Hailing from New Zealand, Holly Thorpe is a sociology professor doing some terrific work in action sports.

We had a chance to find out more about her latest initiative – the ASDP 


Below is a TED TALK that Holly gave in the fall of 2016.




What drew you to action sports in the first place?

I grew up in a small beach town on the east coast of the north island of New Zealand / Aotearoa. My parents were passionate windsurfers and surfers, so I had an early introduction to action sport cultures. I grew up in and around surfing and skateboarding culture. Then, when I went to University in the late 1990s/early 2000s, I saw snow for the first time and quickly fell in love with everything about snowboarding. I learned pretty fast and started competing. I ended up doing 8 back-to-back winters working at a ski resort in the US, and competing in New Zealand. Then I had the brainwave of combining my love of these sports with my studies, and this lead to my PhD on snowboarding culture and to the sociology of action sports more broadly. Over the past 10 years I’ve travelled the world researching action sport cultures, and have published a bunch of journal articles and three books on the topic, including Snowboarding Bodies in Theory and Practice (2011), Transnational Mobilities in Action Sport Cultures (2014), and Women in Action Sport Cultures: Identity, Politics and Experience (2016).

 What prompted you to start the Action Sports for Development website? And what are the main sports that are featured?

As is often the case, I stumbled across this topic in 2011 after a devastating earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. I had lots of family and friends living in Christchurch many of whom were passionate action sport participants. Through social media and personal connections, I became aware of lots of other local skaters, surfers, mountain bikers, and climbers, who were adopting some really creative ways of reappropriating the earthquake damaged spaces, and rebuilding their communities through their activities. So, as a researcher I just had to explore this further. I went down to Christchurch and did a bunch of interviews on the topic of action sports for resilience and coping in post-disaster spaces, and then later that year I was in New Orleans and met up with some of the people behind the Parisite Skatepark. From then on, I have been following this line of research of action sports for development in post-disaster spaces, as well as conflict-torn locations with a longstanding research project with Skateistan, and a group of young men doing parkour in Gaza. In late 2015, I won a big research grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand to focus on this topic, and this gave me the time and resources to set up the website and to try to create space for dialogue across action sports and locations. The main sports featured on the site are surfing, skateboarding, parkour, snow-sports, biking sports (especially BMX and mountain biking), and climbing, though I am seeing some interesting parallels with how capoeira is being used for development purposes so they’re featured too.



Team sports seem to dominate and have way of reinforcing cultural norms and action sports have a different sensibility. What’s your take and can we come to a balance of the best of both in today’s world?

There are some important differences in how action sports developed in contrast to more traditional, organized, competitive sports developed. The historical development of action sports have been a big part of my research, and the origins and growth and development of these activities are really important for understanding what makes them unique and some of the distinctive cultural value systems that many of us continue to hold onto today.


For many years, there were clear distinctions between the ‘jock’ sports and action sports, but I think this is changing in many parts of the world. Many youth these days don’t see the division as clearly as older generations, so they see no problem in participating in soccer (or rugby or other team sports) on Saturday morning, then going for a surf or a skate in the afternoon. There are benefits (and problems) with both–it really depends on how the activities are facilitated. Today, there are so many different ways of participating in action sports, ranging from very occasional participant to those that organize their whole lives around their activities, and those who are pursuing athletic careers in their sports, so I feel we need to take care of drawing too clear distinctions between organized, competitive sports and action sports.


All that said, I feel action sports can offer some really valuable contributions to development spaces that more competitive sports do not. In particular, the unique social dynamics in action sports (e.g., people of different ages, sexes and skill levels can participate together), the value of self-expression, play and creativity, and the fact that you don’t have to compete against and beat someone else to get a sense of achievement. If we’re using these sports in sites of conflict, for example, these aspects of action sports can be really valuable!


What are some of your key goals with the site? 

My key aims for this website are to try to create a sense of community among those organizations and groups using action sports for development purposes. Of course, local contexts are unique, but many of these groups and organizations that I have spoken with over the years are experiencing similar struggles, and I think much could be learned from sharing these experiences across locations. Some ASDP organizations are now very well established, whereas others are just starting up, and I would like to see this site as a community of sharing knowledge and experiences, and making connections across sports and geographical locations. It is purely non-profit, so I’m not trying to make any money off this initiative. As a researcher, I am keen to see how research might play a more integral role in the processes that ASDP organizations are working through, and I also try to make recent and relevant research available on the site for all to use. 


For those outside the world of surf/skate/snow it can seem rather puzzling – how do you the stoke of action sports is best translated/explained to those in more traditional sports?

This is something I have been working on for many years now, and I sometimes consider myself something of a ‘cultural intermediary’ because I can move between action sport cultures, academic environments (teaching, conferences, publishing), and then working with traditional sports organizations (including a big project with the International Olympic Committee) to help them understand what makes these sports unique. A lot more traditional sporting organizations are now recognizing that action sports aren’t going away and they’re actually growing, but that they can’t fit them into the same models that they’re been using with other sports for so many years. So this is where my research comes in useful, that is in trying to help them understand the importance of valuing the unique cultural value systems of action sports and a need to ‘work with’ action sports communities so that there is a productive dialogue between them.


What impact to do you think skateboarding and surfing’s inclusion in the Olympics will have on non profits within action sports? 

This is actually a big focus of my research at the moment. My colleague, Associate Professor Belinda Wheaton, and I have just finished a one year project for the International Olympic Committee on surfing, skateboarding and sport-climbing’s inclusion into the Olympic Games, with a focus on the perceptions of youth around the world. I presented this research to the Olympic Programmes Commission in Lausanne in March. If you’re interested, you can read the whole 160 page report on the IOC digital library. Our work with the IOC is continuing, and we just held a world-first symposium in New Zealand on what this decision will mean for surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing.


What this means for non-profits, however, is another interesting aspect to consider! I’m not exactly sure just yet, but I think it will mean that more traditional sporting organizations and development organizations may start to take these sports more seriously when they see them at the Olympic Games. The Youth Olympic Games is another interesting space to consider for profiling the work that ASDP organizations are doing, and the potential of these sports for cross cultural dialogue and the promotion of some of the Olympic ideals. Of course, there are always pros and cons of more corporate sponsors and traditional organizations ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, so it’s worth adopting a position of cautious optimism as we move into this new, unchartered territory.