Ramping up the stakes of his sport

Special to The Times

What's it going to take to get Chinese kids onto skateboards? Jumping the Great Wall?

It's a good start.

American skater Danny Way, one of the hottest names in the sport, plans to take his reputation for vertical insubordination to the world's most famous barrier this summer. During a five-day trip to Beijing this year, Way announced plans to use a giant ramp to torpedo himself over the 2,000-year-old Chinese monument and land -- possibly a world record or two later -- in a stone courtyard on the other side, just steps from a Buddhist temple.

The larger goal, though, is to sell skateboarding as a legitimate sport here and to introduce a nation of 1.3 billion to a marketing concept revolutionary for China: the way of the "extreme."

In allowing Way to display his Yankee audacity at the doorstep of their emperors, Chinese officials are making a statement of their own. Roughly translated, they're ready to tolerate, even support, this showy, rebellion-born American pastime, albeit in their own, very Chinese style.

After years of planning, the Chinese government recently unveiled a new branch: the grand office of the Chinese Extreme Sports Assn. In an even stronger indication that the market is ready to explode, U.S. action sports brand Quiksilver intends to open a string of stores in major Chinese cities -- up to 20 are planned by the end of 2006. Shanghai is expected soon to open one of the largest concrete skate parks the world has ever seen, at a reported 200,000 square feet. And as of last year, the government has been running a gymnastics-style set of skating matches to recruit a team of national champions. Using a points system tallied throughout the calendar year, the new ministry awards five skateboarders the right to represent the People's Republic.

"In China, it is expected that each sport has its own [government] association," says Wei Xing, who heads the new Extreme Sports Assn. "We are responsible for holding events, training the athletes, the referees, the judge. And for overseas teams to come into China, they need to get approval from this association," he says through a translator.

Such a rigorous qualifying structure -- each delegate receives a signed certificate of excellence from the state -- horrifies some U.S. skateboarders, whose history reads like a rap sheet of social and legal defiance.

"In America, kids are being chased by security guards, and there's a battle out there between the police and skateboarders trying to showcase what they can do," says Jake Phelps, editor of the skate magazine Thrasher. "It's a rebel culture. The first rule is that there are no rules. You can't tell me what to do."

But skaters like Way know that China is not America. "We live in a community with a really relaxed lifestyle, and skateboarding is easily accepted," says Way, 30, who lives in Encinitas with his wife and two sons. "But in China we're dealing with a whole different world."

For starters, most Chinese kids aren't accustomed to self-celebratory stunt work. As local Beijing skateboarder Sun "Tiger" Hu struggled to explain to a visitor recently, the Chinese way of life leaves little room for preening on wheels. "The Chinese are still traditional, and many young kids have no ambitions to show themselves [off]," Sun says with the occasional help of a translator.

So if popularizing skateboarding's individualist and laid-back "bro" lifestyle means card-stock certificates and a government ministry, Way, for one, is willing to wait to see how it turns out.

"No one has ever taken that [nationalized] approach," he says. "Approaching it like a training regimen -- and that's basically the foundation of how these kids are going to get exposed to skateboarding -- I am curious to see what that can produce. But if it is overemphasized, it will take away from the soul of the sport."

Ready to embrace the West

In China, a country always proud to remind outsiders of its 5,000 years of recorded history, young people still "thank the emperors" if they're lucky enough to get into a university. That their government is willing to embrace the freewheeling image of skateboarding might seem like a trick in itself.

But China is changing, Wei says. His country is ready for more cultural influences from the West and the benefits they may bring to Chinese children -- in the case of extreme sports, that could mean a renewed sense of creativity, he says. But right now, Wei admits, "skateboarding is not very popular."

One big obstacle: a country with 1.3 billion people but, according to several studies, the ability to economically support perhaps 800,000. The result is too few jobs, a predicament that forces Chinese teens into an infamously competitive academic system. Parents still hesitate to let their children have as much playtime as their American counterparts, Wei says. "If you play more, you study less," he says during a visit to his spartan office, with a clutch of uniformed guards at the building's entrance. "All parents here worry about that."

In the United States, skateboarding is a $5.2-billion industry, a commercial juggernaut mythologized on television by ESPN's X Games and boosted by clean-cut endorsement king-cum-video game star Tony Hawk. A visitor to Beijing might see one teen futzing with a skateboard trick in a restaurant parking lot while a mass of bikes rolls by.

Way hopes to help change that by jumping the Wall. It won't be the first time that a brazen aerialist has attempted to hurdle that ancient imperial fence; a Chinese stunt bicyclist died in 2002 attempting a similar feat. But Way's jump, scheduled for June 19, will mark the first attempt by a skateboarder.

A stuntman's skating

To bring his "big air" skateboarding style to China, Way will prepare using a typical stuntman's approach: strengthening his body while brushing off reminders that the last guy who tried this died. "From what I've seen, that guy didn't have much of an idea what he was doing," Way says. "His ramp didn't look that good either. I think I've had more experience in this ballpark," he says, shrugging off that he has recently had surgery to replace a knee ligament -- his fourth.

Way has hooked up with a Las Vegas-based media rights and event production company called Global Village Media Group, which plans to spend up to $1.7 million on the event. The company hopes to bring the spectacle to as many Chinese viewers as it can, earning its money back through sponsorships and, eventually, rebroadcast rights.

