Paul’s interview was transcribed by a machine and while it’s about 90% accurate, it does create some interesting interpretations of what was said. Pauls’ description of cohost, Tina Dixon, for instance, came back as: “Gina Dixon, yeah, does do sewer and she was a snowboarder.” It took me a minute to figure out “do sewer?” …. OH! DEW TOUR! HA! And then I realized: Dude Sewer! That’s what it’s called from now on: Dude Sewer.
One of the first questions I often ask in an interview is, “What’s your title?” In Paul’s case I genuinely didn’t know: Olympic Skateboarding Commentator? Color Commentator? Announcer? What’s the proper term here? “Do you remember Paul Higgins?” Paul asked in reply. “He announced the first few XGames. I want to go by whatever he went by.”
Paul Higgins, Extreme Games Commentator.
Ah. Not only do I know who Paul Higgins is, but he was the inspiration for this article. Back in the late 20th century we—Big Brother—were so disappointed by the stupid Extreme Games (as they were then called) we decided to boycott all of their stupid events because they were so stupid. In 1998, for instance, I decided to make a mockery of the contest by covering it from my couch, taking pictures of ESPN’s horrible footage on the TV screen, while transcribing all the ridiculous things that came out of Paul Higgins’ mouth as he announced the skateboard contest, something he quite obviously knew very little about. Here is a selection from that review of Paul Higgins’ Extreme commentating:
Paul Higgins and Jack Edwards, the skateboard commentators, have no idea what they’re talking about. I can understand calling a trick wrong here and there, anyone would be hard-pressed to accurately name every trick in one of Bob Burnquist’s runs, but they screw up the easy stuff. For the first couple of days, they kept calling the channel, “the extension”: “What’s so nice about this soul grind is that he does it over the extension.” And then they were getting names wrong: “Next up, in the vert doubles, Tony MacDonald and Andy Hawk.” I really liked that one. Then, best of all, they lie and make shit up, like this line after one of Rodillo’s runs, “No one can remember someone doing five flip tricks in their run!” The vert commentary was where it was at, though. Since Jack and Paul were unable to quantify how well someone skated based on the tricks they were doing, they judged the skater on how “smooth” he rode and how much “amplitude” was in his run. I’m not sure where they got the word “amplitude” from, but there must have been a clearance sale somewhere, because they had an endless supply of it. I don’t know why it’s so funny listening to someone pretending to be an authority on a subject they don’t understand, but it is.
I’m pretty sure our exposure of ESPN’s incompetence, and my blistering critique, caused so much damage to their reputation that… that they held the same contest the next year and have done so every year since. They did change the name, though. Showed them. Jerks.
I love working with Nyjah, I love shooting photos of him, he’s super easy to work with, and, best of all, he makes everything pretty much first try…
…except at the Olympics where he seems to prefer lying on the ground. (I genuinely felt bad for Nyjah and began wondering if there were some sort of IOC loophole where we could just give him the gold medal—he’s won every other contest, c’mon, man, just give the dude the gold medal.)
I figured this year’s Olympic Skateboarding event would be just like every other Olympic Skateboarding event so I elected, once again, not to attend and just cover it from the couch. Before I begin, though, I should say by way of a disclaimer that I am still appalled and disgusted with World Skate’s ridiculous, ham-fisted takeover of skateboarding, the IOC’s abject corruption (“The Tokyo Olympics Are A Moral Disaster” and, “Abolish The Olympics,” and “Five Myths About The Olympics,”are good places to start) and that skateboarding should never have been associated with this absurd event, which, itself, should be abolished, but the fact is: there was an Olympic Skateboard contest. And these are the photos I took of my TV screen and my impressions of what I saw.
I don’t know what Pedro Barros was listening to, but it really made him shake his booty and fire off his finger guns—PEW! PEW!
Overall: it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.
Then again, my expectations were very low to begin with, so that’s not saying much. There was a lot to be disappointed about, much to nitpick, but overall I would say the Olympic Skateboarding event was “fair.” Two areas that are usually so glaringly absurd, commentating and filming, were decent. The biggest negative, strangely enough, was the skating itself. The energy levels seemed flat, it looked robotic at times, there were way too many bails, and Paul Higgins would have been disappointed by the shortage of amplitude. And Nyjah shit the bed—something was just off, very OFF. So that’s why I reached out to my old friend and Olympic Skateboarding Commentator, Paul Zitzer, to get his take on what went down.
