An interview with France’s Olympic Skateboarding Coach
Illustrations by James Jarvis. Words by Arthur Derrien.
For a lot of us, right now the idea of skateboarding being in the Olympics is kind of like the prospect of a stinking hangover when you’re out drinking. You know it’s pretty much inevitable and will probably leave a sour taste in your mouth, but that doesn’t mean you do anything to alter quite how bad it’ll be. And that’s even after coming to terms with the realisation that it’ll go hand in hand with a lot of embarrassment…
Unlike in most pub scenarios though, in the case of Tokyo 2020 it appears that I have a friend who’s actually trying to limit the damage. His name is Mathias Thomer. He’s a bit of a legend in France and for almost twenty years he and his crew have been running what’s widely considered the best indoor skatepark in the country: Cosanostra. He’s even got a sock company that somehow puts out banging videos with Rémy Taveira and Oscar Candon.
But can the damage actually be limited? And why bother? What’s in it for him? What about for skateboarding as a whole? Could he have slightly lost his mind? In an attempt to answer all these questions and make a bit more sense of this whole Olympic mess we caught with Mathias: the recently appointed French National Skateboarding Team coach.
Can you start off by explaining what exactly your role is with regards to the Olympics?
Mathias Thomer: I’m one of the three coaches of the French National Skateboarding Team. Morgan Fabre and Alexis Jauzion are the other two. There’s also a manager/head coach called Florent Balesta that supervises the whole thing.
How did you end up with this position?
I think it’s because of what I’ve done with the development of Cosanostra Skatepark and the fact that I’ve been teaching skate classes since 1999… Five years ago I also helped develop a French skate school and registered it with the National Federation of Skateboarding.
What do these skate classes consist of then?
We aren’t training kids to be the best skateboarders in the world, we’re basically just teaching them how to progress and keep having fun.
Why do they need classes for this?
Fifteen to twenty years ago it was easier for parents to just let their kids roam free in the streets and learn to skate there. Nowadays parents of kids that want to start skating from a very young age need this to be reassured. For some of the younger ones these ‘lessons’ aren’t even to actually be taught stuff, it’s just to have the skatepark to themselves since they are so much younger than the guys that use it during the normal hours. It’s also a way of skating without having their parents watching over them… But then yeah you do also have kids that are there to get better and to take part in contests and stuff. It’s a mix.
Okay… But how do you go from that to being a coach for the French National Team? Like who appointed you?
That’s the manager/head coach. He picks the three coaches and has the last call on who makes it onto the National Team. He found out in August 2016 that skateboarding was going to be in the Olympics and that he had to have a team set up with coaches, etc. by December. It all happened very fast.
I still don’t quite understand… Who did he have to present this team to? Who picked him? I’ve never even heard of this guy. Why is it not Jérémie Daclin or someone that the whole skateboard industry knows and respects?
He was asked to do this by the French Ministry of Youth and Sports (Ministère De La Jeunesse et Des Sports) because he was in charge of the French Skateboarding Federation that was already set up before the Olympics were announced. That Federation was (and still is) the only official skateboarding organisation to be recognised by the state. That’s why they took the lead on this. The Ministry contacted the French Federation of Roller Sports (and skateboarding) asking whom they wanted as their skateboarding representative and they picked this person. He’s been doing tons of stuff to help popularise skateboarding in France and make it more accessible.
Organising the French National Championships, creating the French Skateboarding School…
He’s also got the necessary state qualifications for this.
So are you guys paid by the state to do this?
Not exactly… We receive money from the French Skateboarding Federation to subsidise the trips we do.
So you don’t have a salary to do this?
No. If we take the French Team to a World Cup like we just did in Montreal then we’ll get money for that, but we don’t receive a salary. Or if we organise a five-day training session at a skatepark or a particular spot then I’ll also get paid for that.
Wait a second… Training sessions? What do these consist of?
It’s basically all the boys and girls from this potential French Team that get together to focus on one element of skating that will be needed to compete.
So for instance you’d meet up somewhere with loads of handrail spots and just practise skating them for a week?
Yeah. But we’re smart about it. Say if we know there’s a certain type of handrail at the Street League Barcelona course that’s also in a skatepark in France we’d just go to the one in France to practise, as it’s cheaper and easier. It isn’t that different from what you do normally in skating: lots of people practise on a spot similar to the one where they want to get something, it’s normal. And it particularly makes sense when you know they’ll probably only have fifteen minutes of practise before the comp and a million other people skating it…
Kind of like practising a trick until you’ve got it every go because you know you don’t have long at the spot where you want to do it… And what exactly does the ‘coaching’ you do consist of?
