Mike Rowbottom ©insidethegames

A 2009 survey found that there were 11.8 million active skateboarders in the world. It also estimated that skateboarding was worth an estimated $4.8 billion (£3.5 billion/€4 billion) in annual revenue. Neither figure is likely to have diminished in the meantime.

No wonder the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was keen on getting "urban" a couple of years back as it welcomed snowboarding's city cousin into the Tokyo 2020 Games, offering places for the sport's street and park disciplines. US broadcasters NBC, who paid the IOC a record $4.38 billion (£3.25 billion/€3.71 billion) in 2011 for the rights to the 2016 and 2020 Summer Games, as well as the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics, were left smacking their lips in the background.

Last month it was announced that World Skate, recognised by the IOC as the international federation responsible for skateboarding, had hopped aboard the already travelling entity of Street League Skateboarding (SLS) - which has run a professional tour since 2010 - to create street's primary pathway to Tokyo 2020 qualification.

Once skateboarding had been confirmed as a new sport at the Tokyo 2020 Games, the IOC gave responsibility for its deliverance to the International Roller Sports Federation (FIRS) in preference to two specific skateboarding organisations - the International Skateboarding Federation (ISF) and Tim McFerran's World Skateboarding Federation (WSF).

The ISF President, Gary Ream, was appointed head of a FIRS Commission governing the sport while the WSF, initially involved in the Tokyo 2020 planning, opened a lawsuit in California after appearing to have been cut out of the process.

At its conference last September, FIRS merged with the ISF and re-named itself as World Skate under the Presidency of Italy's Sabatino Aracu.

The new alliance of World Skate and the SLS - strongly criticised as restrictive by rival organisation the WSF - has established a re-vamped SLS World Tour and Super Crown World Championships through to 2022, which will get underway next weekend at the new venue of the Copper Box Arena in London's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

London's Copper Box will take on a new look to host the forthcoming Street League Skateboarding Pro Open London event ©SLS
London's Copper Box will take on a new look to host the forthcoming Street League Skateboarding Pro Open London event ©SLS

"The 2018 SLS Pro Open London course render is here," reads an SLS release. 

"It's got a bit of everything for everyone - rails, ledges, banks, hubbas, a double set and more.

"Get tickets now to watch 29 qualifiers compete on Saturday, May 26.

"Top seven qualifiers advance to skate with SLS pros and picks in the prelims on Sunday, May 27.

"Top two qualifiers from day two become SLS pros. We will also be hosting a SLS Women's Division on Saturday which includes a prelim and final."

The SLS was set up as the first professional league for street skateboarding by professional skateboarder and entrepreneur Rob Dyrdek.

One of its trademarks is the ISX (Instant Scoring Experience), an "easy to follow" format that scores each trick independently, in contrast to other professional contests that grade on overall impression of a full run or a series of tricks performed within a certain time frame.

At each indoor SLS event, arenas are transformed into "custom concrete skate plazas" and the Copper Box is the latest venue to get an urban makeover.

This year's tour will move to Los Angeles on July 7 and Rio De Janeiro on August 26, before the SLS World Championships that will be held in October - with full details still to be announced.

There is an undeniable symbolism about skateboarding starting its Olympic era in the heart of the complex that hosted events at the London 2012 Games.

Asked about the significance of London as the first marker in a new era, Aracu told insidethegames: "The World Skate/SLS London event sets the foundation for our partnership and immediately proves the strength of an international federation working with the leading professional league in street skateboarding.

"London is one of the most famous cities in the world with a rich and important skateboarding history that will provide us a great opportunity to showcase world-class skateboarding and the engaging culture that surrounds it."

When skateboarding was first proposed for the Olympics in August 2016, the IOC President Thomas Bach said: "We want to take sport to the youth. 

"With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us."

A year later, when skateboarding was confirmed as one of the five new sports for Tokyo 2020, Bach commented: "I am delighted that the Olympic Games in Tokyo will be more youthful, more urban, and will include more women."

The question of how much skateboarding needs the Olympics, and how much the Olympics needs skateboarding, elicited an interesting response from Aracu.

