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Skateboarding catches on in China

More youth pick up boards as sponsors gravitate toward the new market.

Li Zhixin skateboards in Shanghai. (Courtesy Li Zhixin)

SHANGHAI — Old Chinese men in business suits cool themselves with fans emblazoned with a Mountain Dew logo. Middle schoolers wearing matching track suits play wild games of tag between munching on Doritos. Hipsters rush to grab 50 percent off coupons from the Pony Shoes tent. And Li Zhixin takes a deep breath before jumping onto his skateboard for the most important ride of his young life.

Li, a short, yet confidently cool 15-year-old, is making his first appearance at the X Games Asia, the largest extreme sports competition in Asia, and is looking to become the first Chinese street skateboard competition winner. He won’t make history today — or even the finals— but for Li just being there is a huge accomplishment, both for himself and for the future of the sport in China.

“I was really nervous competing in front of the big crowds here at the X Games. I think I competed okay — well, not terrible at least,” Li said. “Skateboarding is getting a lot more popular lately. I think one day Chinese athletes will be very competitive.”

The sport has surged in popularity in China over the past few years due to the support of foreign companies, which recognize the huge marketing potential. ESPN brought over the X Games Asia to Shanghai from Phuket, Thailand, three years ago.

The publicity generated by the X Games and the potential market for sponsor companies are leading to a huge push to attract young Chinese to skateboarding. In addition to the big event in Shanghai, the X Games also goes on an eight-stop road show throughout China.

Surprisingly, the sport, seeped in a rebel history, has found little resistance from the authoritarian Chinese government. In 2005, officials even allowed American skateboarder Danny Way to make history by becoming the first person to jump over the Great Wall on his board. Perhaps the government sees the potential market value of the sport, or maybe it’s just getting to be too strong a sub-culture to fight.

This year, the attendance at the X Games reached 54,500 people, up about 60 percent from its first year in Shanghai. In 2005, Australian-owned skateboarding company SMP International constructed the world’s largest skatepark in Shanghai’s Yangpu District. The 12,000 square meter park has both the tallest vert ramp and the biggest concrete skate bowl in the world.

“I think skateboarding will eventually be as popular here as in the U.S. The potential is just tremendous,” said Harvey Davis, vice president of ESPN Star Sports Event Management Group. “When you see the kids skating in Shanghai they’re the same as the ones skating in San Diego. They’re wearing the same clothes and they’re listening to the same music. It’s really a culture and a lifestyle that goes across borders and languages.”