Olympic Aspirations

Aug. 11, 2009, 10:03 a.m. (ET)

Derek Parra was surfing channels last fall when he stopped on one of the numerous detective shows available on TV.

The show opened up in a roller disco. At the beginning of the episode, the young girl was having a blast, skating around cones on the four-wheeled disco skates with her friends.

Then, as Parra recalled, the boyfriend asked her, “Hey, are you excited? They say roller skating is going to get into the Olympics!”

The scene was dated 1975.

“Everybody thought it would be the next sport,” said Parra, a former roller speed skating world champion. “Getting into the sport at my age, 14, in 1984, there was always talk about getting the sport in the Olympics. ... You are hoping that it comes true, and it never did.”

The sport has changed since the roller discos of 1975, and even since Parra began in 1984. Yet roller sports—in some capacity—is still vying for inclusion into the Olympics.

FIRS, the international governing body for roller sports, submitted a proposal to include 10 inline speedskating events (five men, five women) into the 2016 Olympic Games, although it is open to alternatives.

“Whatever it would take to get out foot in the door,” Parra said.

Now roller sports have a viable shot to get into the 2016 Olympic Games.

“We feel like we have a really good shot,” Parra said. “We’re really positive about the possibility of being included.”

FIRS brought Parra on to the Olympic bid team last winter because of his experience as a highly accomplished roller skater and an Olympic medalist—although the former was in a different sport.

Now 39, Parra would be far too old to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games if the IOC selects roller sports as one of the newest sports in the Games. But when Parra was 26—and the most decorated athlete in the sport with 18 world championships and two world records—he saw his window for Olympic gold in roller sports closing and switched to speedskating on ice.

A “clerical” error kept him out of the 1998 Nagano Olympics, but four years later Parra won a gold and silver medal at the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympic Games, setting a world record in the 1,500 and an American record in the 5,000 meters along the way.

“I might have stood on the podium as a speedskater,” Parra said. “But in my heart I am always a roller skater.”

Parra joined a delegation from roller sports in June in Lausanne, Switzerland, to present the sport’s bid to the IOC executive board. The group showed IOC members five short promotional videos and made a 20-minute presentation before an active Q&A session with IOC members.

“One of our biggest selling points was that we have the numbers,” Parra said. “It’s an economical sport, a means of transportation, a youthful sport … at the top level (the) athletes are younger. And we can guarantee that our best athletes will be at the Games when others cannot.”

Parra left the meeting with an optimistic outlook, especially after talking with representatives from the others sports, some of which he said didn’t seem very confident after their respective meetings with the IOC.

“I think the only downside we would have is not having people knowledgeable about our sport,’’ Parra said. “Think about this, short-track speed skating has been around longer than long-track speed skating, but it wasn’t until it got into the Games in 1992 as an exhibition, now it’s a popular sport.”

The roller sports proposal includes 500-, 1000-, 10,000- and 15,000-meter races as well as a marathon, with the first four events taking place on a banked track similar to track cycling. The events could take place indoor or outdoor, and also like cycling, there are various racing formats that could be considered, such as sprints against the clock, pack races, elimination races and points races.

Roller sports encompasses a wide array of sports, ranging from figure skating to inline hockey to roller derby. The closest roller sports came to making the Olympic docket was when roller hockey was a demonstration sport at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games.

FIRS later changed its focus to getting inline speed skating into the Olympic Games. While not knocking the other sports, Parra and current top American inline speed skater Joey Mantia agreed that inline speedskating was the right sport to propose.

“It is really media friendly with spills, and you can get behind the athletes,” said Mantia, a multiple-time world champion and a world record holder.  “It’s high speed, you’re on skates, there’s tons of falls and crashes. You can create good stories behind the athletes. When you watch the Olympics, there is always a good story behind the athletes and in skating there is a lot of that and I think the media can play on that really well.”

According to Parra, more than 50 million people on five continents are roller skaters, and as soon as more people are exposed to the high-speed races they will be hooked, he believes. There’s already a large following in some areas, especially in Europe, where there is a professional racing circuit.

And the athletes aren’t your casual inline skaters gliding around the neighborhood. According to Parra, about 65 percent of the U.S. medals in ice speedskating during the last three Olympics have come from roller skaters who crossed over. Besides Parra, some of the other star U.S. speedskaters who started in-line include Apolo Anton Ohno (five Olympic medals, two gold), Jennifer Rodriguez (two Olympic medals), Chad Hedrick (three Olympic medals, one gold), and Joey Cheek (three Olympic medals, one gold).

Mantia is among the current stars considering making the transition, but winning the gold medal on wheels is still his dream.

To his knowledge, Parra said this is the closest roller sports has ever been to getting into the Olympic Games. But competing against heavyweight sports with big marketing budgets like golf and baseball still leaves roller sports as a long shot.

If it doesn’t get in this time, the promise that roller sports will someday be in the Games still stands, and Parra and Co. will keep pushing.

“It’s hard to be optimistic because I’ve been in the sport a while now and they keep saying it will get in,” Mantia said. “But it seems this time they are getting really serious about it with promotional videos and stuff.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Chrös McDougall is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.