It consists of helping the skaters in building their runs for contests, taking into account their abilities, the course, the judges, etc.
Why the judges? Aren’t they supposed to be objective? Why should who they are matter?
At certain World Cup contests you have people like Pat Duffy judging the comps. You know how the guy skates and what he likes so it gives you a hint of what kind of tricks he’ll like to see…
Then there’s also the fact that since these guys can do so many tricks it’s sometimes hard for them to select the most impressive/best ones. As coaches we’re coming from a more objective standpoint, which helps with this. ‘Maybe you should include this trick I saw you do during practice as opposed to that one because it’s better for keeping your speed or you have a better style when you do that one…’ Stuff like that.
That being said, skaters are not robots and at the end of the day what they do comes down to them; sometimes they don’t take our advice because they aren’t feeling it and that’s completely fine. It’s not like the skater is a puppet and I’m the puppet master pulling the strings, it’s more about exchanging ideas with someone about how to put together the best possible run.
Okay but what you’re describing now is how you’re training them for contests that lead to the Olympics. What about when it’ll actually be the Olympics? What do we know about them at this point?
Before I answer that question I’d like to give you a bit of context about the situation in France. In France sports are regulated by the French Ministry of Youth and Sports – so by the state. This means that when a sport becomes Olympic they start giving special ‘statuses’ to some of the top athletes in that discipline. It’s called the Statut De Sportif De Haut Niveau (basically an elite athlete status). This gives you access to a special form of financial and healthcare support/protection from the state.
What kind of financial protection/support?
The main thing is that the state can secure you a flexible employment with some of the companies they have close ties with like La Poste (the French Royal Mail) or EDF/GDF (the French gas and energy companies) so that you can work whilst still going on all the sport related trips you need to attend. In the context of skating what it basically means is that you’d be able to go on skate trips and still get paid from your job as if you were taking it as paid holiday but it wouldn’t count as holiday. The state would be compensating your employer for the days that you have to be away from work to skate and you’d still get paid. There’s also something in place so that you contribute to your pension with a bonus… Basically it’s an ideal situation. This special status doesn’t last forever though, every year you have to re-apply for it and you’ll only get it if it’s justified.
Who decides if it’s justified?
The head coach… He has to submit a list every year…
Based on what criteria?
He picks the criteria, but it’ll be taking into account national and international contest results.
So you couldn’t have someone on the French team with this status if they don’t do contests?
In theory we could because we pick the criteria but we’d then have to explain to representatives of the state why we picked say Lucas Puig.
(The French National Skateboarding Team is Robin Bolian, Aurélien Giraud, Vincent Milou, Joseph Garbaccio, Vincent Matheron, Tim Debauche, Noah Mahieu and Hugo Westrelin.)
Which leads me to a question I’ve been dying to ask: Why have you have chosen these guys for the French National Team and this potential preferential status that comes with it? Why pick mostly people that are barely ever in videos or magazines, guys most of us have never heard of, over someone like Lucas Puig who’s considered one of the greatest skaters of all time?
Well for one the skater has to agree to participate…
Have you asked Lucas? Or Flo Mirtain? Or Rémy Taveira? Imagine if that was the French National Team!
We haven’t, but would what we’re offering be suitable for these guys? I could ask them; I’ve known Rémy since he was a kid, he grew up skating Cosanostra. Same for Flo and Lucas, they both took part in the Teenage Tour contests we organised there when they were younger (Editor’s note: The Teenage Tour was a nationwide series of under eighteen contests that helped discover most of the Frenchies you regularly see in the pages of this magazine. It also involved getting countless American teams: Girl, Emerica, Foundation… to come and do demos all over the country). In fact that’s where Lucas first blew up… But would they be willing to play ball? Would they be willing to take part in all the qualifying World Cup events? And even if they were, would they be able to ‘perform’ in that context? Skating in front of a huge crowd and having to land every trick is obviously not the same as filming a part.
So an Olympic team consisting of the French skaters the whole world loves to watch, the ones we’re the most proud of, is impossible? Does it have to be about winning?
