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.”
Davis said the X Games are the biggest and most recognized extreme sports competition in the region. “We moved from Phuket to Shanghai, because it’s a huge market," he said, listing off some sponsors — Doritos, Mountain Dew, Kia — and noting that local companies are also interested.
"The demographic and the audience that these athletes draw is key for these companies,” he said.
Liu Qing, the under-secretary general of the Chinese Extreme Sports Association, a government group founded in 2004 under the Ministry of Civil Affairs, said that there are now 500 professional athletes registered in the association.
Liu said the organization has been lobbying for funding for youth training programs and extreme sports education at universities. "If we continue to be successful, we can attract and train many young people in extreme sports,” he said.
While Chinese skateboarders have yet to find international success, the number of new skaters picking up boards every day in China makes it simply a matter of time. Li, for example, saw some kids skateboarding at a plaza in his hometown of Liaoning in northeast China and they asked if he wanted to give it a try. He was hooked.
“I got on and I really liked it. So when I went home, my parents bought me my own skateboard. That’s how I started,” he said. “My classmates ask me how old will I be when I stop playing around with the skateboard. I tell them I’ll skate until my legs won’t let me anymore.”
Che Lin, another professional skateboarder, said that he first started after watching the 1980s Christian Slater movie "Gleaming the Cube" dubbed into Chinese (the tagline: Skate or Die). Ever since, it’s been his goal to promote the sport in China.
“I have a skateboarding company in my hometown of Zhengzhou. It’s our 10th anniversary this year,” said Che, who is from central China. “Everything I do is to try to promote the sport in China. I will work as hard as I can to develop skateboarding in China.”
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