Paul chose not to invoke Neil Blender when he saw Heimana Reynolds’ f/s inverts out of fear of retribution, but I will: Neil Blender. No one does f/s inverts better than Neil Blender, but Gonz is a close second, and I think Heimana Reynolds just landed in third place—I almost want to call it a switch sad plant?—oh shit: Cab has to be in this conversation. What’s the character count in these captions, h
Paul and I had a great conversation. If I were to sum up Paul’s experience I think he would say the contest wasn’t bad—in many ways it was much like any other “normal” skateboard contest—but there were indeed some factors on the ground that contributed to a less than ideal situation. For one, something that he spoke of often during the broadcast, the heat.
“Not to keep crying about the heat,” Paul said, “but I skated the park for 15 minutes and I was dying. I could not skate. I was like: I can't, I have to go.”
He also noted that the qualifying heats and the finals took place the same day—something that rarely happens in a skateboard contest. So heat and fatigue were major factors in the performance, I can see that. Paul also suggested that the lack of crowd energy may have contributed as well. Some skaters feed off the crowd’s energy and turn into superheroes who never bail, but because that was missing, the energy of the sessions suffered—which isn’t unusual: not every skate session you have with your bros is an epic session where everyone is feeding off the collective stoke (?) and pushing themselves to their limits. Some sessions are just, meh. It happens. But most of all, Paul suspected it had something to do with the pressure of being in the Olympics.
“I empathize with people skating in contests,” Paul said, “because I skated in contests for like 15 years and I hated it. I would get super nervous and it would sabotage the way I skate. And I think there was so much attention on this contest that, yeah, it had a different feel. I think people were feeling tons of expectations to kill it. Like: this is the Olympics, you gotta kill it. You can't just walk around and bail and have a good time. I mean, some people were having a good time and I could see they weren't quite taking it as seriously as some others, but I think that pressure definitely played a factor in the way people were skating.”
This is my favorite photo of the whole Olympics. It is USA Skate Coach, Andrew Nicolaus, coaching Zion Wright after one of his park runs. I understand why they cover their mouths with a clipboard in football, etc. so that the other team doesn’t read their lips and steal their plays or whatever, but what is Andrew saying that is so secret? Is he worried those wily Brazilians are going to steal Team USA’s signs or something? Or—wait—are there really signs and plays and stuff in skateboarding now? Anyway, whatever he’s telling Zion must be super, super important because not only is he deploying the stealth-mode clipboard, but he’s also wearing a mask—it’s like a double mouth condom.
When Paul said that, I immediately remembered how much hugging there was throughout the contest. I’m a hugger. I like hugging. It’s beautiful to see skateboard competitors cheering each other on as friends and embracing each other as if they were all on the same team—it’s something unique to the culture of action sports in general, and not very common in traditional, Us vs. Them sports—but there was a lot of hugging. Olympic hugging: now there’s a sport.
“I felt that same exact thing,” Paul said. “I feel like I have a theory about everything: you know when soldiers go to war, it's the worst thing ever, right? They’re crawling through the mud, their buddies are getting blown up, they’re dying, it's terrible. The ones that survive, when they get home, they're like, those are my best friends for life and they miss that time. Maybe it's a ridiculous comparison, but I think everybody who made it to the Olympics, they all felt this pressure on them: ‘Hey, you made it, now you better rip for your country. Don't let us down.’ So they were in the trenches together and the only people that could relate to them were their fellow peers on the deck and that was kind of how they dealt with it—it manifested itself through lots of hugging.”
Kieran Woolley was killing it. I was especially enamored with his big, stylish b/s airs, but my favorite trick he did was knocking an NBC cameraman the fuck out. I had never seen that trick done in a contest before.
I was so into Kieran’s body check (Australian Rules Skateboarding!) that I shot a sequence of it using the victim’s footage of the attack. It begins as Kieran negotiates a transfer out of the bowl, to 5-O on that weird round bar, to deck…
…but as he starts to roll away from the 5-O, BAM! he collides with the cameraman and bashes his ear into the lens, POW!…
…the cameraman, absorbs the impact, falls down, and goes BOOM! yet manages to continue filming the whole time. Nice work, cameraman—and I mean me because I am a pioneer of Olympic Skateboard photography. Can’t wait to tell my grandkids (didn’t know I had any?) about that one time I photographed the very first Olympics.
