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Style & Culture

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

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?

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