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Ramping up the stakes of his sport

By taking a flying leap over the Great Wall, American skateboarder Danny Way hopes to get the Chinese to share his passion.

April 24, 2005|Leslie Gornstein | Special to The Times

Beijing — 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."

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