Street League Skateboarding will travel around the world this year ©SLS
Street League Skateboarding will travel around the world this year ©SLS

"We see the Olympics as a great opportunity to continue the growth of skateboarding as Governments around the world invest resources to develop skateboarding as an Olympic sport," he said.

"We are proud to be able to support President Bach's vision and confident that skateboarding will bring the youth and more women to the Olympic Movement."

SLS events form the backbone of the qualification opportunities for Tokyo 2020 that have been announced by World Skate.

Skaters will be selected by name - rather than through a quota place - on the World Skate Olympic World Skateboarding Rankings by earning points at specified events.

This includes SLS Pro Tour Events for the street rankings as well as national and continental championships and other "5-star" competitions.

The top three finishers in the 2020 World Championships will also qualify directly.

"We are very pleased with the official IOC-approval of our skateboarding qualifying system," Aracu said.

"We are also extremely satisfied with the work done recently to unify the professional and organisational elements of skateboarding. 

"This process will open doors to riders from all over the world wanting to compete in professional circuits.

"Our agreement with Street League Skateboarding for the Street Pro Tour and World Championships represents this principle in action.

"We look forward to announcing our partnership for park events soon as we strive to produce and sanction events at the highest level on the road to Tokyo."

But Aracu's satisfaction is far from being shared by McFerran, an original participant in the negotiations to integrate the sport into the Olympics, who followed up his exclusion from the final deal in 2016 by issuing a lawsuit.

Among several allegations, the WSF claimed it had been sidelined by the ISF and IOC, despite investing money and resources into preparations.

Ream and other ISF officials were also accused of having never operated or managed a skateboarding contest and being unqualified to organise an Olympic competition.

The announcement of World Skate's new partnership with SLS earned further criticism from McFerran earlier this month as he warned: "I find this agreement to be very dangerous and reckless to all of skateboarding and completely adverse to the IOC's idea of inclusiveness."

His comments on the London debut of the new-style tour continued along the same theme.

"They call it the London Pro Open, but it's not open, it's closed," he told insidethegames.

Italy's Sabatino Aracu, President of World Skate, is excited about skateboarding's Olympic future ©Getty Images
Italy's Sabatino Aracu, President of World Skate, is excited about skateboarding's Olympic future ©Getty Images

"You have 29 skateboarders, all hand-picked or invited, and they are competing for a one-year contract to compete on this year's tour.

"There are thousands of skateboarders all over the world who have no way of being a part of this process. 

"In many countries there is no national governing body for the sport. 

"If you are a skateboarder in Turkey, or South Africa, how are you going to qualify for Tokyo 2020?

"That's against everything the Olympics is supposed to be about.

"As for the World Championships - they are supposed to be all about the best athletes in the world competing together. But the Street League skaters are chosen, invited and are all contracted to be there.

"Overall, it's like mixed martial arts getting into the Olympics and UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) providing all the athletes. It doesn't make sense."

McFerran says he has analysed the make-up of the London opener to the SLS Tour and he believes the figures back up his position.

"Of the invited skaters only Belgium, France, Portugal and the UK are invited from Europe," he said. "No skaters from Africa, Oceania or Asia are invited.

"All of the invited skaters seem to be sponsored by one of four companies which are located in California, except Bustavo Ribeiro from Portugal. What about the thousands of youth who are hoping to get into the Olympics, do they have to be sponsored by a Southern California company in order to get an opportunity to compete?

"This contest is being marketed and promoted as a 'qualifier' and as the London 'Open' but it seems there is nothing open about it.

"It appears to be it's a marketing gimmick that mocks the sport's world terminology.

"I believe all of the SLS pros are under contract from one to three years.

"Many of these contracts could overlap into 2019 and 2020 qualifiers and Olympics. 

"How does that work when SLS is supposed to be the exclusive qualifiers for the Olympics?

"Just like you can't change a tiger's stripes, how can a private, invite-only event morph into an Olympic trials that's supposed to be transparent and fair? 

"Are there two standards for fairness, one for the US and one for everyone else?

"No country should receive favouritism in the Olympic trials, you should have to earn the opportunity to compete in the Olympics.

