In a recent South China Morning Post article focusing on the Olympics’ less-than-enthusiastic appeal for younger audiences, Jack Lau cited statistics from the Ad Age trade publication indicating that the median age of American viewers for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro was 52.4 years. To cite Lau, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sees this as a crisis not just in economic terms but also as missing an opportunity to “win the hearts and minds of Generation Z and young millennials.” When the Games open in Tokyo on July 23, five sports defining the 21st century active lifestyle world will make their debut: Freestyle BMX, surfing, sport climbing, 3×3 basketball and skateboarding. And, when the Games convene in Paris in 2024, breakdancing will become a medal event.
The IOC also has turned to social media platforms including TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram to engage younger audiences. Tomorrow (July 7), produced for YouTube Originals and the Olympics’s YouTube channel, the documentary World Debut: From Outsiders to the Olympics will receive its premiere. Directed by Utah filmmakers Cole Sax and Galen Knowles and produced by Phil Hessler, the rich, informative documentary chronicles the long journey of how skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing — three of the fastest growing sports in terms of engagement and visibility — made their way into the Olympics.
The film also will receive a live in-person screening tomorrow (July 7) at 7 p.m. in Jordan Park, as part of the Utah Film Center’s Through The Lens Series. The program will open with a Q&A hosted by KUER RadioWest’s Doug Fabrizio and featuring Sax, Knowles and Hessler along with sport climber Kyra Condie. The film then will be screened, beginning at dusk.
Sax, Knowles and Hessler have developed a fine touch for documentaries about the Olympics history and culture. Their short digital film series Far From Home, presented by Bridgestone and created for OlympicChannel.com with the assistance of Boardwalk Pictures, followed six athletes from Jamaica, Malaysia, India, Brazil, Iran, and South Korea, as they prepared for the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang. The series earned Silver Telly and Gold Telly Awards.
World Debut is an absorbing, enlightening, wonderful introduction to the forthcoming Tokyo Games, which were delayed a year because of the pandemic. Sax and Knowles do an excellent job in distilling the complex bureaucratic process, which advocates for the three sports patiently navigated to gain eventual acceptance in the Games. There is footage featuring IOC officials including Thomas’s Bach, the first Olympic medalist to serve as president and appears to be a catalyst in broadening the global appeal of the event’s brand. But, the film truly shines in the passionate, emotionally engrossing accounts of the athletes and the figures behind the movements to ensure these sports receive their proper due in the world’s most prominent event celebrating athleticism in its most adventurous dimensions.
The film pops with individuals who epitomize various renditions of the Olympian spirit. They include Condie, who lives in downtown Salt Lake City and was one of the first climbers to secure a spot to compete in Tokyo. Of course, skateboarding’s story would be incomplete without the presence of Tony Hawk, who is listed as an executive producer. From Argentina, Fernando Aguerre’s brand of surf politics, nourished by his lifelong respect for Duke Kahanamoku, considered the father of the sport, is remarkable for its reflection of Aguerre’s resilience. Marco Scolaris, a photographer from Italy, elegantly articulates the natural instinctive rationale for why sport climbing belongs in the Olympics. Gary Ream, the founder of Camp Woodward and president of the International Skateboarding Foundation, presents an intriguing case study. While he has never been a skateboarder, he developed Woodward into a proving ground for young athletes desiring to compete in action sports, particularly for those who came from socially and economically;marginalized backgrounds. Indeed, it appears that the untimely death of his son, Brandon, who helped his father run the Woodward programs, was instrumental in bolstering the drive to have skateboarding recognized as an Olympian sport. The younger Ream died from an aggressive form of bone marrow cancer seven years ago.
While the main production team comprised Utahns, the film takes on the appropriate cosmopolitan vibes, as Sax and his colleagues worked with production teams in Argentina, Japan, Italy, Switzerland and elsewhere to synthesize the stories behind the three sports featured in World Debut. Of course, the film also deals with the pandemic and the uncertainties about whether or not the Tokyo Games would be held and the protocol for conducting the competitions. Fortunately, the production team was able to facilitate remote editing to meet deadlines that had been compressed due to pandemic social distancing restrictions, which complicated the usual logistics involved in preparing a final cut of the film.
As Sax says in an interview with The Utah Review, “the iron was hot enough” to strike opportunity to make this film, based on the success and response the production team garnered from the 2018 Far From Home series. The suggestion to make World Debut from the focus of how sport climbing, surfing and skateboarding were accepted as competitive Olympics sports came from YouTube executives. “We found in each instance fascinating stories about the 20-year journey to be accepted into the Games,” Sax adds.
To handle the challenge of documenting the drier aspects of the bureaucracy that made the process more formidable for the sports (think of the IOC as a cohort of the United Nations), the production team incorporated astutely placed bits of animation to add levity and some gentle comedic relief to the chronicle. As Sax explains, the animation also substituted nicely for instances where they did not have footage available to describe the details of the deliberative process. Yet, the film features a generous amount of historical footage that amplifies the legacies involved not just for the three sports but also for how the Olympics organization has navigated its learning curve in adapting to sociocultural shifts in sports and lifestyles. Of note is the footage documenting how snowboarding had become an instant darling of the Winter Games, with its debut in 1998 at Nagano, its prominence in 2002 at Salt Lake City, and the rise of Shaun White as a medalist in both 2006 and 2010.
The film hits on the broader concerns about how the sports world is thinking creatively about how it engages with younger generations and how institutional entities such as the Olympics are trying to stay relevant in an age where immersive media consumption dominates so many aspects of life and its daily routines. Sax cites how Bleacher Report grew from its website origins in 2005 to producing internet television programming through B/R Live. “With this film, it is an inspiring opportunity to tell the story of these sports including skateboarding, an example of a sport with a low entry barrier,” Sax explains, “and to affirm it globally and submit to viewers around the world that it is a legitimate sport worthy of the Olympics.” He adds that films such as these could change the minds in nations which have frowned upon the sport and others like it as well.
The film was made in partnership with Boardwalk Pictures & Madica Productions, a sister company of Sunshine & Sachs.