World Skate, what are you doing?

A special investigation.

World Skate, what are you doing?

World Skate, the organization that bills itself as “the governing body for all Sports performed on skating wheels” and has served as the international governing body for Olympic skateboarding since 2017, received a letter of condemnation from its Gender Equality Commission (GEC) back in December. The letter, which was sent to me by a member of the Olympic skateboarding community who asked to remain anonymous due to their role, follows World Skate’s decision to hold upcoming Paris 2024 qualifying events in Sharjah, UAE, and states in part:

“Our mission as members of the Gender Equality Commission is first and foremost to promote gender equality and inclusivity across global skateboard communities and to create safe spaces for our athletes to participate in. It is with this mission In mind we want to express our discontent with World Skate's decision to partner with the city of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to host the World Skateboarding Tour Shariah (UAE) Street and Park 2022 World Championships.

Under penal code articles 356, 359, and 177 of the UAE civil code, being transgender and/or engaging in homosexual behavior are criminal offenses. Punishments range from deportation and monetary fines to 10 years in prison and even death.

Many athletes that would be selected to participate in this vital qualifier for Paris 2024, are also members of the LGBTQIA+ community. By hosting the World Championships in the city of Sharjah you have created a scenario where LGBTQIA+ skaters as well as their families, fans, and event support staff (among others), would not be able to take part in this event safely or legally.

The well-being of all athletes should be the highest priority when choosing an event location for any and all sanctioned events. We respectfully and firmly request that you cancel the 2022 World Championships contract with Sharjah and only consider alternative locations that are equitable, accessible, and safe for all skateboarders regardless of gender, sexuality, and/or other identity, and abide by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights decree.”

The GEC had a subsequent online meeting with World Skate leadership on December 19 to reach what they hoped would be “actionable steps for resolution.” Notes taken by an attendee of the meeting and shared with me detail how World Skate leadership tried to ease the GEC’s worries. A representative from Sharjah was reportedly present and is said to have explained that members of Olympic skateboarding’s LGBTQIA+ community needn’t worry about the discriminatory laws because one of his children identifies as such and that there is a “golden fence” for celebrities and athletes who visit to shield them from the laws that they were told moments earlier they do not have to be worried about.

When an openly gay member of the GEC declined to travel to Sharjah citing safety concerns, they were allegedly told by a member of World Skate leadership that “they could just turn off [their] social media before and during the trip” for protection.

Unfortunately, it’s not surprising that LGBTQIA+ skaters and staff weren’t consulted or considered when World Skate decided to take the Olympic qualifiers to a nation that explicitly outlaws their existence. World Skate reportedly signed a two-year agreement to organize and host their World Championship events in Sharjah ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympics. The organization is also said to have plans to extend the deal up to the 2028 games in Los Angeles, including hosting events in Dubai.

This would appear to be a part of the continued trend of authoritarian governments with atrocious human rights records and deep pockets engaging in sportswashing to burnish their public image. Qatar spent over $300 billion to secure, host, and build the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup amid the swirling controversies of thousands of migrant worker deaths, its own persecution and suppression of the LGBTQIA+ community, and the strange ad-hoc censorship and intimidation of journalists on the ground at the event. In 2020, the Ultimate Fighting Championship signed a five-year deal with the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism to host at least one event per year on Yas Island, with Abu Dhabi covering all of the UFC’s site fees. Before the new year, low-level Saudi Arabian football club Al-Nassr announced it had signed faded Portuguese legend Cristiano Ronaldo to a $286-million-a-year contract. Just days later, Saudi-backed LIV Golf was accused of “using its US lawsuit against [the] PGA to ‘build an intelligence file’ on families of 9/11 victims who have been critical of the kingdom and its new professional golf circuit.”

All of that money is used to distract and persuade. Qatar spent more than the GDP of Finland to get the world to look past its many sores. It’s unclear how much Sharjah is paying World Skate to sanction and host its Olympic qualifying events, but the organization has allegedly set such inflated costs for sanctioning that storied skateboarding contests like Tampa Pro can’t afford to become an official qualifying event.

This news comes on the heels of another self-inflicted controversy from World Skate leadership. Skateboarding’s international governing body is moving to force all member countries with multiple “roller sport” organizations to merge into one. So if a member country has separate Inline Speed Skating and Skateboarding organizations, they must unify staff, bank accounts, policies, and more. The worry from member countries is that this would hamstring skateboarding’s influence and voting power on the national and international level—which assumes they have any to begin with.

It’s become contentious enough that the president of the Brazilian Skate Confederation, Eduardo Musa, has publicly clashed with World Skate about the merger requirement. He also criticized World Skate for its lack of qualification events, the organization not understanding skateboarding or listening to the skateboarders in its ranks, and missing the deadline to register skateboarding for the 2024 Paralympic games. This dispute ultimately led to the cancellation of the World Championships that were scheduled to take place in Rio de Janeiro (the event still went ahead, just without World Skate’s official recognition) and Musa being suspended by World Skate (through the Brazilian Olympic Committee) for three years for violating their code of ethics.

The situation has become so strained that it’s rumoured some member countries are considering pulling their affiliation from World Skate entirely due to what they see as their international governing body’s poor leadership and general incompetence. If this trajectory continues, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that this is how the Olympic skateboarding experiment could end. Ironically, at the hands of a bumbling cabal of rollerbladers.

