What a long strange trip it’s been for the inline skate.
It all started nearly 250 years ago, with a prodigious inventor, musician, and mechanic named John Joseph Merlin. Merlin relocated from Belgium to London in 1760, where he opened a museum and rubbed elbows with Samuel Johnson and Johann Sebastian Bach. Merlin invented the first pair of inline skates, and used them as a publicity tool, attracting curious Londoners to his museum of musical and mechanical wonders.
A news story of the time illustrates one unfortunate incident involving Merlin and his inline skates:
One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skates contrived to run on small metallic wheels. Supplied with a pair of skates and a violin he mixed in the motley group of one of the celebrated Mrs. Corneily’s masquerades at Carlisle House, Soho Square; when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity or commanding his direction, he impelled himself against a mirror of more than 500 Pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself severely.
Jump forward to 1979, the year two brothers, Brennan and Scott Olson, gave the inline skate a facelift. They called it the Rollerblade. This updated version of the inline skate included a rubber heel brake, and was designed primarily for off-ice hockey and ski training. But the Olsons saw the market potential and sold the Rollerblade company in 1984. The rest is history. Rollerblades became so popular they became a brandnomer for any in-line skate—you didn’t inline skate, you went rollerblading.
But popularity of inline skating has declined steeply since the late-1990’s. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association (SGMA) inline skate usage has dropped nearly 50% from 2000 to 2008.
So what exactly killed the Rollerblade?
The answer to this question seems patently obvious. Rollerblading was a heavily-marketed fad, iconic of the 1980’s. Images of neon-colored Spandex, clunky safety pads, and “extreme” Sunny Delight commercials come to mind. Of more recent vintage: Napoleon Dynamite pulling his Rollerblade-clad brother Kip into town with his ten-speed bicycle. Rollerblading has fallen so out of vogue it hurts.
Hockey may have something to do with inline skating’s common neurosis. Homophobia and racism has plagued hockey for most of its professional existence. NHL great Gordie Howe once famously remarked that hockey was “a man’s game.”
Inline skating is essentially the hybrid of ice skating and roller skating—two sports that have been ridiculed for their overt femininity.
In a recently published USA Today column, former minor-league hockey player Justin Bourne writes about the need for hockey culture to address its insecurities. Bourne, who played briefly in the New York Islanders system, regrets his silence in the presence of homophobia in the locker room.
“The lack of a homosexual presence in hockey must mean one of two things,” Bourne writes, “either homosexual men don’t play the game or they don’t feel comfortable admitting it.”
But homophobia thrives in inline skating too. Particularly, in the extreme sport of aggressive inline skating. (Notice the use of the adjective aggressive to further distance the sport from any homoerotic connotations.) Pro in-line skater and openly gay athlete Ryan Carillo experienced verbal and physical threats that eventually drove him out of professional competition. “I intimidate some them because I am not shy about my sexuality,” Carillo said in a 2003 interview with Genre magazine.
Did homophobia the kill the Rollerblade?
When I think about the death of inline skating the Hanson brothers come to mind. Not the three bespectacled bruisers from Slap Shot—but the pop band from Tulsa.
In the video for their massive hit “MMMBop” the three golden-haired Hansons are shown hamming it up in Los Angeles. Included, are several clips of Hanson rollerblading around an L.A. strip mall. Lest we forget: 1997 is the same year Limp Bizkit released their testosterone-soaked rap-metal debut Three Dollar Bill, Yall$. The late-90’s were no time for any self-respecting male teenager to be caught rollerblading or listening to Hanson.
The arrival of Hanson momentarily ruined my teenage life. I had long blond hair and played in a band. “MMMBop” appeared, and—as a matter of survival—I begrudgingly cut my hair. Three years after Pavement warned me not to. You can’t win them all.
Nevertheless, Hanson never bothered me too much, and neither did inline skating. In my younger teens, inline skating was an incredibly efficient travel option. The skates themselves required little maintenance. I played a lot of roller hockey, and preferred inline skating to bicycling because I didn’t have to worry about chains and gears and flat tires. I retired my inline skates sometime before I acquired a driver’s license. Little did I know how stressful dealing with car repair would someday be.
So it’s 2009. Homophobia is as revered as Fred Durst. Are Americans ready for the return on the inline skate?
Probably not. According to the SGMA the core group of inline skaters remains a low figure, at 1.9 million. Compare that to the 76.8 million Americans walking and the 29 million using treadmills. It would take some miracle of marketing for the inline skate to be considered anything but completely embarrassing.
Still, there seems to be no more opportune time for inline skating to rise from the ashes. In the next fifty years or so, America will not be able to sustain its automobile-centric communities. We’ll have to be on our feet more often. Why not strap on wheels and speed up the process?
Imagine that: Instead of apocalyptic images of smoldering rubble and leather-clad brutes battling each other for gasoline, picture millions of Americans strapping wheels to their feet and zipping around like it’s 1989. Either way you look at it, it’s kinda gay.
Sound silly? A little embarrassing? Maybe. But we’ve all got face our fears some time.