Breaking in the Olympics

Last week, the executive board of the International Olympic committee recommended that breaking be added as a new sport for the 2024 Summer games in Paris. Though it’s not a fait accompli (French!), this means that it is increasingly likely that thirty-two breakers from around the world  - sixteen b-girls and sixteen b-boys - will become Olympic athletes five years from now.

So what does that mean for hip-hop? And what does it have to do with Next Level?

When people think of hip-hop, they tend to focus on rappers. Which is understandable. After all, music is the most commercially visible element of hip-hop, and rapping is the most visible aspect of hip-hop music. But at Next Level, we focus on a wide range of hip-hop disciplines, from beatmaking, beatboxing and dance to graffiti and deejaying. And that’s not an accident. Hip-hop’s other elements don’t only offer different skills, they also offer different opportunities: artistically, culturally, personally and especially diplomatically.

One of the main reasons for that is simply that these other elements don’t require their participants to speak the same language. This, in turn, makes it easier for people from different countries to connect with each other through artistic collaboration. And that collaborative process can often produce a kind of shared artistic language that can bridge cultures. Moreover,, such languages tend to be abstract and impressionistic, which means that they can articulate ideas that go beyond conventional language. There are many reasons why things can’t be said out loud: Sometimes they are too personal, sometimes they are too weird, and sometimes they are too dangerous.  But often they can still be communicated through shared artistic practice. Needless to say, this is valuable when people are trying to connect across cultures.

The potential for intercultural communication is one of the main reasons why dance has always been important to Next Level, and it’s also a big part of why breaking has become a strong candidate for Olympic inclusion. After all, breaking has already been a global art form for decades. Not to mention that the Olympic games themselves were created as a kind of athletic diplomacy:

“The Olympic flag has a white background, with five interlaced rings in the centre: blue, yellow, black, green and red. This design is symbolic; it represents the five continents of the world, united by Olympism, while the six colours are those that appear on all the national flags of the world at the present time.”

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics


But as much as the goals of the Olympics may overlap with the goals of hip-hop culture – at least in some ways - the decision has still been met with some justifiable skepticism from the international breaking community.

Having been exploited many times in the past, many in the hip-hop community are wary of giving that much control to outsiders. One particular area of concern is that the Olympic breaking event will be not ultimately be controlled by the breaking community, but by the World DanceSport Federation, an organization that is primarily known for ballroom dance competitions. Many people found their suspicions confirmed by the fact that the competition is being officially listed as “breakdancing,” a term that is almost universally rejected by people in the culture (more accepted terms include “b-boying,” “b-girling,” or “breaking”).

Beyond terminology, most of the concerns that have been articulated by the breaking community involve the general issue of how grass roots hip-hop art forms can maintain their integrity when they partner with mainstream institutions like the Olympics and World DanceSport Federation. As we have learned over the years at Next Level, there is no simple answer to this question. On both the personal and collective levels, the challenge is to find a balance between what one gains and what one loses.

As it turns out, perhaps the most insightful commentator on this subject has been Next Level Team Cambodia’s B-Boy Midus. You can read some of his thoughts here.

At this point, most people in the breaking community seem to feel that it’s better to get on board and try to push for the best possible outcome rather than fight the (apparently) inevitable inclusion of breaking in the Olympics. As Alien Ness, International President of the Mighty Zulu Kings, has pointed out, the Olympics can be viewed a simply a battle that only happens once every four years. The meaning that we give it during the intervening years is still up to us.

[Olympic Flag image by Sam, via creative commons]

Joe Schloss