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By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - Once seen as a sport for misfits and goof-offs, skateboarding makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo with the blessing of one of its Godfathers, Tony Hawk, who offers a cautionary note to never forget your roots.
Born on American streets by bored surfers looking for something to do when the waves were calm, skateboarding long ago cast aside its slacker image as it filtered into the sporting mainstream, growing into a multi-billion dollar industry.
Despite possessing a global footprint and heaps of the youthful energy the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is desperate to tap into, skateboarding is late to the Olympic party following the arrival of snowboarding, skicross, BMX, beach volleyball and others.
But now that it is part of the Games lineup there is a belief among many in the sport, including Hawk, that the Olympics needs skateboarding more than skateboarding needs the Olympics.
"I think it is cool we have come from this unlikely underground, counter-culture scene to be probably one of the highlights of the Summer Games," Hawk told Reuters. "I never had a stance that was anti-Olympics.
"I was always more baffled why the mainstream didn't recognise skateboarding as something that was a positive influence and a positive outlet."
Now 53 and a father of four, Hawk says he has always embraced the misfit tag, but at the same time deftly harnessed the street and corporate forces pulling at the sport, building a skateboarding brand that has made him independently wealthy.
That kind of fame and success is usually the kiss of death for cultural icons, who are quickly labelled sellouts sending believers in search of a new leader with rebel credentials.
Hawk avoided such a fall from grace by backing up his "street cred" with NBDs (rider slang for Never Been Done tricks) that earned him respect on the streets even as he moved into the corporate towers.
At the 1999 X-Games, Hawk cemented his status as a skateboarding legend when he became the first to land a 900 (2 1/2 revolution aerial spin), a feat described as the skateboarding equivalent of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile.
"At the core of skateboarding, especially its deep roots, you can't fake it," explained Hawk. "The kids who are skateboarding see the people who are successful at it as legitimate and they have great respect for them.
"It's not like somebody is putting on a fake public persona to gain notoriety."
When snowboarding joined the Olympic lineup at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games there was undeniable angst.
The boarding community was conflicted, fretting the Olympics would suffocate the creativity and freedom that was part of its DNA.
Almost every new sport that has followed snowboarding into the Olympic club has wrestled with an identity crisis.
Unlike those other sports, who needed the Olympics to get the word out, skateboarding had already arrived as a cultural phenomenon.
"Snowboarding when it first got introduced none of our sports, action sports, had broken into the mainstream yet in any significant way," explained Hawk. "So when that happened it was a sudden jump ahead from being underground to being on the Olympic stage.
"Luckily skateboarding got to go through this growth cycle. Skateboarding is as big as any Olympic sport and has mainstream sponsors, has huge events.
"So it doesn't seem that so far-fetched now that it would be held under the Olympic banner."
Hawk describes the sport as a big tent with room for everyone.
Yet skateboarding and those who market, sponsor and profit from it understand that to thrive it must stay connected to the counter-culture roots from which it was born.
Hawk and one of his sponsors Vans have combined with non-profit Skateistan to support the creative culture of skateboarding by empowering children through skateboarding.
He believes the Olympic stage will only extend skateboarding's reach.
"There are these hardcore or soulful skaters that want to do it on their own terms, they don't want to be judged by anyone else," conceded Hawk.
"There will be these people over here who are high-performance competitors that will thrive in the Olympic setting and people over there that don't want to be compared to anyone because it is their art form yet they can be successful at it in a different way."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)