Tim McFerran, President of the World Skateboarding Federation, believes the impending SLS Pro Open in London is not a properly open event ©YouTube
Tim McFerran, President of the World Skateboarding Federation, believes the impending SLS Pro Open in London is not a properly open event ©YouTube

"I like Sabatino Aracu, the roller skate President, but he admittedly knows nothing about skateboarding.

"Does he even know that SLS has owners that compete in the contest as well? 

"I really think Dr. Bach should seek an independent watchdog group with skateboarding before this mess gets bigger."

Asked for his response to McFerran’s criticisms, Aracu told insidethegames: "We are open to any criticism.

"But we can't see how the governing body of skateboarding partnering with the best league and top athletes could be an issue.

"SLS opening up the qualifying to their events gives every talented skateboarder the chance to compete against the best in the world and earn the opportunity to represent their country in the 2020 Olympic Games."

On the question of how confident he was that the best street skateboarders will be at the Tokyo 2020 Games via the new qualification route, Aracu responded: "We have no doubt that the best skateboarders in the world will be in Tokyo based on the open and accessible qualification system we've developed.

"The passion these skateboarders have for the sport they love allows them to see the many benefits that Olympic inclusion will bring. 

"They're excited to have a chance to represent their countries on the biggest stage in sport."

On plans for October World Championships, he added: "We are very excited about the new, open, World Championship event formats for this October and we look forward to sharing the details with you very soon.

"We have two seasons in our qualifying system, so the top three places in the World Championships from the 2020 season will directly qualify for the Tokyo Games."

Meanwhile, London organisers are hoping the competition will help highlight the capital's rich street skating scene, including the Southbank Skate Park, which is one of the oldest continuously used parks in the world.

Mayor Sadiq Khan told London's Evening Standard: "The capital already has a vibrant skateboarding scene and I hope that this event inspires a new generation to take up the sport."

The London field will include last year's world champion Nyjah Huston of the United States, Australia's Los Angeles-based Shane O'Neill, Brazil's female skater Leticia Bufoni and her US rival Lacey Baker, the world champion.

World champion Lacey Baker, pictured earlier in her career, is looking forward to starting her journey towards Tokyo 2020 at next weekend's event at London's Copper Box ©Getty Images
World champion Lacey Baker, pictured earlier in her career, is looking forward to starting her journey towards Tokyo 2020 at next weekend's event at London's Copper Box ©Getty Images

"I love the women's skate community out here," Baker told insidethegames.

"And it's always fun to skate a new SLS park that's newly designed and poured. I've been skating with a bunch of the other girls out here for a long time.

"This is exciting because it will be the first time women have skating in the Pro Open, which is a pathway to skate in SLS again later this year. I'm looking forward to hopefully skating in Tokyo 2020.

"Qualifications to make Team USA don't start until next year but for sure if SLS is the qualifying series then any chance to practice within that format is helpful."

Asked if she thought the best skateboarders would be at Tokyo 2020, Baker replied: "It will be an awesome display of how diverse and wide-spread skateboarding is today. With teams from around the globe and opening it up to a non-invite structure where anyone anywhere can qualify in and earn their way in to the Olympic Games, I'm excited to see how it all unfolds."

Looking ahead to this year’s World Championships, she added: "I'm humbled and grateful to be the defending champion. All the girls are so good it really could be anyone's day. The World Championship has always been in the US so this year will be new being international. The "contest season" used to be fairly condensed, but this year we'll be competing into October."

While street skateboarding involves the use of urban obstacles such as stairs, handrails, park benches and other street furniture, park skateboarding uses a combination of these moves with other elements associated with "vert" skateboarding such as halfpipes and quarterpipes.

Details of park skateboarding's pathway to Tokyo 2020 are expected "very soon" according to Aracu, who added: "The qualifying system is the same as street, with different events that will be announced soon."

On the topic of how skateboarding might grow as an Olympic sport beyond 2020, Aracu - who was elected last November to the Executive Committee of the Italian National Olympic Committee, becoming the first representative of roller sport in that position for 30 years - said: "Olympic inclusion has already offered great opportunities for the development of skateboarding and we are confident the Olympic showcase in Tokyo will only accelerate the growth of skateboarding around the world.

"Skateboarding is our priority for Paris 2024 and beyond, but we always welcome the chance for any other of our fantastic World Skate disciplines to be added to the Olympic programme."