Holly Thorpe

Although extreme sports are gradually growing in popularity in China, they are still perceived as risky, and people prefer buying the gear and watching the events to actively participating themselves.

In the 1990s, some U.S. corporations grouped a number of formerly marginalized, youth dominated sports, such as skateboarding, BMX (bicycle motocross) riding, and BASE (building, antenna, span, Earth) jumping, under a new label: extreme sports.

Over the past decade, extreme sports have experienced rapid growth in many Western countries. In 2003, for example, five of the top ten most popular sports in the United States were extreme sports, with in-line skating ranked first, skateboarding second, snowboarding fourth, and wakeboarding ninth. Extreme sports have also grown exponentially in some Asian countries, particularly Japan and Korea, but only since the late 1990s and early 2000s have extreme sports gained appeal among the rapidly growing Chinese middle class and in particular Chinese middle-class youth. Today young Chinese males and females participate in snowboarding, skateboarding, BMX, surfing, rock climbing, and various other extreme sports. Although the number of extreme-sport aficionados is growing in China, however, the growth has been considerably slower than in many other countries. In terms of injury rates, most extreme sports are no more dangerous than the majority of organized sports, yet the “risky” and “daredevil” images so often associated with these sports discourage many Chinese people from participation.

Extreme Sports Get Government Support

The Chinese government appears to support the development of extreme sports. In October 2005, the world’s largest skate park opened in Shanghai. Three times bigger than the largest skateboard park in the United States and rumored to have cost more than US$8 million— allegedly paid by the government—the park is set to host a number of national and international extreme-sport events and to encourage more Chinese youths to take up skateboarding, BMX, and in-line skating.

China is also increasingly hosting large international extreme-sports events, including the Shanghai Showdown Gravity Games, the Nanshan Open (snowboarding), the 720 China Surf Open, and the 2007 Asian X Games.

The Manufacturing Connection

Since the mid-1980s, Chinese manufacturing firms have been commissioned by foreign companies to produce extreme-sports-related clothing and equipment. Only recently, however, have these foreign companies recognized the potential of the Chinese youth market. In 2003, for example, action-sports giant Quiksilver entered a joint venture with Chinese owned and -operated apparel manufacturer Glorious Sun Enterprises with the goal of opening retail stores in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong and tapping into the rapidly growing Chinese market. “We are very excited about this initiative,” said Quiksilver CEO Bob McKnight:

China is increasingly linked to the global youth culture. Nearly 50-million Chinese households have access to MTV, and the Internet and satellite television are quickly becoming more and more available. While the development of the board-riding culture is still in its infancy in this market, indoor snow-parks and skate-shops are beginning to show up in a number of high-profile locations. We believe the time is right for our lifestyle message, and are confident that it will resonate strongly with young consumers in this strong and fast-growing market… We are excited to begin to capitalize on what we believe is a range of growth opportunities that exist for Quiksilver throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim.

Burton Snowboards also recognizes the potential of China. In 2005, Burton Snowboards signed a three-year deal to sponsor the National Snowboard Team of China, which consists of six young men and six young women, selected solely on their athletic (rather than snowboarding) abilities. According to Bryan Johnston, vice president of global marketing for Burton Snowboards, “snowboarding’s expansion into China presents a huge opportunity in the sport’s overall growth … and we’re extremely pleased to have the chance to work with the National Snowboard Team of China.”

Many U.S.-based companies are also investing heavily in major events and spectacles to help raise the profile of extreme sports and their companies among Chinese youth. For example, professional California skateboarder Danny Way grabbed headlines around the world when, with the financial support of his key sponsors Quiksilver and DC Shoes, he constructed the largest skateboarding structure ever built (36.58 meters tall, with a gap distance of 27.43 meters) and performed a 360-degree rotation while jumping over the Great Wall of China on his skateboard. Interestingly, the Chinese government approved this media stunt; a number of governmental members, including an official from the Ministry of Culture, attended the event. However, although Way’s spectacular stunt was well received by the Chinese people, the research firm Label Networks suggests that it did not encourage more young people to take up the sport. Rather, the stunt had the opposite effect; it was perceived locally as “an oddball ‘American’ thing.”

A Tentative Approach to Extreme Sports

Indeed, despite the support of the China Extreme Sports Association and aggressive marketing by Chinese and Western—particularly U.S.—companies, many Chinese youth and their parents are tentative about participating in these sports. Guan Mu, founder of the Beijing Kicker Club—an extreme-sports club boasting more than 5,700 members across China—explains that although “X-games are on the rise in Beijing, they are developing slowly … Parents in China always think their children should avoid these dangerous sports. It is also still expensive for ordinary guys to get top-quality coaching and equipment.” The Shanghai Star reports that “students are also under heavy pressure to study, and critics of the [X Games] consider [them] a waste of time.” Drawing on two studies on Chinese youth culture, Label Networks notes that few parents want their only child to participate in extreme pursuits and that they still prefer basketball, table tennis, and martial arts. Although extreme sports have spawned a new culture among youth in China, participation tends to be based on the consumption of apparel, footwear, events, and U.S. and Japanese action sports heroes rather than on active participation.

Extreme Sports and the Beijing Olympics

A variety of extreme sports will be on display during the Beijing Olympics. As well as existing medal sports such as mountain biking and canoe and kayak slalom, BMX racing will be an official sport for the first time in Beijing. The inclusion of BMX, much like the inclusion of snowboarding at the 1998 Winter Olympics, is an attempt by the International Olympic Committee to appeal to a younger generation. Various action- and extreme sports demonstrations are also planned for the games. The expectation is that greater exposure will increase the popularity of extreme sports among Chinese youth. However, whether this exposure will increase active participation or merely passive consumption of products and events remains to be seen.

Source: Thorpe, Holly. (2007). Extreme Sports in China. Guanxi: The China Letter, 15, 10.