The following article was originally published in "To The Extreme" - Alternative Sports, Inside and Out 2003
This is my disclaimer. This is your warning. Arrogance has been so stigmatized that it is difficult to be successful or confident without feeling guilty or feeling compelled to apologize for it. I am confident, I have been successful, I refer to myself in the third person as "The Arlo", and I ask friends and family to call me "god". I make no apologies. What follows is an egocentric observation on the state of rollerblading.
I was lucky to discover rollerblading before it had really caught on. Of course, rollerblading was lucky that I discovered it because I devoted my life to making sure that it caught on. Inline skating by itself already had a lot going for it, it was fast, fun, athletic, graceful, and easy to learn. On just its intrinsic qualities alone, rollerblading would have gone far. It was destined to permeate every middle- to upper-class household in the world. But I saw an even greater opportunity in rollerblading. As long as there was a vehicle that was capable of infiltrating mainstream culture on such a major scale, why not project some not so intrinsic qualities onto it and try to affect mainstream culture?
Rollerblading's timing couldn't have been better. It is incredible, first of all, that an idea so inevitable as ice skating on dry land could have taken so long to come to market. After decades of suffering through clumsy, inefficient roller-skates, and despite the centuries that ice skating had been around and prospered, inline skates became available to the masses only at the end of the 1980s. By all accounts, this concept was as big as bicycles (how many households don't have at least one bicycle?), yet it managed to avoid materialization all the way until the end of the twentieth century. Ice skating on dry land was a predictable, logical evolution of human recreation and transportation, and thanks to the proliferation of paved roads and development of polyurethane there was nothing to hold the idea back.
Inline skates were released at the height of the media-saturated, trend-hungry, information age. Even bad ideas were able to prosper in this environment - remember those yellow signs hanging from car windows that read "Baby on Board" or "Jesus on Board" or "Baby in Trunk"? Imagine what would happen if you actually had not just a good idea, but a great one.
Inline skates landed on the world like a ton of bricks. It was a full-fledged phenomenon.
I predicted this. And I prepared for it.
By the time I discovered inline skates, when I was sixteen, I had already long since defined myself as a skateboarder. I was young and full of energy and aggression, so the physical act of skateboarding became my outlet for that. But what really drew me to skateboarding was its defiance. I loved how skateboarding was counterculture, how it criticized society and challenged convention - not just through the act of skateboarding, but by creating its own society, complete with its own language, its own music, and its own magazines. An entire culture evolved around the act of skateboarding.
Now skateboarding and its culture are indivisible. It is impossible to have one without the other. It is not enough to ride a skateboard to be a skateboarder - the culture of skateboarding is essential to its definition.
Some limitations of skateboarding were that it was so abrasive, and so antisocial, and it alienated itself so completely from the mainstream society that it made it near impossible to effect any kind of noticeable influence on any society other than its own. Also, aside from the abrasiveness of the culture, the actual act of skateboarding was very difficult, so it made it hard for people to be drawn to the scene in very large numbers.
People who are critical of rollerblading are always quick to point out that it is too easy. It is easier than skateboarding so it must rank lower than skateboarding in the mythical hierarchy of alternative sports, is the logic. It is my contention that accessibility is our greatest asset. When anyone says that rollerblading is too easy, they are actually saying that it is too easy to get into. It is impossible to measure rollerblading based on its limits because it is limitless. Everyone knows how to run, but that does not discount how difficult it is for Michael Johnson to run 200 meters in under twenty seconds. Just because something is easy to do does not necessarily mean that it is easy to take it to its extremes - it just means that you can take it further, quicker.
Unline skateboarding, the rewards of rollerblading are immediate and consistent. The process of learning to skate on inlines is constantly gratifying so participants are encouraged to stick with it. Already rollerblading had one advantage built into it. But rollerblading was not skateboarding. There was no culture associated with it. It was just recreational activity. So what if the whole world started inline skating, what were the social ramifications of it? None.
Rollerblading - aggressive skating - was designed to be a mutation of skateboarding. The marriage of lifestyle to sport has been skateboarding's legacy and is a prerequisite to any contemporary action sport. Just like every other alternative sport before it and everyone after it, rollerblading took its cue from skateboarding. Unlike any other alternative sport, however, rollerblading has the unique opportunity to take the lifestyle/sport model to the masses.
The social climate is ripe for new ideas. With the Cold War over and no real enemy to speak of, Saddam Hussein and Kenneth Starr notwithstanding, institutions designed to install team values are not longer relevant. Respecting authority and being a part of the team made sense when survival deepnded upon it, but in the absence of a universal evil to rally around, focus has moved away from the team and onto the individual. When it is a matter of life or death, there is a premium placed on winning, it is essential. If it is only a matter of life, then the premium is place on more personal goals, such as enlightenment and gratification.
