The Asian X Games took place in Shanghai in 2007 and the 2008 Olympic Games launches BMX racing as an official medal sport, joining “extreme” events such as mountain biking and canoe and kayak slalom. The inclusion of BMX, much like the inclusion of snowboarding at the 1998 Winter Olympics, is a way for the International Olympic Committee to appeal to a younger generation, and in addition to medal events the IOC has made action- and extreme-sports demonstrations part of the Games. This exposure will no doubt increase the visibility of extreme sports in China, but no one knows whether this will lead to active participation — or simply to more interest in extreme sports products and events.

The Making of “Extreme” Sports

Taking risks with ones life in sport competition is nothing new in the human experience. Gladiator competitions in ancient Rome and jousts in medieval Europe are two examples of sports that fit the modern definition of extreme.

In the 1990s, some U.S. corporations grouped a number of 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 inline 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. However, although the number of extreme sport aficionados is growing in China, 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 associated with these sports discourage many Chinese people from participation.

Extreme Sports Get Government Support

The Chinese government has begun 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 — paid by the government — the park is set to host a number of national and international extreme sport events and encourage more Chinese youths to take up skateboarding, BMX, and inline skating.

China is also increasingly hosting large international extreme sports events, for example, the Shanghai Showdown Gravity Games, Nanshan Snowboarding Open, 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.

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, by association, their companies, among Chinese youth. For example, professional California skateboarder Danny Way grabbed headlines around the world when he, with the financial support of his key sponsors Quiksilver and DC shoes, 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 government officials, 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 youths to take up the sport. Rather, the stunt had the opposite effect; it was perceived locally as “an oddball ‘American’ thing.”

Danny Way Jumpstarts Skateboarding in China

Danny Way’s skateboarding feats on the Great Wall in 2005 dazzled the world. Just before the event, Way explained his motives: “Skateboarding has yet to realize its full potential, and by bringing this event to the people of China and the rest of the world, I hope to contribute to the future of skateboarding and bring my sport the global attention it deserves.”

The event was sponsored by Quiksilver, the company that owns DC Shoes — which makes skateboarding shoes that are endorsed by Way. Bob McKnight, Quiksilver’s CEO, understandingly had a more entrepreneurial take on the jump: “Quiksilver continues to grow around the world, and China is an important region for our brand. Danny is the perfect athlete to bring this feat of skating excellence to this nation, and his jump will serve as a bridge to a country which has discovered its passion for skateboarding. It also represents an enormous opportunity to bring our boardriding lifestyle to the youth of China and the tremendous excitement surrounding this sport.”

A Tentative Approach to Extreme Sports

Indeed, despite the support of the China Extreme Sports Association and the aggressive marketing by Chinese and Western — particularly U.S. — companies, many Chinese youth and their parents are tentative about participating in these sports. Although the X Games are on the rise in Beijing, they are developing slowly. Chinese parents worry about their children getting involved in dangerous sports. And top-quality coaching and equipment are too expensive for the average person to afford. The Shanghai Star reports that many Chinese youth are “under heavy pressure to study” and that some consider extreme sports “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. Indeed, these studies identify Jackie Chan 成龙 as the “real ‘extreme’ hero in China.” Although extreme sports have spawned a new culture among youth in China, participation tends to be based on the consumption of apparel, footwear, and events, inspired by U.S. and Japanese action sports heroes rather than on active participation.

Source: Thorpe, Holly. (2008). Extreme sports come to China. In Fan Hong, Duncan Mackay & Karen Christensen (Eds.), China Gold, China’s Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory, pp. 84–86. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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