How skateboarding could save Sheffield city centre and our mental health

What was once a pastime for bored surfers could now transform struggling city centres and your mental health. We’re talking about skateboarding, a sport which can count old and young among its fans.

Saturday, 8th January 2022, 7:00 am

It was invented in Southern California by surfers who wanted something to do when the waves were low. They put wheels on a board in the 1950s and took off. So did the idea, to the point where it is now an Olympic sport and one which has around a million people skateboarding in the UK.

The governing body for skateboarding in Great Britain is based in Sheffield and its chief executive officer is James Hope-Gill.

He has seen how the sport has transformed a part of Sheffield city centre from what had become almost a no-go zone to a thriving thoroughfare.

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Exchange Street, known in skateboarding circles as Marioland, which opened in September 2020.

This is Exchange Street, known in skateboarding circles as Marioland, which opened in September 2020.

It provided a new place for street sports in the Castlegate area, forming part of the ongoing regeneration by installing a series of multi-use blocks and rails that can be used by skateboarders, BMX’ers and scooters.

James said: “It is a skate dot, a small area with a couple of pieces of street architecture that can be used to sit on or for skateboarding.

“There has to be diversity in a city centre, its purpose is changing as retail struggles it needs to be multi-functional. The intervention of a skate dot makes a difference, people weren’t using the area but skateboarders took ownership of it and brought it to life.

Skateboarding at The House skatepark. Picture Scott Merrylees

“People are using that space now, it is becoming more vibrant - the concrete and the rails help make it safe.”

The skateboarders worked with Sheffield Council’s city centre manager Richard Eyre who took a punt on their idea. James said: “It cost virtually nothing to do but had a big impact and I would love to see it replicated elsewhere.

“This community can bring life to an area, regenerate it. It has happened in Malmo and Barcelona, shared spaces where people watch skateboarders and the incredible things they do.”

Skateboarding is actually banned in parts of Sheffield city centre and there are detractors who point to Holly Street, by the side of the City Hall, as a danger zone due to daredevil trick artists.

Marioland Skate park on Castlegate and Exchange Street in Sheffield

“Years ago I saw them as a pain, but when you get to know them it is a good community that don’t want to be a hassle, don’t want to be anti-social, don’t want to skate in a way that hurts people.

“What we’ve done with Marioland builds our case. It is really beneficial, both physical and mental well-being. People’s life skills - resilience, commitment, discipline, community and culture.

“The point is you want to improve and you will fall off. They keep going and the resilience it gives is incredible. The balance, co-ordination and strength needed is amazing and it is active travel - they use the board to get from A to B.”

As if that wasn’t enough, there is also an educational aspect. The city’s Onboard skatepark in Little London Road is helping children who struggle in school.

Marioland Skate park on Castlegate and Exchange Street in Sheffield

“What it can teach and the skills it gives are phenomenal,” says James. “It is a way of engaging with children who are disenfranchised with education.”

There’s also The House in Kelham Island, a large, indoor, wooden-floored skatepark with banks, ramps, and a wall. So Sheffield is doing okay and James wants to see more.

“The future is really exciting. Until now there wasn’t a talent pathway - how do you identify talent and support them to be as good as they can? UK Sport has funded that talent pathway for the next four years, so I’m hopeful and positive that we can support skateboarders in the UK to be as good as they can be.”

The funding was part of UK Sport’s progression sport grant and skateboarding got £1.6 million until the Paris Olympic games in 2025.

It is a start but sadly, this island’s skateparks are not yet at an international standard such as the ones in Australia and America.

The aim is to match those countries by creating a national centre in Britain with 12 locations to support it. Sheffield could be one of the 12.

Skateboarding at The House skatepark. Picture Scott Merrylees

“That’s something I would love to see in Sheffield,” says James. “It fits with the Outdoor City agenda. There is a community here and you need a local authority which wants to engage - those are the basic ingredients and I hope we can have good discussions.”

