Bombs Away

Olympic skateboarder Bombette Martin chats about Tokyo 2020, learning to fall and how to beat the boys

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It’s been a long day of interviews for Olympic skateboarder Bombette Martin, and Big Issue North is last in line. The 15 year old represents half of Britain’s humble skateboarding team of two at the Tokyo 2020 Games this summer, rescheduled due to Covid. The interview before us has run over, and as we twiddle our thumbs in the virtual waiting room, we wonder if Martin knows that in two weeks she’ll be as much a British household name as Basil Fawlty.

Being taken seriously can come at the price of authenticity; self-expression can’t be measured

The videocall connects. Her petite frame dwarfed by the enormous table she sits primly behind, Martin is every bit the English rose – all fair skin and limbs with a tangle of strawberry-blonde waves. She’s also a dual citizen, speaking to us from her family apartment in Manhattan.

“My dad was a boxer who moved to New York from Birmingham in his twenties. He went partying too much and didn’t train enough,” she jokes in a polite East Coast accent. Her unusual name is a homage to the amateur boxer’s moniker – Jon “Bomber” Martin. “He’s had this apartment since the early 1990s. We go over to England to visit family all the time.”

She’s tired but chipper, and incredibly good natured for someone who’s probably been telling strangers on a screen how excited she is about the Olympics for a good few hours.

“I’m just so grateful that I’ve got a chance to compete. Yes, I’m nervous – like, every single person in the world with a TV is going to be watching. But I’m not putting pressure on myself to get a medal. I just want to do my best.”

Qualifying 18th in the World Skate qualification season, Martin won’t be the strongest or most experienced skater in Tokyo but she’s got no axe to grind about it. Her sole teammate is 13-year-old Sky Brown, the all-singing (she released her own single, Girl, last year), all-dancing (she won Dancing with the Stars: Juniors in 2018), all-surfing wunderkind, and one of the best skaters on the planet.

“Sky is so nice. I enjoy hanging out with her and she’s just an insanely good skater,” says Martin of her teammate, who holds British-Japanese dual citizenship but mastered her craft in her California home. “It’s kind of crazy because I used to watch her videos when I was a kid and now I’m competing next to her!”

Tokyo 2020 isn’t just a first for Martin and Brown – it’s also skateboarding’s debut as an Olympic sport, along with baseball/softball, karate, sport climbing and surfing. Some 80 skaters will represent 26 countries in street (a course with stairs, handrails, benches and kerbs), and Martin and Brown’s discipline, park (a course with hollowed-out bowls and vert ramps).

Like anything that transitions from counterculture into the mainstream – tattoos, veganism, Dr Martens – the concept of skateboarding as an Olympic sport is a bit of a poisoned apple. To paraphrase the world’s most famous skater, Tony Hawk, “We were never looking for validation.”

Skateboarding’s image has U-turned from its bad-boy roots of 1970s Dogtown California, where the first skate team, Z-Boys, evolved out of young surfers on the poverty line. The misconception that skateboarding was for slackers because it wasn’t an organised sport ignores the creativity and grit it takes to master even the simplest trick. But being taken seriously can come at the price of authenticity; and self-expression can’t be measured. In going to the Olympics, has skateboarding sold out?

Today’s skaters often come in the form of clean-cut trained athletes like Martin.

“I have a really nice skatepark right down the street from me and when I was nine, me and my little brother Kayo would go and watch the skaters,” she remembers. “One day, we decided to go in and there was this guy, Andrew Gelles, who started yelling at us because we were in the way – he ended up being our teacher for the first few years. We just loved it so we kept going. The skatepark’s kind of like our second home – we like live there. When we were little, we’d get up at 7am every day and have a lesson with Andrew. He was really hands on – he would hold our hands going down the ramp whenever we were scared.”

Skateboarding’s popularity has led to inclusivity extending in every direction: beginners; kids; women. Women’s skating has taken off in a huge way in the last few years, with grassroots girls’ skate nights growing and girls’ teams cropping up across the globe. Now, we have two teenage girls representing the nation.

Misogyny is alive enough for some people to be surprised that girls can skate at all. But it has its upsides.

“People say being a girl in the sport’s so hard but, at least in my experience, I definitely disagree with that,” Martin says. “I’ve had a very easy time because of being a girl – I get noticed more. I got my first sponsor a couple of months after I started skating. There’re so many boys that skate, you know?”

Right on cue, Martin’s 11-year-old brother Kayo bursts into the room, puts his face up to the camera and waves furiously. He tries to join the chat but can’t seem to hear us, and in a flash he’s gone, a blur of orange hair and a t-shirt to match.

A fearless, stylish skater, Kayo will surely be rolling at the Paris 2024 Olympics, perhaps alongside Brown’s equally talented nine-year-old brother Ocean. “I think they’d be good buddies, they’d skate well together,” smiles Martin. “Kayo is kind of like my coach,” she laughs. “There’s healthy competition between us but it’s mainly encouragement. We go in and out of stages of him being better than me and me being better than him. We’re constantly improving by skating together.”

Martin’s technique is solid and refined, with the tricks she pulls – inverts, airs, 50-50s – requiring incredible skill, hard work and determination. She’s an experienced contest skater, winning the Skate GB National Championships in April and cruising the GFL Series at St Petersburg Bowl last year, taking first place. But it took time and practice to get out of her own head.

“I was definitely a scared child when it came to skateboarding. I just didn’t progress because I was too scared to try anything. I was so flukey and was always getting hurt. But as much as you learn how to skate, you also have to learn how to fall. And after you learn that, it’s like, what’s the worst that can happen?”

At this point, Martin’s team want to wrap it up. We’ve been chatting for just 11 minutes and there’s so much more to say. But as well as being an Olympic skateboarder, she’s also a teenager. There’s tea to eat and telly to watch and brothers to torment. What advice would Martin give to other girls who wanted to try skateboarding but felt intimidated by the scene?

“No one’s going to judge you – it’s a community. Being in a park full of guys is not bad, it’s not scary. We’re all human. Get a skateboard, get a helmet and go. You’re good. You got it.”

Watch Bombette Martin tear it up in Tokyo on BBC One, 4-5 August. 

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