so confident. It’s fucking tough.'"

Finally, after the decision to retire:

"It was a fine June day, and the match went this way and that. Laura felt the sun on her, and watched [Baker] take the second set, playing with the joy that he’d always been seeking. 'And the beautiful blue sky, and the grass, and all these people who’ve helped him over the years,' she remembers. 'And you just think, how can you ever give it up?'"

Stats-driven tennis and subjective-as-all-hell skateboarding really don't operate on the same terms, yet the story is familiar. I've heard the pro-skate ranks summed up along the lines of, "10 rich dudes and everybody else trying to get by;" hometown heroism is universal; it IS fucking hard; you don't really give it up, though, after a certain point.

Related reading: DFW's "String Theory."

Update: The tennis::skateboarding SAT question breaks down when you have to account for (former) pros like Austin Stephens. I think we've cycled past a time when dudes like him get a 10+ year career. This revelation was brought to you by watching tennis.

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