We have to justify our team selection criteria to the French Ministry of Youth and Sports and they’ll be looking at whether or not this criteria is enabling us to pick the guys most likely to win medals. So yeah I can’t really see how it could not be…
But for most of us skateboarding isn’t about winning. What if we tricked them and didn’t go to win medals? Instead we had the most stylish team of all time, full of actual French legends, it could have a massive impact in a very different way…
Let me take the USA’s Olympic Basketball Team as an example. In the 1980s Americans didn’t care about the Olympics, they’d send out people from the University teams. It wasn’t until 1992 that they managed to put together a ‘Dream Team’ that actually reflected the prominence of the sport in that country. But why did Michael Jordan accept to play on that Olympic team in 1992? Because he’d already played in the 1984 Olympics back when he was just playing for a University team and nobody knew him. This ‘Dream Team’ came together relatively organically…
Before approaching the Rémys and the Flos we want to have something solid in place. It’s hard to make it appealing to them before having given it a proper shot. Plus given we’ve only existed for a year and that we’ve been asked by the French Ministry of Youth and Sports to pick the guys that are the most likely to win medals, we’d have a hard time justifying the criteria that led to us picking a bunch of dudes that never do comps.
You can’t just tell them ‘we chose this guy Lucas because he has a mean switch back tail’ since they don’t skate and you’re only just starting to set all this up… I get it.
You also need to keep in mind that only twenty skaters will make it to the ‘street’ contest in the Olympics. That’s four per continent. Only four Europeans will take part in the street skating event at the Olympics.
How are these four chosen then?
It’ll be either the top four Europeans in a Street League style qualifying contest that should take place in 2019 or the top four from an overall ranking from the WCF (World Cup Skateboarding) circuit that same year.
So even if we did get Rémy, Lucas, etc. they’d have to spend a year doing all these WCS comps in hope of being amongst the top four, which (given they’re already on the road with their sponsors all year round) just wouldn’t happen. The guys we’ve picked that actually skate comps (like Aurélien Giraud) might not even make it in there. The whole of Europe now knows that this is how it’s going to go down and every country is like us, trying to figure out the best way to approach it.
And we’re still figuring it out. We’ve chosen to work with the top guys who are already doing these WCS comps because it seemed like the most objective/neutral way of deciding but that doesn’t mean nobody else is welcome. If someone who doesn’t usually do this sort of thing gets in contact with us and wants to give it a shot for a year we’d be down.
There’s also going to be a bowl category with a contest based on the Vans Park Series right?
In theory yes… It’s what the Skatepark Of Tampa dudes, Neal Hendrix and a bunch of people are fighting for with the Olympic Committee. What happened is when the Olympic Committee announced that they wanted skateboarding in there, the FIRS (basically the Roller Sports Federation) said ‘we’re skating, let us decide how it should be’ and that’s what all those guys, the actual skateboarders stood up against. They’re the ones that are making sure skateboarding is represented properly and that we don’t end up with slaloming or something. And it wasn’t easy, it took about three years to convince the Olympic Committee that these had to be the formats… They didn’t want to be in the same situation as snowboarders with the skiing federation running their shit.
Do you think contests like Street League or the Vans Park Series are a good representation of skateboarding then? I can’t help but dream of a world in which skateboarding would be represented like it is in the Dime Challenge at the Olympics.
They obviously aren’t perfect in every aspect but given how hard it was to get to them to accept them I think you have to be realistic. Also every skater in the world can find some stairs or a rail in his town. That format is universal; it reflects what people actually skate. It’s the same with the Vans Park Series format. Yes it’s a bowl, but it’s not ridiculously deep/gnarly, it’s on a similar scale to what they have in a lot of skateparks around the world. It’s not a mega-ramp. It’s accessible. It’s easy for countries to find people to be potential contenders for these formats.
Are other countries in Europe already getting geared up for this in the same way that you guys are?
Of course! In Spain Alain Goikoetxea is leading the whole thing, in Germany I think Jan Kliewer is on it, every country in Europe is getting their shit together. In France we’re lucky because we had something relatively good already in place but in some countries they don’t have a federation, or if they do it’s a longboard one or something so they have to start from scratch.
Are any non-skating factors taken into account when you are deciding whom you want on the team? If there’s a skater that kills it at these comps but smokes loads or weed, will you be less inclined to pick him?
No, we just let them take responsibility for their actions when it comes to that. Everyone knows you won’t get away with smoking weed so it’s pretty straightforward. In fact I’m not worried about that stuff at all. On the other hand what I am worried about is the stuff that goes into the everyday medication some of these guys might take for let’s say asthma, or painkillers or whatever. They’re so insanely strict with what you can or can’t take and there’s such an extensive list of prohibited substances that it’s really hard not to let anything slip through the cracks. I can’t see skateboarders checking what they buy from a pharmacy if they sprain their ankle as thoroughly as other athletes… You can get caught out with certain kinds of cough syrup for instance! That’s why I’m not really worried about the smoking weed thing. They know that they can’t do it so it’s easy in comparison to everything else that needs watching out for.
Will there be a standardised uniform or will skaters be allowed to wear what they want?
