Skateboarder Bob Burnquist is standing on Rio’s sun-baked Copacabana Beach drinking from a ripe, green coconut. Having finished off its milky liquor, he slices it open effortlessly and eats the soft white flesh within. It’s clear he’s done this before. As he goes to throw it away, locals spot him and shout over to say hello.
This is a man loved by the people here, possibly everywhere in Brazil.
“I had this old lady ask me to sign her book… it was neat. It told me how someone who doesn’t skate can still be proud of what I’ve done and of how I represent Brazil.”
It comes as no surprise. Burnquist, a local boy born in Rio, is now one of the world’s most recognisable skateboarders. This is the man who, after Tony Hawk of course, was the first to be immortalised in the legendary skateboarding computer game that helped introduce the sport to millions.
Speaking to Burnquist in the shadow of Copacabana Beach on this occasion, however, he was introducing Laureus to Rio itself as the 2013 Laureus World Sports Awards Ceremony travelled to South America for the first time last month.
And being a Rio native, not to mention a Laureus Award Winner, he was the perfect person to show the great city to Academy Members Mark Spitz and Daley Thompson.
In 2002, his skateboarding achievements led to him being named a Laureus World Sports Award winner, an achievement he cherishes to this day.
He recollects: “I was sitting there watching and all of a sudden [Michael] Jordan goes to present the award and says my name. I thought he was just naming the Nominees again. I just thought: ‘No way!’
“It was a big honour, as a Brazilian, as a skateboarder. It was like a symbolic passing of traditional sport, welcoming this new world and I felt honoured to be part of that.”
His memories from the Monaco Ceremony in 2002 say much about Burnquist’s passion for his sport, a passion that is closely linked to his belief in skate boarding’s social and cultural importance.
“Skateboarding had a really bad rap [in my youth]. People would tell kids: ‘No, you’re not going skating, that stuff’s for delinquents’. Now we’re in a completely different time… that’s a huge plus for skateboarding.”
And as far as Burnquist is concerned the importance of this goes much further than for the benefit of pro skate boarding alone. He believes the sport can be a source of great help to young people growing up.
“It empowers you. It gives confidence and security in yourself and that makes you a better team player… it’s taught me so much to try and get up when you fall… you don’t need to see failure as such a depressing thing. It’s a passing thing, you can let it go… I learnt those lessons at a young age.”
This, Burnquist is convinced, extends further toward skateboarding’s ability to bring people together.
He says: “It’s an individual sport, but as a collective. Because it’s you and your board, but you’re not alone… once you skate with someone you’ve almost gone into battle with them. With them, not against them. You’re getting hurt, going through pain… in a couple of hours, you may have just met someone, but he’s already more of a friend than anyone else because of that quick interaction… it’s so deep and bonding.”
Burnquist’s belief that sport can bring people together is a philosophy entirely in tune with the Laureus Sport for Good message. And he also agrees that sport can be much more nurturing of young people than just physically. In fact, he believes skateboarding can teach children a lot about creativity.
“When I’m asked ‘What are you going to do today’ I often just don’t know… A lot of the time I’ll start something and it will evolve into something else… it’s a lot like writing a song. I could be lying in bed and a trick comes to mind and I’ll have to write it down so it doesn’t get forgotten. Those things that come to mind, those new things, that’s creative.
“And what I like is that it transcends money or class. Sport does that and it’s so cool.”
Burnquist now holds dual Brazilian and US nationality and, thanks in part to starring in one of the world’s most famous sport computer games, has come a long way since he first started skating as a boy.
“That video game character and game brought skateboarding into people’s homes, parents playing with kids. And that’s another reason Brazilians know me, I was the Brazilian character so they all fought to play me. That connected people [to me] a lot.”
Seeing his connection to local Brazilians on Copacabana beach is a touching reminder of how the Laureus Award winner has become a great ambassador for his sport. And it is something he clearly appreciates.
“Back in the early days: 1999, 2000, I’d think: ‘How can this keep going…’
“But here I am in 2013, still going. I just feel so blessed, every year.”
And going by how many fans greet him on the streets of Rio, it’s clear how happy they are to see his continuing success as well.