More than any other extreme sport, downhill skateboarding relies on the cooperation of a range of stakeholders to make it viable. Surfers have the waves pretty much to themselves. Skydivers have, well, the sky. Downhill bombers? They need roads.
Cyclists and joggers are accepted by motorists; skaters are not. And in a country like South Africa, where recognition of the sport is low and skating on public roads is illegal, skaters need to work twice as hard to indulge their passion in a manner that is both safe and accepted.
“You get a lot of flak from drivers and cops,” says Murray-Roberts, chairperson of SAGRA (South African Gravity Racers Association). “I know people who’ve been fined R1000 for skating on the road. But there are bylaws that are being changed to allow for non-motorised transport, and the Western Cape government are actually quite open to it. But, as it stands, it is still illegal.”
Matters came to ahead three years ago with the infamous Kloof Nek Bomber incident, when downhill skater Decio Lourenco triggered a speed camera by apparently hitting 110km/h down Kloof Nek road, a busy descent into the Cape Town city centre.
The public outcry could be heard from the top of Table Mountain. What if he crashed into a car? (It was at 5am, and he had spotters ready to wave down vehicles.) Do these kids have a death wish? (He was wearing a helmet.) Where does it end? (Not here, not now.)
Murray-Roberts acknowledges the public’s concerns, but puts them in perspective. The Kloof Nek Bomber was an extreme case. Most downhill skaters don’t reach those sorts of speeds, and they don’t use busy roads. But there will be some injuries.
“Look, accidents do happen, and they always will,” says Murray-Roberts. “At the end of the day, it’s an extreme sport. Kids fall down, the parents freak out, they want to blame someone. But you don’t start downhill skating thinking you’re never going to get hurt. As for sharing the road, I don’t have an answer. We, as skaters, don’t have a dedicated place where we can skate in absolute safety.
“We take every precaution that we can possibly take. You just don’t skate without a helmet. You’re taught that as you enter the community. So if a 14-year-old kid sees his friend skate without a helmet, he’ll find that problematic. Which is a really good thing. It’s ingrained into them from the get-go.”
Under the harsh glare of the public scrutiny that followed the Kloof Nek Bomber incident, rather than take up a defensive position or shy away from the attention, SAGRA took the opportunity to educate the public and start a conversation with the authorities that is still ongoing today.
“We made it because of the controversy and bad press,” says Murray-Roberts. “People were calling into radio stations and asking how skaters would they stop if they suddenly needed to. So we used the example of a cyclist and the fact that cycling was acceptable and proved that the stopping capabilities of a skater and a cyclist were more or less the same.”
Today, skating is one of the modes of transport recognised in the Non-Motorised Transport in the Western Cape Strategy draft document, which seeks to “increase mobility and access to opportunities” for cyclists and pedestrians.
SAGRA is also in the process of registering with SASCOC [South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee], which is an affiliate of the International Olympic Committee.
This would make it a legitimate, sanctioned sport in South Africa, with the potential for national colours to be earned at races and, perhaps more importantly, acceptance from the general public who remain reluctant to share their roads.
As far as Murray-Roberts is concerned, making downhill skating a legitimate sport is inevitable and can’t happen soon enough. “It will result in the sport becoming safer,” she says. “Skating is growing. No point in trying to shut everybody down – that’s not going to work. So instead of trying to fight it, why not find ways to work together? To co-exist.”
It’s time to share the road, folks.