It’ll be kind of like tennis where the athletes will be allowed to choose everything that affects their performance. So in skating this means obviously the board and the shoes but also possibly the clothing.
They will have to wear their country’s official kit for the opening ceremony when they walk onto the pitch though…
So dudes will be able to wear their sponsor’s gear?
I think so yes as long as they aren’t covered in big logos; it’ll have to be plain.
So unlike the contests they’ll be based on, there won’t be horrible energy drink logos all over the place… Interesting.
Yeah but they’ll have shoes, boards, etc. from their sponsors so it’ll still be good for them and the brand. It just won’t look like the Tour De France. Another thing that’s worth noting is that it looks like these guys won’t have to wear a helmet…
How will these comps be judged? Will it be the same criteria as SLS and VPS?
Same sort of thing yeah… The idea is that the criteria has to be as clear as possible so that it’s easy for skaters to understand what they have to take into account to do well, and easy for people who’ll be catching it on TV to understand what’s going on. The goal for all these guys negotiating with the Olympic Committee (Skatepark Of Tampa, etc.) is that the kid watching it in the middle of nowhere understands what skateboarding is, sees that it’s accessible and is excited enough by what he sees to want to do it himself. That’s why it’s judged on height, technique, style, the risk factor, etc.
Style’s an interesting one in this context…
Yeah, it’s really tricky. What exactly do you look at when you’re judging style? We know that Rémy Taveira and Lucas Puig have very different styles but they are both considered to have good styles. Let’s imagine style was to count for 40% of the overall mark, a lot of the training we’d provide would have to be around that; we’d have to get them to work on their styles.
And how do you teach someone to have a better style? Do you sit them down and make them analyse JB (Gillet) parts?
That’s exactly what you do. You educate them. Obviously Aurélien Giraud can pretty much do every trick there is but what we can do is help him figure out the best place to do a given trick, show him the origins of certain tricks in hope of helping him understand how they can be done differently, show him some legendary examples of that trick, etc. This has to be done gently though; we don’t sit them down and say forget everything you know and copy this.
Did you hesitate at all before accepting to take on this role?
No I didn’t hesitate because I work at a skatepark and I know how all this is going to be good for skateboarding in the long run. With skateboarding being in the Olympics under the Street League format next time some clueless council tries to waste their money on crappy metal ramps the French Skateboarding Federation will be able to step in and tell them ‘no, this doesn’t reflect the current needs of skateboarders’ and show the course they use for the Olympics as evidence. Also skateboarding is an Olympic sport. Roller Blading, Scooters, etc. aren’t. It’ll be easier to explain that we aren’t the same thing and that the spaces we need have to be skateboard specific, not for multi-use. That’s why the fact that BMXing is also coming into the Olympics is a true blessing. Their BMX park will look nothing like the skateparks we’ll have, which means that people will no longer be able to get away with making parks that are meant for both.
Okay I see how this will be good for skateparks but what about for actual street skate spots? Say for instance if the council still wanted to tear down Hôtel De Ville and we were still fighting to save it. If we used these arguments don’t you think they might say ‘your plaza is going but we’ll build you a nice Street League-style skatepark instead’ as that’s the reference they’ll have?
Not at all! On the contrary, all this would help your case. You’d be able to use the fact that they have similar ledges and banks on the course they use in the Olympics to argue it. That’s why it’s good so that it replicates the streets.
It’s still just a replica though. If we want skateboarding to stay in the streets shouldn’t that be how it’s shown in the Olympics? People kicking us out can easily say they’ve seen skateboarding in the Olympics and that they know it’s supposed to be done in those skateparks with stairs and stuff, not in the actual streets.
I don’t think the Olympics will be any more detrimental to us street skating than a big video part that blows out spots. Look at Barcelona: we didn’t need the Olympics to ruin that. The buses full of skaters, mobbing out spots and inevitably making them busts: we did that all by ourselves. I skated Barcelona in the early nineties, I saw what it was before it got blown out and believe me it really could have done without everyone in skateboarding deciding to film their video parts there.
Plus a kid that discovers skating through the Olympics will probably start skating in skateparks; we won’t see street spots flooded with beginners.
Is that a good thing though? Obviously growing up skating street teaches you a lot of stuff that growing up skating in a skatepark won’t.