James has been around sport all his working life. His name is familiar in football circles after 20 years at the Sheffield and Hallamshire County FA, first as disciplinary secretary and then through the ranks to chief executive. His career owes much to his opportunism.

“I was at Sheffield University and came up with this idea of approaching United and Wednesday to see if they would let me do some research into the opposition, distribution of supporters and how I could compare and contrast them,” he says.

“I ended up going to Bramall Lane and Hillsborough with mates carrying clipboards, asking season-ticket holders on the Kop all sorts of questions. I tried to flog the idea to the FA but they put me in touch with Geoff Thompson at Sheffield and Hallamshire FA.”

The 52-year-old father-of-one grew up in Millhouses, one of five children, and went to Dobcroft School then Abbeydale Grange. Since 2014, he has been building a national framework as the first chief executive of Skateboarding GB.

“My work with the FA gave me really good experience about what governing bodies do and the potential to do good,” says James, who is married to Jules. They have a son Luke, 18, and live in Dore.

“When I was asked to set up a governing body for skateboarding it was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to. I’d never been on a skateboard but it is a great community which has gone from no funding to four years funding.”

He is currently recruiting a ninth member of staff but had to start from scratch, with little or no information.

“As a governing body we haven’t got insight into membership because there are no leagues, clubs or competitions,” says James.

“Skateboarding has a different purpose, it isn’t to beat someone so there is no league structure which makes it hard to estimate numbers.

“Four or five years ago we talked to the manufacturers, retailers and Sport England and got a number of 750,000 skateboarders.

“Since then, there’s been a large increase in girls, women and older people taking part but we don’t have an exact number.”

What they do have is massive progress thanks partly to Sky Brown, now 13, who won a bronze medal for skateboarding in the Tokyo Olympics. The sport was one of five introduced to the Tokyo programme, along with surfing and sport climbing.

“The Olympics increased the profile and participation of girls in skateboarding,” says James. “The retailers were saying it’s boomtime.”

In July 2020 you couldn’t buy a complete set - the board and the wheels - as stocks ran out. Lockdown also helped.

“When people were able to exercise for an hour they went out and bought skateboards - some had done it when they were younger and had children themselves to pass it onto.”

Those children have now got role models such as Olympians Sky and her pal Bombette Martin, 15, who was the first to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. Bombette is also an ambassador for Sheffield Children’s Hospital after James asked her if she wanted the role.

“Her age means she can really relate to the children being treated and because skateboarding is a new Olympic sport where the profile is increasing it seemed a natural fit,” says James.

The Olympics also showcased the unique nature of skateboarders as Japanese competitor Misugu Okamoto who was favourite to win fell on her final run and missed out on a medal.

“All the other skaters picked her up and put her on their shoulders to encourage her,” says James. “It showed the world that skateboarding is more than just winning, it is about a community and taking part together. That’s almost more important than the medal and you see it time and time again. There is world class competition but the motivation of skateboarders is different to other sports.

“Out of that comes an amazing culture where everyone looks out for each other and supports each other.”

It means James has to look after the sport rather than control it. “It is different to football with leagues and competition, this is about people and a culture which we learn to operate with rather than govern. I see our purpose as adding value.

“It has been a community for 40-50 years which has done really well and it would not be right to ask them to do what we say.

“Our role is to add value to what is already there, how to facilitate support.”

For more details about Skateboard GB visit the website at skateboardgb.org

The governing body for skateboarding in Great Britain is based in Sheffield and its chief executive officer is James Hope-Gill.
Speaking at a summit in Rio de Janeiro, Skateboarding GB chief executive officer James Hope-Gill.
Bombette Martin, aged 15, who was the first to compete in the Tokyo Olympics
Marioland Skate park on Castlegate and Exchange Street in Sheffield
Skateboarding at The House skatepark. Oliver Barclay. Picture Scott Merrylees