Success is no longer measured in terms of team, or wins. Success is measured by how much the individual enjoys the experience. In the football model the individual trains diligently and receives instructions from the coaches, and the reward is in the team's victory, if it should have one, and in the discipline the individual receives (assuming society values discipline). In the skateboarding or rollerblading the focus is not on competition, so the goal is not to win and the concept of training becomes obsolete. The reward is in the enjoyment the individual derives from the act of skating and in the camaraderie of the lifestyle.
The success of alternate sports is a testament to this new social environment. Children are deciding in growing numbers that they prefer action sports to the team-oriented sports that their parents played. More than any other action spot, rollerblading is prepared to accommodate this influx of new participants.
Of all the action sports, skateboarding, freestyle bmx, and rollerblading have the most mainstream potential because they can all be used for transportation and they can be used anywhere, unlike action sports such as surfing or snowboarding, which require an ocean or a mountain. Of all the "big three", rollerblading has the most mainstream potential because it is the easiest, and it has the most user-friendly image. Rollerblading's image is both an advantage and a liability, however.
Because rollerblading was new, we had the advantage of being able to review the action sports that came before us as we were attempting to define ourselves. We were able to borrow from what we thought were the best elements of the other action sports and we tried to steer clear of what we perceived to be weaknesses. In my vision, I wanted rollerblading to be rebellious. I wanted there to be an emphasis on the artistry of rollerblading as opposed to the athleticism. I valued style over difficulty. All of these qualities can be traced directly back to skateboarding. One thing that we tried to do differently, however, was to encourage as many people to participate in rollerblading as possible. We didn't want to undermine the built-in advantage of having such an accessible sport by making it an exclusive club like skateboarding.
For all of the advantages that our youth as a sport has afforded us, it has also been our biggest burden. Never mind the typical growing pains - the issues of credibility and acceptance from our peers will work themselves out over time. What we may not be able to recover from is the effect of the mainstream media on our identity. Without the advantage of decades of history to establish ourselves, we are the most malleable of all the alternative sports. That fact, combined with the huge following rollerblading's unique accessibility has provided us, makes us a prime target for mainstream media eager to reach a new audience without losing an old one.
Since rollerblading was designed to infiltrate the mainstream, mainstream media is a necessary and valuable ally, but if the mainstream media is able to distort rollerblading's image to such a degree that it no longer represents the ideals it was designed to promote, then what is the value in the exposure? This dilemma has become the greatest challenge facing rollerblading.
As rollerblading's popularity grows, so do its pockets. Major sponsors eager to reach our coveted demographic are jumping in dollars first and they are making waves. The problem is not the sponsors or their money, we need them, in fact, if we want to grow. The problem is our age. Without a solid foundation to stand on, we always run the risk of caving in. When sponsors make suggestions or demands, without clearly divined parameters established through years of steady growth to fall back on, we are more susceptible to compromise. Compromise at a glance does not look like such a bad thing, but when it is compromise after compromise after compromise, eventually we run the risk of compromising away everything that we believed in.
Skateboarding's bastard offspring that had such lofty aspirations for the virtues of the alternative sports underground is now a sleek, high-powered, made-for-television machine. Rollerblading is reaching the masses all right, but what is it saying? Who is controlling it? The answer is disturbing. We are letting our sport be defined by the people who have the things that we think we want. We have become consumed with out success, and are so eager to keep it going that we have lost sight of how we used to measure success.
The television producers are defining rollerblading now; the corporate sponsors are. Our parents are defining rollerblading.What was once an alternative to football is fast becoming a replacement for it. The focus in rollerblading is moving away from the personal goals of the individual and quickly moving toward winning championships and training to win championships.
How do we get it back? First we have to want it back. We have to want to change the world rather than want to be absorbed into it. We have to value innovation above athleticism. We have to be confident and arrogant. We have to make demands. We have to not be afraid of challenging convention, but committed to it. We must not be content. We must challenge. We must fight. No one knows better than we do what we want, so shy let anyone else try to give it to us? Turn off the television. Turn our the lights. Kill your parents. No apologies. No apollo jesus.
Arlo Eisenberg is one of the most recognizable personalities in aggressive inline skating. He is a former X Games gold medalist, has served as the editor for the sport's most influential publication, Daily Bread Magazine, and co-founded Senate Wheels, the leading manufacturer of aggressive skating accessories.