Fabiola da Silva

Inline Skating Is Facing an Uphill Climb

Where the sky was once the limit for inline skating, a drop in participation has caught the attention of pioneers such as Brazil's Fabiola da Silva.
Where the sky was once the limit for inline skating, a drop in participation has caught the attention of pioneers such as Brazil's Fabiola da Silva. (By Harry How -- Getty Images)
By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

In the glory days, aggressive inline skating joined BMX and skateboarding to form the triumvirate of action sports that would bridge the all-important gap into mainstream culture.

When ESPN's X Games debuted in 1995, seven inline skating events dotted the competition schedule. Pro skaters had their choice of two world tours, both with major network television deals. Millions of dollars flowed into the sport from sponsors and manufacturers hoping to cash in on the next big thing.

And the sport had its golden girl, Brazil's Fabiola da Silva, who with a combination of looks, talent and charisma went from skating the streets of Sao Paulo to dominating the world's best in front of millions watching at home.

But a little more than a decade later, the sport finds itself at a crossroads, with participation numbers in a steady decline for several years and the pipeline of dollars all but shut down.

"The industry is down a lot," said da Silva, still competing at age 27. "I know we're not in the best position."

Despite what the numbers say, da Silva is one of a handful of the remaining touring pros who believes aggressive inline skating -- or stunt and trick skating -- can thrive again.

"If the athletes don't give up and keep pushing themselves, we still have a chance," said da Silva, who thinks the key rests in the sport's stars paying more attention toward promotion.

But others believe the sport's time has passed -- for good.

"With the action sports, there are spikes and valleys," said Chris Stiepock, general manager of the X Games. "I don't see that happening with this."

Experts hesitate to pinpoint an exact reason for the decline in interest, though they say saturation of the action sports market has played a role.

Stiepock noticed the first signs in 2001, when X Games organizers started having major problems attracting enough good competitors. When the X Games return this summer, it will be without a single inline skating event for the first time in its 11-year history.

At its peak in 1998, 32 million Americans participated in all forms of inline skating, according to the Sports Goods Manufacturers Association. In 1995, inline skating boomed to become a $725 million industry. But participation numbers have declined to 16.5 million in 2005.

Nevertheless, da Silva, who used inline skating to vault herself onto the national spotlight, continues her fight to get her foundering sport back on the map.

"We've got to keep working," da Silva said. "Being a professional athlete is not just about being a great skater. There are all these other responsibilities. You've got to promote this sport the best you can."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company