I think them learning the basics there is a good thing, then they can take it to the streets. It also often reassures parents if their kids start something like this in a slightly more structured environment. And look at those skaters we named before: Rémy, Lucas, they all started skating in skateparks…
Rémy started skating in your skatepark yes, but didn’t Lucas start skating at Place Occitane in Toulouse? I could be wrong though…
Yeah but he blew up thanks to the Teenage Tour, a contest that was at Cosanostra Skatepark…
Honestly every big name skater you know has put time in at his local skatepark before taking it to the streets. If they put time in at the skatepark as kids it only means they’re even gnarlier when they take it to the streets.
I wasn’t talking about the skating itself, but about everything else you learn from growing up skating street. Spending time in the streets, where you share the space with others, you witness (and learn from) things you wouldn’t be confronted with in the contained environment of the skatepark.
Yes but it’s not because you grow up skating a skatepark that you can’t then learn all those things when you move on to the streets. That’s exactly what Rémy did: he decided that we wanted to try the tricks he learnt at the park on real spots, so he took them there and adapted. You land a trick at a spot you have to understand the ‘rules’ of the spot (traffic, pedestrians, all sorts of stuff…) and that’s when you learn the most. But I didn’t have to take him by the hand to get him to leave the park, he got to a point where that’s what he wanted and it’s the same with most people. And if they don’t make it out of the skatepark, then it’s their loss. They’ll never experience the feeling of landing a trick on a spot that feels unique.
Why do you think the Olympic Committee decided to include skateboarding in Tokyo 2020?
I think it’s mainly because skateboarding is relevant or has the potential to entice people from younger generations. The hammer throw is great but it’s the sort of thing they’ll show at three in the morning and will have a hard time getting people to watch. If you get a Street League-style contest on TV, even if it’s in the middle of the night, you’ll have a lot of people watching…
Also (and I’ve been saying this for years), skateboarding is an activity that can be done pretty much anywhere, with people, or on your own and at any given time of day or night. Something like the hammer throw you’ll be able to practise a few evenings a week and usually that’s it because you have to be in a very special environment to do it. That’s why so many people give up on traditional sports around the age of sixteen when school, Uni, work, etc. makes it impossible for them to fit it in. Skateboarders don’t have that problem, they can skate whenever they want, which is why a lot of the time skateboarders skate their whole lives. The Olympic Committee’s greatest desire is for people to do sport for extended periods of time as opposed to it being a phase, that’s why we’re so interesting for them. They want to see people active their whole lives. You need to keep in mind that originally the Olympics was a way of motivating people to do sport and exercise for military purposes. It was so they’d be strong and healthy for combat if it came to it.
Is there anything at all that worries you about all this and what it could do to skateboarding?
Let’s start by reminding ourselves that the Olympics are on for fifteen days every four years. The skate contest will probably last three hours over those fifteen days. So no, not really… We’ve seen all sorts of contests come and go, some that worried a lot of people, but skateboarding is as strong as ever. Remember when the X-Games first appeared? Everyone was convinced that they would ‘kill’ skating… We’ve had skateboarding videos games, TV shows with skateboarding (Bam, etc.) shown on TV everyday for years! This is three hours every four years.
So for you, apart from injecting money into skateboarding, it’s not going to change that much…
Basically yeah… In France we’ll be able to give skaters this special Elite Athlete Status I mentioned earlier. We’ll be able to impose standards on people building skateparks. We’ll have the Olympic card to pull out every time we need negotiating anything with officials. To people that don’t understand skateboarding it gives what we do a lot of credibility…
Athletics went through the same thing. Watch that Free To Run film, it’s all about this. In the 1950s people in America would get stopped by the police for jogging in the street because they thought it looked suspect, like they were running away from something or they had something to hide. You couldn’t just go for a run in Central Park after work; that was unheard of. Especially if you were a girl…
I see the parallel you’re making…
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Just that if it was slaloming or the mega-ramp or something at the Olympics I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. There’s good people leading this and simply the fact that we’re talking about street skating and bowl skating is already a huge step in the right direction.
And if you’re still worried just keep in mind that the chances of that three-hour contest being live on TV are pretty slim. They usually struggle to show the women’s football live on TV in France and I’m pretty sure that’s higher on the list than skateboarding.
Which is why you’re convinced that the impact it’ll have on our culture will be minimal…
Yes… And definitely outweighed by the benefits of being able to get more funding for skateparks and having the possibility of offering this Elite Athlete Status to support skateboarders in their careers.
You know all this stuff with the Olympics reminds me about when people were hating on the Teenage Tour. I got ripped apart for backing it. Now looking back on it, think of how many big French skaters came out of that thing… Lucas Puig, Steph Khou from Hélas, Flo Mirtain, Rémy Taveira, Joseph Biais… I’m convinced the Olympics will open a lot of doors for us, we just need to make sure we stay as true to our values as much as we possibly can.