Traditional wheels, blades of the '90s clash over jurisdiction, independence

April 12, 1992|By Bob Sakamoto | Bob Sakamoto,Chicago Tribune

LINCOLN, Neb. -- There is an air of tranquillity emanating from the tree-lined, well-kept streets of this town in the flatlands of middle America.

It is the off-season, the eight-month vacation from Big Red, Nebraska football madness that is the major preoccupation of folks in Johnny Carson's birthplace.

It's also a most unlikely location for what could evolve into a billion-dollar feud over the realignment of a couple of little wheels.

Roller skating, as a recreational pastime and a competitive sport, has been around for decades. Situated in the center of town is the U.S. Amateur Confederation of Roller Skating's (USAC/RS) national headquarters and its national museum. All lifelines to the sport lead directly to Cornhusker country, where the traditional sport is locked into the biggest battle of its existence.

In 1980, when Minneapolis' Scott Olson first began ice hockey cross-training on a pair of roller skates with five wheels lined up in single file rather than the traditional two-by-two quad setup, he set in motion a series of events that has led to the current controversy.

Roller skates vs. Rollerblades.

In this corner, the established champion of the sport and its traditional overseer since 1937, the quad roller skate -- the wheels of baby boomers and the golden age of rock.

In the other corner, the young challenger with a popularity that has skyrocketed in the past decade, the "in-line" skate -- the wheels of the MTV generation.

As the sport's national governing body, USAC/RS claims Rollerblading falls under its jurisdiction and along with it the wealth of what the American Sports Data firm in New York calls the fastest-growing sport in America.

"In-line skates are indeed roller skates; it's as simple as that," said George Pickard, USAC/RS executive director.

But from the beginning, those who marketed and lobbied for this restructured skate and carved a niche into America's recreational and sporting consciousness advocated that the in-line skate was an entity onto itself, that a Rollerblade is not a roller skate. Indeed, the next edition of Webster's College Dictionary will have an entry for "Rollerblade" as the word becomes as generic as Kleenex or Xerox.

As such, seven in-line skating manufacturers, including Rollerblade Inc., have formed their own governing body, the International In-Line Skating Association (IISA).

A year ago, IISA reported that in-line skating was a $100 million industry. This year, that figure is expected to reach $300 million as the sport grows by 45 percent to 6.2 million rollerbladers. By 1995, industry experts are predicting rollerblading will roll over a cool billion.

"The USAC/RS can see their sport is dying, and they're looking to latch onto a sport that's on its way up," said IISA chief Joe Janasz, who cited recent sales figures that rollerblades are outselling roller skates 2-1. "Really, those people shouldn't take any credit for in-line skating. They know all about roller skating, but ours is a different sport."

"If it's on wheels, then it belongs to us," Pickard said. "They're on a mission, and we're standing in their way. We're the common folks standing out in the country, and they're Attila the Hun. They're trying to roll over us."

Pickard said USAC/RS has 23,000 card-carrying members nationwide with 1,600 skating clubs. The group promotes the sport through a full agenda of competitive racing with several national events. There's also roller figure skating and roller hockey, which will be a demonstration sport in the Barcelona Olympics this summer.

Pickard's organization is also recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee and the sport's international governing body, Federation Internationale de Roller Skating (FIRS). It was Pickard and his staff who interceded on in-line skating's behalf to allow in-line skaters to compete in FIRS-sanctioned competition.

At the same time, conventional roller skates are not allowed in IISA events.

"This is not a turf war," Pickard said. "IISA does have a definite place in roller skating. We accept their new design of a roller skate and wouldn't stand in the way of technological advancement."

There have been a number of unsuccessful meetings between the two sides in an effort to settle their differences. The year-old IISA has just recently installed a board of directors to oversee this so-called new sport.

"They want us to go away, but everyone would have to agree that much, if not all, of the resurgence in roller skating is because of our in-line skates," Janasz said. "They have a very narrow focus, only on elite competition.

"Remember when the skateboard craze swept the country? That industry didn't work with municipalities and the public in cultivating the right image, didn't maintain and build on its popularity. Pretty soon, skateboarding got a bad reputation as an activity with 14-year-olds hanging out in parks and knocking down little old ladies in shopping malls."

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