The secret skateboarders who defied Norway's 11-year ban

image copyrightThinkstock

For 11 years in the 1970s and 1980s skateboarding was banned in Norway. A few hardcore devotees flouted the law and skated in secret, but the country's skateboarders say they are still a long way behind and have a lot of catching up to do, reports Chris Stokel-Walker.

Henning Braaten was nine years old and wanted only one thing from his parents - a skateboard. As he sat in his house in late 1988, he could see his next-door neighbour whizzing around a skate park he had made in the back garden, complete with a quarter pipe propped against the wall of the house.

But Braaten had a problem. For the previous decade skateboarding had been banned in Norway, and widely condemned as a public menace.

Not long after skateboards first went on sale in Norway, officials noted that American children were getting hurt after colliding with traffic - 28 had died in 1977 and 100,000 had been injured. So a prohibition was announced, which came into force on 15 September 1978.

"The Environment Ministry said protecting children is more important than letting big business make money," reported United Press International's Oslo bureau.

"Importing skateboards, selling them or advertising the American sidewalk sport also are banned under the new law."

Braaten had no access to the underground smuggling network that supplied skaters with their boards, so for a while he had to go without.

Joakim Henrik Wang was luckier.

image copyrightJoakim Wang
image captionSkateboarding in the summer of 1987

When he was a teenager he went to a second-hand fair organised by his school in 1984. Wandering between the tables, Wang came across a cheap plastic board known by skateboarders as a banana board - long and very basic - on sale for 10 or 20 krone (in the region of £1 or $1.50 in today's money).

"It was one of these old 1970s boards with no grip tape," he says. "I didn't know it was banned when I bought this first board."

The wheels were basic - taken from roller-skates and attached to the board - but Wang quickly became an enthusiast.

"We obviously knew it was illegal," he says, recalling some difficult conversations with his father. "I think my father never looked at it like it was a sport." At the time, many adults viewed it as not only illegal, but anti-social.

Fortunately, Wang had relatives in Germany. There, skating wasn't banned. There were many skateparks, and even more skate shops. In Oslo, there was just one place, in an area frequented by punk-rockers, where you could buy a board - but no wheels.

image copyrightAnders Wittusen
image captionSkateboarders had to improvise during the prohibition years

"I remember the tension of stepping off the boat in Norway with two boards strapped to your back or tucked away in your suitcase, hoping you wouldn't get pulled to one side by customs," Wang remembers.

"I had endless discussions with my father about smuggling the stuff."

He still feels exasperated, 30 years later, with the politicians who introduced the ban.

"We thought it was bullshit that it was illegal," he says.

"I think it's partly if you don't understand it, and you can't control it, you want to ban it. It's a really basic human reaction."

The prohibition was not absolute, however, and allowed the possibility of exemptions. "Exemptions will only be granted to a limited extent and for special purposes," it stated.

A single skatepark in Oslo, Norway's capital, was allowed. It was a place skaters could visit in peace, without fear of arrest - though they might get questioned by police on the way there.

image copyrightNORB
image captionFrognerparken in Oslo the only legal skatepark in Norway during the years of the ban

"You had to walk around with your membership card for the Oslo club. I have to have this piece of paper in my back pocket to prove I was part of the club which had the only legal ramp? Not even North Korea has banned skateboarding."

For those outside Oslo, subterfuge was required.

image copyrightAnders Wittusen

In cities across Norway, skaters set up their own parks and pipes made of plywood and planks. Some were small and hastily-built, while others were well-crafted. Most were tucked into copses or deep in the undergrowth, off the beaten path.

Wang was arrested twice. The first time was in his hometown, when he was seen skating near the local train station. "My dad had to come and bail me out," he recounts. "You don't have to do that if your kid plays football, do you?"

The second time was in Oslo, when Wang was walking with a friend in the city centre. The police didn't believe the pair had been skating at the legal ramp in the city; they were taken into custody, and spent the night in a cell.

As the end of the 1980s approached, enforcement of the ban gradually relaxed. "Around 1987 it kind of changed," says Wang. "They mellowed out. They realised the ban was coming to an end and didn't crack down as bad."

When it eventually was lifted in 1989, skateboards flooded the market. Skateparks sprang up across the country in the early 1990s. Brands got in on the craze, tying their products to skateboarding. One of the country's major magazine publishers, better known for celebrity gossip publications, even started printing a skateboarding magazine.

image copyrightJoakin Wang
image captionLarge numbers of skateparks were built in the 1990s after the ban was lifted

"It was almost an overdose of things going on," recalls Wang.

So what did Norway's decade-long ban achieve? Not a lot of positives, according to those who skate.

"I think a lot of countries are 10 years ahead of us now," says Per Olav Hetland, president of the Norsk Organisasjon For Rullebrett (NORB), a lobbying group and body for skateboarders in Norway.

image copyrightNORB
image captionPer Olav, president of NORB

He himself started skating only after the ban, as a teenager in 1995.

"In every other country, the people who started skating in the 1980s continued and developed a culture before us," he says. "In Norway, they simply aren't there. Only a few people continued."

It was not just the ban on skateparks that had a lasting effect, but the lack of magazines, videos and organised classes.

"We didn't really know much about skateboarding apart from the flying skateboard in Back to the Future," says Henning Braaten, now 36, a professional skateboarder, and four-time Norwegian champion.

"Suddenly when the ban was lifted and importers starting getting skateboards, they also got videos from the United States and there was a quick learning curve when you see what's possible."

Braaten now spends some of his time lobbying for the creation of new skateparks, and finds that attitudes among officials are still coloured by the campaign of the 1980s.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionSnow-covered skatepark in Longyearbyen, Norway

"They question the whole culture and ask when are you going to grow out of this," says Braaten.

"I don't think they can see how big it is and how good it can be to have a skatepark that will take care of the youth.

"A lot of my work has been going to communes and talking to the mayor and trying to convince them that no, we're not rebels any more. We're just people trying to do our sport. I still get the same questions all the time. There's quite a long way to go, still."

Until 2013, funding from the state lottery was disbursed to skateparks at a much lower level than other sporting facilities like football stadiums or ice rinks. That has now changed, but Norway still lags behind some other countries.

Basically every big city in Sweden has a skatepark," says Per Olav Hetland. "But not every big city in Norway does."

But Norway's skateboarders are catching up with the rest of the world. In late February, Oslo held a version of the X Games, a global extreme sport competition. Alongside skiing and snowboarding competitions, a street skating contest was held, and Norway's Hermann Stene finished 10th out of 12 competitors. It was a momentous occasion.

image copyrightVegard Wivestad Grott
image captionNorway hosted the X Games, a global extreme sport competition, in February

For Mats Hatlem a 15-year-old skateboarder born after the turn of the millennium, skateboarding the era of the ban already seems like another world.

"To me, this sounds crazy," he says.

"Driving a car is just as dangerous, if not way more. Why skateboarding was banned is something I find quite weird."

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