I’ve always marveled at skateboard contest announcers. Have you ever tried to cosplay a skateboard announcer during a contest? It’s hard. Especially when totally nude save for a small t-shirt and socks. I think Paul did a pretty good job. He said a few things here and there that were a little odd, but I attribute that to the mandate he was under from NBC to make sure that the non-endemic audience could understand what was going on—he has to explain what a “grind” is, for instance. (NOTE: Interestingly, there was no one in Paul’s ear telling him what to say and the contest itself moved at a casual pace. “I was actually surprised at how loose it was,” he said, “I expected it to be way more controlled and to have more people from TV dictating the pace of the contest.”) There was really only one instance that the commentating stood out to me and that was when Sky Brown cracked a delightful Japan air, but nobody said anything about her doing a Japan air in Japan.
“You can’t say ‘Japan Air’ now?” was my first thought. “Has that been #cancelled?”
During the replay, they showed Sky’s Japan Air again, but here the mystery got even deeper because Paul said something like, “Sky is doing a big, stylish Weddle air—that’s right, it’s no longer called a mute air.”
WAIT. Weddle air? I was flabbergasted. Not only is a Japan air—a tweaked mute air—not a Japan air anymore, but a mute air isn’t a mute air anymore? “Nuh-uh, no way, I have a very shallow bag of tricks and MUTE airs are one of the few in it, you can’t take those away from me, you fuckers.” Then I looked up “Weddle air” and—oh:
“Did I not ever say Japan?” Paul asked after I told him the story. “So that's one of those things where I just missed an opportunity. There's so much thinking about what to say, and paying attention, and looking at the monitor—I can admit there were plenty of times where I felt like I blew it and that would be one of them. Well, yeah, of course I should have said Japan, but I was too caught up trying to make sure I didn't mess something up or say the wrong thing.”
“I’m glad Tony did that,” I added, “because I had never heard that story before, so I’m stoked that Chris Weddle is getting some credit. Although I have to admit I don’t think I’ll be calling it a Weddle air. No offense to Chris Weddle, but Weddle air sounds like Elmer Fudd disparaging someone’s skating, ‘Shhh, David Connie does vewy, vewy, vewy, widdle Weddle airs…’”
“I didn't make that decision,” Paul said, “but I’m with you and I totally appreciate what Tony is doing. It's just, once again, as an announcer, it puts me in this weird place of having to make a decision that I know no matter which way I go, I'm wrong. If I call it a mute air—that ship has sailed, dude, get with the times, we already canceled that. And if I call it a Weddle air, I got the diehards like, dude, who is this kook announcing, where did he get this Weddle air from? It’s a lose-lose.”
A peculiar trope in sports television is making athletes stand in a designated area after their performance while they await their score. “Stand there and DON’T MOVE while we film you for an awkwardly long period of time.” I love that Andy Anderson took advantage of this great big waste of time and started freestyling, or “skating in place,” as I call it. I applaud Andy Anderson.
Speaking of “wrong,” there was a bit of a hullabaloo around the misgendering of Alana Smith. There seems to be some confusion about what announcer team made the mistake (apparently there were two other feeds with English commentators), but someone kept calling Alana “she/her” despite her preferred non-binary status of “they/them.” The internet was very, very, very disappointed:
“They do their research for their performance history but don’t know their pronouns? Ya I don’t think so. Get with it. It’s disgusting that these newscasters take away from the athletes’ performance by misgendering them.” —@annikanolen
“The correct pronouns are literally in three places in that pic...” —@phillirc
“I know, right? They should never have insulted her like that.” —@DavidLAmundsen
While I support and empathize with the LGBTQ community, I found the outrage a little excessive here. Yes, referring to Alana as “she” was incorrect, but it was an error and not a mean-spirited attack—we’re all trying to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of personal pronouns, but mistakes are going to occur even among those with the best intentions and, as aforementioned, skateboard commentating is not an easy job.
“I can talk about it,” Paul said carefully. “So, I did my absolute best to respect Alana's wishes to be referred to as ‘they’ and ‘them.’ Period. But old habits die hard. I’m 49. And, like I said, we're in the middle of a contest, we're managing time, we're looking at scores, we're looking at tricks, we've got a lot going on, and there is lots to think about. At no time did I, or my cohost, ever do anything to purposefully malign anyone. We're humans and we're not perfect. And I didn't do a perfect job. I admit that. I messed up a couple of times, but all I can do is my best and to just keep striving to try to do better next time.”
I enjoyed these juxtapositions throughout the broadcasts because they allow you to see all the other weird sports you only get to see once every four years that make you go, “That’s a sport?” In this case it was canoeing. Interestingly, canoers—no? canoeists? Oh it’s canoeists!—interestingly, canoeists paddle from the drop-knee boogie board position. I bet Chris Pontius would be a good canoeist.
