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How skateboarders have reclaimed an abandoned Olympic stadium in Athens

Although Olympic stadiums are erected amid great jubilation, many fall into disuse and disrepair soon after the Games finish. In Athens, however, skaters are reclaiming abandoned spaces, and helping to invite young refugees into the community.

By Hannah Bailey
Photographs By Hannah Bailey
Published 31 Jul 2021, 06:07 BST
The disciplines of street and park skateboarding make their debut at the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics. ...

The disciplines of street and park skateboarding make their debut at the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics. But it’s an exposure that many of the sport’s core participants feel isn’t in the spirit of skateboarding — one of freedom and individualism.

Photograph by Hannah Bailey

It’s summer in Athens, and already too hot to wander around in open spaces, away from shade, especially ones as dusty and derelict as where we stand now. Not so long ago, this forgotten place would have been filled with raucous crowds of people — but today, we’ve just the sound of our own footsteps for company. It’s been like this for years.

We’re in the abandoned rapids of the canoe and kayak slalom — a place once used by Olympic athletes in the pursuit of sporting victory. In 2004, this was their venue, the Hellinikon Olympic Canoe/Kayak Slalom Centre, a concrete expanse covering 288,000sq metres, with a stadium able to seat more than 7,000 spectators. Once flowing with salt water and kayaks, the huge arena was abandoned just 10 years after its construction was completed. But there’s one sporting activity perfectly suited to making use of smooth concrete and dry spaces — skateboarding.

The sport is widely believed to have been started by American surfers on ‘flat days’ (days without waves), and it was then propelled to popularity after the California drought of 1976, as ‘sidewalk surfers’ moved from skating streets to jumping fences and riding in empty swimming pools. This access to smooth, dry concrete made its mark on skate culture, evolving to what we recognise it as today around the world.

The abandoned rapids of the Hellinikon Olympic Canoe/Kayak Slalom Centre present an ideal space in which to skate.

Photograph by Hannah Bailey

And things are changing again, as the world’s biggest competitive stage becomes its next platform. At the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the disciplines of street and park skateboarding make their debut. It’s an exposure that many of the sport’s core participants feel isn’t really in the spirit of skateboarding — one of freedom and individualism. The controlled environment and competitive aspect of the Olympics’ vision is, some feel, at odds with its roots: a communal activity where creativity is allowed to flourish. Indeed, Tokyo itself, plus the cities set to host the next two Olympic Games — Paris and Los Angeles — are world-famous for their positions at the cutting-edge of skate culture. From LA’s legendary Venice Beach Skate Park, which attracts skaters from around the world, to Paris’s Palais de Tokyo (or Le Dome), the French capital’s classic skate spot, it’s clear the sport has truly global appeal.

“I grew up skateboarding in St Albans, a suburban town just north of London,” says Will Ascott, a skater and founder of Free Movement Skateboarding, an NGO that runs skate sessions and programmes for refugees and at-risk youth in Athens. “While it was a great place to grow up, it wasn’t exactly diverse. It was only through skating that I got to travel and meet people from different backgrounds, and this natural, mutual connection meant we grew close. Some 10 years later, I was able to found Free Movement Skateboarding, and I pushed to create that same dynamic with youth from all over the world, from Greece and Syria to Morocco.”

Left: Top:

It’s not just in Athens that leftover Olympic structures have been put to good use by skaters. Though not abandoned, London’s Queen Elizabeth Park, which hosted the 2012 Olympic Games, is a hotspot for skate crews looking for flat ground to enjoy.

Right: Bottom:

Dusty and forgotten, the huge arena in Athens was abandoned just 10 years after its construction was completed.

Photograph by Hannah Bailey

It’s Will’s day off, and we’re joined by his co-worker Denia — a fellow skater, and skate journalist, whose role at the Athens-based magazine Skateism aims to challenge traditional skate media with the true depiction of who skaters are: everyone. Together with our group of young skaters, we wander the dusty concrete of the Hellinikon Complex, heading to its best skate spot, just beyond the rapids. Filled with energy, they hit the slopes.

“We started Free Movement Skateboarding to address the shortfall in youth activities for refugees in Athens,” explains Will. “I wanted to be a part of resisting the neglect. We targeted disadvantaged Greek youth to encourage social cohesion with the refugee community. In a country wrought with division, the diverse community that’s been built out of the skate sessions we host is what makes me believe in what we do. Since 2018, we’ve held more than 700 sessions, with almost 4,000 participants from 32 nationalities.”

Will Ascott is a skater and founder of Free Movement Skateboarding, an NGO that runs skate sessions and programmes for refugees and at-risk youth in Athens.

Photograph by Hannah Bailey

The sound of wheels clattering on the concrete slows to a stop. The skaters move to join us in the shade, and we’re once again staring at the empty stands, now claimed by trees and shrubs. It’s not just here in Athens that leftover Olympic structures have been put to good use by skaters. Though not abandoned, London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which hosted the 2012 Olympic Games, is a hotspot for skate crews looking for flat ground to enjoy. While the Olympics will broadcast skateboarding to the masses for the first time, these skateboarders’ hopes are that new eyes will roll upon the work of the hundreds of skateboarding NGOs that are using the sport as a force for good — and making use of abandoned spaces in the process.

Ahead, a towering blank screen is digitally vacant, and the plastic rock props sit pointlessly in the rapids, with dust swirling overhead. It’s as if we’ve sped back in time to 1970s California — but this is a purposefully dry place, that’s had the taps turned off since 2014. The perfect place to skate, for those who don’t mind jumping a fence or two.

Free Movement Skateboarding is an NGO that brings the activity to refugees and at-risk youth in Athens, Greece. 

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