So what is World Skate, anyways? We don’t often get much insight into the organization that plays such an important role in competitive skateboarding around the globe. To many on the outside, World Skate has always seemed out of its depth—the group that governs competitive Roller Derby, Rink Hockey, and Scootering is in charge of skateboarding, too?

Previously known as the Federation of International Roller Sports (FIRS), a hostile jockeying of positions between themselves, the International Skateboarding Federation (ISF), and the World Skateboarding Federation (WSF) to see who would become Olympic Skateboarding’s official governing body eventually forced the groups into a merger by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). However, in the end, just FIRS and the ISF would combine to become World Skate, allegedly cutting WSF out of the deal and leading to a “bitter legal dispute” with WSF chair and former VP of Maloof Money Cup, Tim McFerran, who claims, “he had [been] sidelined despite signing an agreement and investing both money and resources into preparations.” Reported

Since then, World Skate has worked with the IOC and each member country’s Olympic skateboarding federation to help organize Olympic qualifying events leading up to and including skateboarding’s debut at Tokyo 2020. But according to my source, they’ve done more to damage the Olympic skateboarding community and alienate the actual skateboarders within it than help.

Much of this has been attributed to World Skate leadership’s governing style and refusal to understand, include, and work with the actual skateboarders in their organization and its member countries. There have been red flags for some time, with certain World Skate leaders waving them as if trying to marshall a 747. The chairman of World Skate’s Skateboarding Technical Commission, Gary Ream, is a name you might recognize as the founder of Woodward and the disgraced former board chair of USA Skateboarding (USAS). Ream was forced to resign after a number of allegations surfaced back in August following a damning audit of USAS, up to and including financial impropriety. And yet, World Skate still employs him.

A spokesperson for World Skate told at the time, “We are aware of the outcomes of the USOPC [United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee] audit and respect the choice made by Mr. Ream of resigning from the USA Skateboarding Board. At the same time, we must highlight that no legal or sport authority indictment, incompatible with his technical position at the IF (International Federation) level, has been made to Mr. Ream.” Cool.

If the person who contributed to getting USAS threatened with decertification by the USOPC is who World Skate wants in charge of skateboarding’s appearance at Paris 2024, the organizational rot is clearly fetid.

Considering all of this, what skateboarding’s Olympic future looks like is uncertain. It might open the games in France or be LA’s crown jewel, but at what cost? Those at the top of its international governing body have shown a distinct lack of concern for the safety of its athletes and staff and appear disinterested in even operating as a functional entity. It’s an incredible shame, considering all the time, effort, and sacrifice that those athletes and staff members from all over the world have put into making this experiment work and work well. Their genuine love and passion for skateboarding are being taken advantage of by the greed and negligence of a few.

When skateboarding was first announced as an Olympic sport, there was a lot of pearl-clutching about how it was selling its soul to get onto the world’s biggest stage. To many, it was an existential threat. Since Tokyo, skateboarding’s soul has remained its own. However, it looks like the more realistic outcome that some anti-Olympic hardliners expected might just come to pass: that non-skaters and corrupt bureaucrats would take the reins and fuck the whole thing up. If something doesn’t change and change quickly, they’ll be right.

I reached out to multiple members of World Skate’s leadership for comment but did not hear back.

Update, 01/17/2023:
Over a week after the publishing of this article, World Skate’s Communication Director responded to my request for comment. Their response did not directly address any of my questions, including whether GEC and World Skate member countries were consulted before signing a deal to hold events in Sharjah; if World Skate was aware of the UAE’s repressive laws toward the LGBTQ+ community and the risk it could potentially place athletes, staff, and their families in to travel there before signing the deal with Sharjah; what the deal with Sharjah entails and how much World Skate stands to make from it; if World skate was concerned that Olympic skateboarding could be used as a tool for sportswashing by an authoritarian regime; comment on the conversations held between World Skate leadership and the GEC, specifically an openly gay member of the GEC being told “they could just turn off [their] social media before and during the trip” to ensure their safety in Sharjah;” why World Skate requires member countries to merge their ‘roller sport’ organizations; and why World Skate suspended the president of the Brazilian Skate Confederation, Eduardo Musa, for three years.

Statement from World Skate:

While we appreciate your questions, we do not comment on private conversions held during meetings that are internal to World Skate.

We feel confident that our World Championship in Sharjah will provide a platform for all skateboarders regardless of gender or sexual orientation to compete in a safe, secure, and welcoming environment. The UAE has hosted numerous international sporting events and has a tradition of hospitality and respect for different cultures living in and visiting the country. We know that, once again, the skateboarding community will take this opportunity to show the world its uniqueness. We are not building "cathedrals in the desert", we are leaving a legacy. Like we did in Rome, where local skaters are enjoying a world-class skatepark in front of the Colosseum, the Aljada Skate Park complex will be the center piece of a diverse and growing skateboard community. It consists of six separate parks, ranging from a world class California Skateparks design, all the way down to beginner- level spaces: parks that are currently open to ride up to local women and men equally.

Regarding safety and gender equality, we reassure that Sharjah events will be held in line with the requirements expected of any other World Skate event. The safeguarding of athletes is of the utmost importance to World Skate and we value the vital work that our Gender Equality Commission does. The Gender Equality Commission’s scope of work is to advance gender equality globally with specific aim to the organized form of Skateboarding.

Since the very beginning, we have adopted a gender equality policy for all our events: From participation, to media coverage and equal prize money, we have constantly put our energy into supporting equal participation and opportunities for all skateboarders.