Turns out that Paul might even be entirely innocent because NBC did eventually issue an apology to Alana and they laid the blame squarely on their “international feed”:
"NBC Sports is committed to—and understands the importance of—using correct pronouns for everyone across our platforms," the network said in a statement. "While our commentators used the correct pronouns in our coverage, we streamed an international feed that was not produced by NBC Universal which misgendered Olympian Alana Smith. We regret this error and apologize to Alana and our viewers." —NBC News
Good for NBC for apologizing and blaming someone else (???).
I thought spiking the ball in football was illegal, but I just read that players are allowed to do it in the end zone after a touchdown, but nowhere else. So unless Palmer Keegan scored a touchdown after his run, this should be a five-yard penalty.
The more interesting aspect of this situation to me is that NBC didn’t devote any time to a personal story about Alana Smith, “the first non-binary Olympic athlete.” Feels like a huge missed opportunity for a major network that is surely struggling with diversity issues to check off some boxes by showcasing a very powerful personal LGBTQ journey—I mean they’ll devote five minutes to a horse’s life story during the Kentucky Derby coverage, but the first non-binary athlete competing in the Olympics isn’t a historical moment worth celebrating? Paul agreed with me on this point and admitted he was also surprised that NBC didn’t do any personal stories on any skaters, but he wasn’t sure why. He noted that the recent injuries and subsequent comebacks of Lizzie Armanto and Sky Brown would also have made for some interesting skateboard content. It’s especially odd that NBC/IOC didn’t give skateboarding as much attention as one would expect after their passionate courtship, high-speed elopement, and promises of love and devotion to us for ever and ever. Then again it should come as no surprise to anyone to see skateboarding getting used. Again.
Anyway: congratulations to Alana Smith. Amazing and inspiring.
This Uber commercial with Tony Hawk aired often during the Olympics and I was very disappointed in it because I directed a commercial a few years ago with Tony and needed him to do an invert on a two-foot extension we built in a pool. He refused and ended up giving us “just” a Madonna. It worked. Fine. Whatever. But then about a year later I see him doing an invert on a van parked on the deck of Elliot Sloan’s mega ramp and I’m like, what the hell, dude? You can get up on top of a van, but not a dinky lil extension? Pfft. And now there’s this commercial where he is suddenly able to capture a fucking bird of prey on his arm in the middle of a Japan air? I don’t know why he hates me so much.
“I love these conversations about skateboarding so much,” Paul said as we were winding down our conversation, “and things like the Olympics allows for more of it. Even if all we're doing is looking for things to pick at, it's fun. Sure things could change, or things could be better, but part of the joy I get out of skateboarding now is talking about this stuff. I don't know if you feel the same way?”
I do feel the same way. It’s a fun subject to debate. I’ve been riding—trying to ride—one of these damn landsled things for over 40 years now so it’s a subject I have a lot of PASSIÓN (strong Spanish accent) for. But not all the time. Sometimes I am bereft of my PASSIÓN for skateboarding. Like when I’m underwater, or feeding the dogs, or trying to remember a line that Tolkien wrote—no PASSIÓN. But when I do think about skateboarding, I am filled with PASSIÓN.
Congratulations to every Olympic skateboarder. You rode a skateboard in the Olympics. That’s pretty cool. And also: Thank you. I think you did an amazing job representing skateboarding—well, maybe “amazing” is too strong of a word? It was hot, you couldn’t land anything, etc.—You did a “very good” job of representing skateboarding? Sure.
Ultimately, skateboarding survived its Olympic debut. Hooray. You can still walk out your door, hop on your board, and have fun. But just because skateboarding “survived,” doesn’t mean things are okay. I don’t think that event did anything for skateboarding—it was a mediocre contest at best—and I hope that we never do it again because I hope there will be no more Olympics. Which isn’t an unlikely proposition because after the IOC reads this scathing review of their first games they’ll probably do what the stupid Extreme Games did and… and change their name, or something. —Dave Carnie
Five Rings to rule them all, Five Rings to find them, Five Rings to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.
TWO EXTRA DANCE REMIX PHOTOS THAT DIDN’T FIT IN THE ARTICLE!
I asked Paul if anyone did any sort of sarcastic, mocking, Neil Blender-style runs in the hopes that maybe someone pulled a can of spray paint out of their back pocket and “enhanced” the course. Paul didn’t recall any such instances. I did enjoy Steven Pineiro’s dismount, though: exit the bowl by kicking your board in the air as high as you can—WEEEE! Lots of amplitude. New Olympic sport: foot javelin?