"When it comes to skateboarding, or extreme sports in general, in China we are on the tip of a very large wave," Global Village principal David Tumaroff says. And, he adds, thanks to the Olympics, which will come to Beijing in 2008, "we are also at the forefront of a wave of Western participation into media and culture in China."

For the most part, the Chinese government remains tolerant of American cultural influences; even Westernized religion got a grudging nod last Christmas, when officials cryptically acknowledged the holiday with public decorations celebrating "Santa's Birthday Bash."

"Overall, China has grown very receptive" to American culture, "especially in big cities," says T.Y. Wang, a political science professor and East-West relations expert at Illinois State University.

China has even invited such decadent icons as Britney Spears to perform. But ahead of other aspects of Western pop culture -- namely music and TV shows -- Chinese youth seem to have developed a particular obsession with extreme sports. Citing a survey by Beijing-based Horizon Research, conducted on 1,600 junior high and high school students in 1999, USC professor Stan Rosen said that extreme sports rank among "the top five coolest things" among Chinese kids.

The only other portion of Western culture even making a dent in China? Not pop music, in which Korean performers are the current rage, or TV, unless you count the late-night "Baywatch" reruns on local stations. It's American film. American blockbusters have featured prominently in Beijing theaters since 1994, when the first U.S. flick, "The Fugitive," penetrated the Red Curtain, Rosen said.

In August, Way and his partner, John Tyson, erected a $500,000, nine-story ramp outside the annual X Games at Staples Center. Way went on to break a world distance record on his trademarked MegaRamp, setting a new 79-foot standard in teenage death wishes.

But Way, whose sun-kissed good looks and clear blue eyes remind fans of Michael Vartan or a young Paul Newman, says he cares less about the money (in fact, he's not being paid for this jump), personal exposure or even breaking another record. More important, he says, he wants Chinese kids to see his chosen path as a real sport with real earning potential.

"My goal is to expose skateboarding in a way that best represents the sport," Way says. "It's a bonus that it's in a place where my vision is actually valued."

But exactly how a country like China, whose children still study roughly 10 hours a day, will take to such an unruly pastime remains far from certain. So the question remains: Once Way lands on the other side of the Great Wall, ideally with all bones and ligaments intact, will anyone in China care?

For starters, China already has its favorite Western sports all picked out, xie xie very much. It's no secret that the Chinese prefer team sports and love their basketball. Even in rural villages, it's not uncommon for posters of American basketball stars to outsell those of Jackie Chan.

And soccer remains the No. 1 sport, with 3.5 million of the country's roughly 600 million fans regularly attending matches at the stadiums and countless more watching on TV, according to the mobile communications company Siemens, a soccer league sponsor here.

But China does love its national champions. Houston Rockets all-star basketball center Yao Ming, for example, remains a virtual demigod. "In China, any sporting event winner is a hero," notes Warren Stuart, an avid skater who lives in Hong Kong and runs the online community HKSkateboarding.com. Hence the fresh crop of government-tapped skateboard heroes.

One champ, Che Lin, was recently snatched up by Quiksilver to represent the brand in China. Quiksilver also signed Johnny Tang, a Chinese Canadian who recently moved back to the People's Republic.

And, Wei notes, many parents are returning from study or work trips abroad and want a more Westernized life for their kids. "In the past, children had only one way to measure success -- studying in school," he says. "Now they can be sports stars."

Officials such as Wei prefer to discuss only the cultural benefits of creating a People's Republic of Half-Pipes. But skateboarders like Stuart suspect less lofty motives. "China is doing all this because [skateboard] events make a lot of money," he says. He points out that China holds a yearly X Games-style event that attracts major corporate sponsors. "It is obvious that it is very profitable."

Ask Beijing locals about the skate scene and they'll point you to a couple of promising skate parks, at least one thriving skate shop and some well-run websites by Beijing enthusiasts.

What they won't be able to show you are hordes of actual skaters.

The discrepancy is hard to explain, even for experts. Take Beijing skater Sun, who has run his own shop here since 1992 and has followed Way's exploits via the Internet. His hair in a spiky brush cut, a bomber-style leather jacket hanging loosely on a rangy frame, Sun best embodies Beijing's street skating scene. He runs the eZone skate park in the city's densely populated south end and hosts occasional competitions there. When he finally met Way in January, during the American athlete's first trip to mainland China, Sun looked star-struck.

In 1990, when Sun first started skateboarding as a college student, he says he could count perhaps 20 other Chinese as fellow enthusiasts. Those numbers haven't exactly exploded in the last decade. "In all of China, there may be about 50 professional skateboarders right now," Sun estimates, sitting at Beijing's Hard Rock Cafe basking in the afterglow of meeting Way. "And maybe 200 amateurs."

But urban China has all the right ingredients to nurture the sport -- most important, plenty of concrete to conquer. Even the media, all of which must be blessed by the Chinese government, have been practically begging kids to give skateboarding a shot.

"For sheer expanses of concrete, it's hard to beat Beijing," sang one recent article in the China Daily. "Skate on, comrades!"

So what's holding back swarms of potential rippers from trying a sweet move across Tiananmen Square? Would you believe, as Sun puts it, shyness?

"In China, most kids are fans of skating, but they mostly like to watch," he says. "Many young people like to watch skateboarding on video. And maybe they stand there and hold their boards."

Way hopes to pop a backside 180 on that attitude.

Contact Leslie Gornstein at Calendar.letters@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
53°