TOKYO — Just minutes after the first skateboard competition in Olympic history concluded, the icon with tattoos covering more of his body than water covers earth, the celebrity with 4.75 million Instagram followers, the athlete who awes other elite athletes, remained atop his board. He answered questions while balanced on four wheels, like that made him the most comfortable. Like he needed that comfort to process what had just happened, what he had flown across the world for, what everyone with a cursory interest in his sport expected him to win.
Nyjah Huston leaned forward and grabbed onto a metal railing in the mixed zone, looking neither despondent nor particularly thrilled. He had sprained his wrist four days earlier and competed under a heat so stifling that had there been any fans at the Ariake Urban Sports Park, they would have fought to the death for any slice of shade.
He wasn’t here to make excuses, Huston said, reminding the assembled that he’s human. This isn’t usually necessary to point out—but was, for sure, on Sunday afternoon. That’s because Huston is not simply an elite skateboarder, and this was not a run-of-the-mill event for a sport that went from being considered a crime in some places, all the way to the capital G of Games. He apologized, unnecessarily, to the people he let down.
How he ended up here, only-one-name-needed famous—like LeBron, Serena, Sinbad, or Bono—could fill three movies, or match the total pages in seven Harry Potter books. Huston nabbed his first sponsor at age 7, won the largest amateur contest in the world at age 10 and turned pro at 11. He came to make impossible tricks routine, or at least appear that way, transforming into the most technically gifted skateboarder his sport had ever seen.
His back story informed his rise: born in Davis, Calif., raised by Rastafarian parents, largely hidden from outside interaction. The Hustons—mom, dad, four siblings—moved to Puerto Rico, settling on a farm so remote that the word itself could be offended by the juxtaposition. His parents divorced. He became a millionaire, moved back to California, landed in legal trouble. He partied. And he won, so often and by such wide margins—six world titles and 12 X Games championships—that in contest skating, he ascended higher than any competitor ever had.
The Biebs swung by Huston’s private skate park. The Rock cast him in an episode of Ballers. The fans, millions of them, followed along on Instagram. But as Huston’s famed ballooned, skateboarding also evolved. The sport had long ago outgrown its rebellious roots, transitioning into a cool, profitable corner of the sports world that could reach the kind of younger audience that advertisers swoon over. Eventually, the paths of sport and star converged. Huston would not simply compete in the first-ever Olympic event; he would win it—and he would win over whatever swaths of America didn’t already love him in the process.
Finally, after fist bumping Kevin Durant at opening ceremonies and posing for pictures with Katie Ledecky, the moment drew near. On Sunday morning, at a venue built next to the Kyunaka River, with dozens of skyscrapers towering in the distance, helicopters hovering overhead as if searching for fugitives and the “no skateboarding” signs discarded, dozens of wheels grinded. Down in the concrete bowl, there were handrails, benches, stairs and places for athletes to drop in.
The competition started at a most un-skateboarding hour: 8:30 a.m. It took place in front of row after row of empty seats. Sure, an announcer called out tricks, X Games style. And, yes, music played at loud enough volumes to damage eardrums. But if this morning looked like skateboarding, it hardly sounded like it. It was as if an event that had always embraced its extreme roots had reached another pinnacle and then hit the “mute” button on the remote.
Competitors launched in four separate heats, and their tricks were judged and averaged after 45-second intervals, with the highest and lowest scores thrown out. Huston, despite some early stumbles in the third heat, advanced to the final eight. So did his American teammate, Jagger Eaton, from Heat 1.
In between thrills, the rivals mostly took spills, falling and falling and falling as they tried to land Olympic-caliber tricks with names that sounded like they came from another language. One dude wore all white, another a gray bandana, another black socks, still others chains or keepsakes or hats flipped backward. Everyone, it seemed, wore AirPods, to blast music while they skated and confirming elite balance. The announcer yelled things like, “Holy high definition!” to the only and perhaps worst crowd available—sponsors and journalists.
Between competitions, Huston admitted the heat had impacted him, draining energy and creating not sweatshirts but sweat-shoes. But he wasn’t alone in confronting those conditions, either. He still planned, still needed, to win. After he recovered from those early spills, he looked to rescue his country from top-of-the-podium purgatory. Early into these Games, Kosovo, Iran and Ecuador had won golds. The United States had not. But in between the heats and the final, that changed. The U.S. seized its first gold, at the aquatics center, and several other athletes won silvers and bronzes.
Still, Huston was expected to win. But before the final, he admitted, “As a skateboarder, it’s not easy dealing with pressure in the first place.” The tricks were too precise, the margins as thin as fingernails chewed to the roots. One mistake could end years of training. Since Huston doesn’t make many of those, that didn’t seem like an issue.
He didn’t make one mistake in the final. He made four. He fell four times in a row.
His friend and countryman, Jake Ilardi, would say that Huston felt no added pressure, that skateboarders could overthink tricks at any competition, that even the best in their sport were not guaranteed to win. They could simply not jump high enough, or trip, or not twist a board while twisting their body so that both meet at the exact right moment to land atop a railing and slide off backward. It’s wild to even think about the physics that are involved there.
The falls cost Huston more than momentum. “I just couldn’t get the right flip on the board,” he said. They cost him gold, which went to Yuto Horigome, the son of a Japanese taxi driver, from Tokyo, now a hometown Olympic God. Horigome nailed four of five tricks, sealing early the top slot. Eaton, Huston’s younger teammate, nabbed the bronze. “There’s nothing like the Olympics,” he said.
Huston, too, understood that sentiment. He finished seventh, then skated to that mixed zone, answering those questions atop his board. He said he had learned to accept the variables in his sport, the days when the tricks he makes look easy suddenly appear as difficult as they actually are. Someone noted that skateboarding is already confirmed for Paris 2024, and Huston smiled. Broadly. “I’m going to be a little older then,” he said. “But maybe.” Then he kicked that board up, declined to take another question and skated off into a bountiful future, without the gold he came for, but part of history, nonetheless.
More Olympics Coverage:
• Kalisz, Litherland Set Off a Tidal Wave of Medals for U.S. Swimming
• Kolohe Andino Is More Ready Than Ever for Surfing's Olympic Debut
• Ryan Murphy Wants to Be the GOAT of U.S. Olympic Men's Backstroke
• Team USA's Dominant 3x3 Hoops Debut at Olympics Was Quite the Spectacle