In the middle of Panama City, in a park called Parque Omar, sits an old racetrack. The starting ramp is now just an angled slab of cracked concrete. Grass has covered its jumps which, to the untrained eye, look like irregularities in one of the park’s green spaces.
To Edgardo Lopez, however, it’s a cemetery. Well, to be specific: “the graveyard of BMX.”
It wasn’t always like this. In the 1980s, the grassy hills used to be dirt, and atop the concrete slab used to ride BMX bikes, with elite athletes ready to race. Lopez was one of them. But in 1989 when the United States invaded Panama to oust dictator Manuel Noriega, the track was partially destroyed and eventually forgotten. For the next 20 years, bikers were banned from the park. Lopez still doesn’t know exactly why.
So on a recent Monday morning in early March, when Lopez, 47, the president of Club BMX de Panama, saw kids using the old race track, he couldn’t believe it. He pulled out his phone to record them flying down the concrete and hurtling over the jumps. “I see kids on these huge mounds, which is big progress from what we have seen in the past,” he says, tears welling in his eyes. “I am happy today, for that.”
Urban and extreme sports like BMX, skateboarding and extreme rollerblading, have a cult following and a strong culture in Panama, despite the lack of government support or professional success. For years, these athletes have been finding spaces – behind buildings, in abandoned parking lots, on homemade ramps and “halfpipes” – to practice their sport. But with only one official skatepark in the city, built in 2014, and no permanent designated spaces, the sports’ growing popularity is outpacing the city’s ability to accommodate them, which has led to friction with the government and within the culture itself. “The government does not put infrastructure to support,” said Lopez. “This causes people to do it in an underground fashion so the state doesn’t get involved.”
There are signals, though, that attitudes could be shifting. In 2017, for example, Panama sent its first-ever skateboarders to an international competition, the Pan American Skateboarding Nations Championship. In August of 2019, the Vibes Bike Extreme fest was held in the Coclé region – a port city about two hours west of Panama City – and included participants in both flatland and freestyle competitions. And just this March, a competition with 138 2-to 6-year-olds was held on a makeshift BMX track on a decommissioned air base across the canal from Panama City.
The result? Word is spreading that the community is growing.
Urban sports like skating and BMX create a sense of community unequal and incomparable to other, more traditional sports, said Brian Glenney, a philosophy professor at Norwich University in Vermont who has studied skating culture. Glenney doesn’t actually like describing urban activities as “sports.” “In my mind it’s not a sport, it’s a subculture.”
Glenney said that the pro-social benefits of skateboarding, for example, are grounded in the idea of risk. “Risk becomes crucial to bringing these communities together,” said Glenney. “It requires others to push you to be risky, and to help you when the risk elevates beyond your control.” In essence, the extreme or dangerous nature of the sports is what helps create a strong community, because as tricks get harder, the danger intensifies. You need a community around to push, to advance and to be there if you fail. But also, he said, designated and official spaces are what pushes the community out of a subculture and into a legitimate sport.
Clashes between the sports
The only skatepark in Panama City, Cinta Costera 3 has a gorgeous backdrop. The ocean is to one side, the city skyline to the other. It is situated at the entrance to Cinta Costera, the long curved road that jets out into the ocean and back again, encircling the old city known as Casco Viejo.
Lopez’s friend Roberto Chockee, 43, president of Panama Skateboarding Association and board member of the National Association of Roller Sports, walks right into the park and pulls out a skater. “This is my right-hand man,” he said.
Johnathan Paz, is one of roughly 40 skaters at the park, and a former Panamanian Bowl Champion, a contest that involves participants who are judged based on the tricks they do inside of the bowl. Standing feet from both the skatepark and the breakwater, Paz explained the urban sports situation in Panama. “Regionally we are very average,” said Paz. But that may be an unfair assessment, since the region includes Mexico, Brazil, Columbia and the United States. Eight of the top 10 skaters in the world come from these countries.
When compared with Central American and Caribbean countries, however, Paz said Panama is at the top, just below Costa Rica. But the culture, he said, is underground. “Only in Central America we are really good.”
Although the park abounds with skaters, there are only three BMXers here on this day, and they stay to the edges. They never enter the bowl. While Paz was talking, Lopez was walking around, looking for someone on a BMX bike willing to talk. Eventually he brought over Raphael Padilla.
At 30, Padilla’s been riding BMX for 15 years and started because he was “shit at everything else.” Every Sunday, for three to four hours, he rides at Cinta Costera. He said they stay to the sides, using just the rails, because the bowl, the primary feature of the park, is too small for people who BMX. “It’s pretty difficult to BMX in these parks,” said Padilla. He said that in order for BMXers to use the bowl, it would have to be around twice its current size.
When the park first opened, there were clashes between skateboarding and BMX. Sometimes it resulted in violence, Padilla said, with skateboarders chasing out the bikers with firearms. Sometimes even the police got involved. Over time, however, they were able to reconcile by making concessions.
One example: BMX bikes typically have pegs that are made of metal and are used to grind on rails. Padilla explained that now they use plastic pegs to placate the skaters. Plastic pegs don’t wear down the rails. They learned how to coexist. “The more that we kept coming, the more we made friends,” said Padilla.
The cramped space also led to creativity. Unused basketball courts, parking garages and abandoned roads became refuges for these sports, populated with makeshift ramps and halfpipes for tricks and stunts. They discovered Plaza Edison, a shopping mall in the Edison Park area with architecture conducive to skating. There’s also a makeshift ramp on Causeway Avedor, and one in a boatyard. And stairs all over the city are employed by BMXers and skateboarders. In Parque Omar there is an old drain pipe used by downhill longboarders.
This isn’t an ideal way to build up a sport, they agree. But Chockee said they do what they can, which involves keeping most of these spots hidden for fear of drawing too much attention. Or worse, drawing the police.
One spot, a favorite among a group of teens, stands out from the rest, said Chockee. Its existence is bordering on audacious because it is, in effect, hiding in plain sight.
At the Canal Authority
Looking up from the bottom, Agustyn Ledesma was visible only because of his bright yellow T-shirt. Just a speck of yellow. After each platform, Ledesma would sail feet into the air. After hurtling down three flights of concrete stairs, using each platform as a jump, he turned right around and pushed the bike back up. Offered a break after a couple of runs, he said “No it’s OK. I do this for fun.”
Ledesma is 17 and loves this type of biking, called downhill. He was part of the group of teenagers that shocked Edgardo Lopez at the park a few days earlier. Now he’s at the massive Panama Canal Authority building, the governing body in charge of the canal, at the edge of Panama City, demonstrating how he and his friends found other places around the city to ride when Parque Omar was shut to bikers.
“Two years ago I came for the first time, and now I always come,” said Ledesma, who started biking when he was little, competing in triathlons. He eventually grew bored of that and switched to downhill. He had always come to this particular hill, a popular spot for children with cardboard to slide down the grass. Now, he rides down the stairs.
He echoed a familiar sentiment, that government support, or at least acceptance, was necessary to grow mainstream popularity for sports like downhill. One of the only places in the city with jumps large enough for downhill is in Parque Omar. “My group was so happy because the government opened a park where there was an old trail for us to jump and since the ‘90s they didn’t let us go in,” said Ledesma.
Ledesma said that last March he attended a downhill event that attracted 110 riders, and left four with broken clavicles. He completed all the practice runs, but said the jumps were bigger than anything he had done before. The event was hosted by Copa Latinoamericana Downhill, and attracted riders from other Latin American countries. “They are like two times bigger than the ones at Parque Omar,” he said of the jumps, lamenting that there just aren’t accessible places in Panama for him to practice like that.
Putting Panama on the map
Finding open, public – and sanctioned – spaces like Parque Omar for bikers and skaters is the goal of Chockee and Lopez. For close to 10 years, the two have been traveling throughout Panama, lobbying local governments to create more parks for urban sports.
They have had some success. In 2018, they got the local government in Chitré, a small city west of Panama City, to turn an unused basketball court into a skatepark. In a smaller park in Panama City, Via Argentina, they got a small half-pipe built. By lobbying the city government for 20 years, Lopez had been trying to get the track in the middle of Parque Omar reopened.
While they acknowledge the versatility of the riders, the two are tired of tucked-away spaces and DIY ramps. “We don’t want the corner of the baseball field in the back,” said Chockee.
It is because of people like Lopez and Chockee that the sports have been able to remain popular in the country. “These kinds of sports have always attracted youths,” said Lopez. But youth won’t go through the efforts to organize, he added. Events require significant amounts of organization and formal requests to local governments to use public spaces.
That’s exactly the sort of commitment that will get them there, said Glenney, the professor from Vermont, because for them to grow as a sport, sanctioned parks are a must. If they “want to put Panama on the map, the state-sanctioned and city-sanctioned skate parks are the way to go.” These parks are also more inclusive to beginners, women and trans athletes, he added, because they are less intimidating to approach than a DIY spot created by veteran skaters.
For the recent kids’ event on March 8, there were a lot of logistics to deal with. Lopez and Chockee managed to find an event space: an old decommissioned airbase in the Canal Zone, a region of land encompassing the Panama Canal that was previously controlled by the United States. But that presented its own problems. Because of its distance from the city, they had to figure out transportation for the kids. That meant calling parents, finding out who had cars and deciding who would run the carpools.
Perhaps Lopez and Chockee’s importance to the culture is their maturity. Despite the tensions between the different urban sports at the ground level, they have managed to work together to get things done. “We join forces at the top to make the roots coincide,” Chockee said.
Chockee feels compelled, moved even, to stress the importance of their movement to his friend Lopez. “He’s old,” he said, “he’s doing it for the next generation, because who else will do it?”
For both, there is more to be done. Lopez said he is trying to work with the government to open a park large enough for BMX freestyle – about twice the size of a skatepark – but they haven’t found the right spot yet. Regardless, he hopes to see it constructed in 2022. Chockee mentioned a “distant dream” to see Panama qualified for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. He knows it won’t happen.
But victories have been won already, and maybe things are finally moving in the right direction. How do they know? That day back in Parque Omar. It confirmed for both that word is out their sports have a place still, that it’s time to come out of hiding and into the daylight. “I think [we] lived in an historic moment,” said Chockee, relieved, triumphant, “on a 20-year struggle to get back in the park.”