Team China aims to conquer an unknown new sport: skateboarding
Just four years ago, Zhang Xin was an intern cheerleader who had never ridden a skateboard. Now she is preparing to skate for China at the Tokyo Olympics.
The 22-year-old skater, who will compete in the park’s women’s event, is one of two riders representing the Chinese team at the Games, which begin on Friday. Her teammate, Zeng Wenhui, 16, will participate in the women’s street competition.
The pair are the product of China’s extraordinary push to build an elite skateboarding team in time for Tokyo, which has seen Chinese coaches apply old-fashioned quasi-military training methods to the traditionally laid-back sport.
As soon as the International Olympic Committee approved the inclusion of skateboarding as an event for the first time at the next Games in 2016, the Chinese Olympic juggernaut leapt into action.
Zeng Wenhui trains ahead of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan on July 22, 2021. Xue Yubin / Xinhua
Sports authorities started the process of building a national skateboard team from scratch, looking for promising young athletes and setting up six regional training camps to hone their skills.
The existing talent pool was not large. Although skateboarding is gaining popularity among Chinese youth – and several cities have built Gargantuan skateparks to attract them – the sport is much less developed in China than in countries like the United States.
The General Administration of Sports of China, however, trusted its proven “medal factory” system to overcome this drawback.
Rather than filling the camps exclusively with experienced skaters, authorities have also turned to the Chinese sports school system – a nationwide network of specialist institutions designed to identify and train world-class athletes from an early age.
The system focuses solely on producing champions and is known for the semi-militarized training regimes that child athletes have to endure. But it has undeniably been effective in helping China become an Olympic power: around 95% of the country’s gold medalists assisted a sports school.
When the training camps opened in 2017, seasoned Chinese skateboarders found themselves practicing alongside sports school students who had been reassigned from martial arts, gymnastics and other disciplines. The vast majority had never skated before.
Zhang was among them. Originally from Hunan Province (central China), she was training to become a cheerleader at the Nanjing Sports Institute when she noticed a recruitment event for the skateboard project.
When signing up with a friend on a whim, Zhang never imagined she would be selected. But during the trials, she excelled in a series of physical tests designed to assess her balance, coordination and strength. Her friend was eliminated; she must stay.
The first months of training were brutal. The coaches threw Zhang and the other novices into the deep end: for 12 hours each day, they halfpipe, practiced new tricks and, inevitably, bailed hard and often.
The former cheerleader struggled at first. She suffered repeated injuries and didn’t think she had a chance to qualify for the Olympics – she could barely skate.
“I was crying every day next to the park when I first started learning to skate, because it was so terrifying,” Zhang told Sixth Tone. “It was very difficult because we were creating something from nothing.”
Zeng Wenhui competes in the WS / SLS World Championship in Sao Paulo, Brazil, September 20, 2019. Alexandre Schneider via People Visual
Zeng, who attended the skateboard camp in the southern city of Zhaoqing, says the training was even more intense than what she experienced as a martial arts student.
“At the sports school, we took lessons in the morning and trained in the afternoon,” Zeng explains. “Because the goal was not to compete in the Olympics, the training was not as strict, nor the management. “
The hours of repetitive exercise paid off. Zhang and Zeng have made spectacular progress; Zhang even won a bronze medal at the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia.
The pair would go on to make the cup for Tokyo 2020 – each taking one of 20 qualifying spots in their respective events. Both are ranked 15th for the Games.
Zhang Xin poses for photos after receiving a bronze medal at the 18th Asian Games in Palembang, Indonesia on August 29, 2018. Hotli Simanjuntak via IC
But for established skaters like Yuan Zhenzhen, training in the camps was a frustrating and overwhelming experience.
The 27-year-old started skateboarding in college after becoming obsessed with the “cool” aspect of the sport in online videos. For years, she rode the streets alone – she was probably the only skater in Jinhua, the city in eastern Zhejiang Province where she studied, she said.
Her chance to try for the Olympic team came after she placed 10th in Women’s Street at the China National Games in 2017. For a skateboard fanatic, the offer of free accommodation and access at a skatepark seemed perfect. She jumped at the chance.
But when she arrived at the Beijing camp, Yuan couldn’t adjust to the coaches’ dogmatic and repetitive approach to training. Even though she understood their reasoning and was willing to sacrifice herself to get to Tokyo, it wasn’t the fun, free sport she fell in love with.
“You have to practice the stuff they tell you every day,” she tells Sixth Tone. “You are not allowed to try anything else.”
Zhang Xin competes in the Olympic Skateboard Qualifying Event in Des Moines, Iowa, USA on May 21, 2021. Charlie Neibergall via IC
It quickly became apparent that things weren’t going to work. At the Beijing camp, the sports school students and street skaters were separated into two groups, and the coaches clearly preferred to work with the sports school athletes. After two months, almost all of the veteran skaters – including Yuan – were sent home.
“The national team obviously wants obedient people,” Yuan said. “There are a lot of good skaters on the streets who are great people, but some maybe not. And if you want to represent the country, you have to pay attention to these things. “
Although a handful of street skaters from other camps make up the national team, the majority were students. Yuan admits that she was impressed with how quickly the sports school rookies progressed.
“For us, if the coaches tell us to take a lap and we don’t want to do it… it’s not going to work,” she said. “But for them, they just have to do what the teachers taught them.”
Since leaving the camp, Yuan has practically given up on her dream of becoming a professional skater. She decided to grow up and focus on her life, she says. She now works in sales in Shanghai and rarely touches her deck.
“Skateboarding was my dearest friend,” Yuan says. “Now it’s buried deep in my heart.”
Chinese sports authorities, however, insist that Tokyo 2020 will be a game-changer for the country’s skateboarding scene.
“Even though skateboarding has been around in China for 30 years, it has only entered mainstream and fast-track development since the Olympic Games decision,” said Zeng Bingfeng, an official with the China Roller Sports Association. who is not related to Zeng Wenhui.
Yuan Fei, director of skating clothing brand Vans China and a 30-year skateboarding veteran, also predicts that the sport will benefit, especially economically, from becoming an Olympic event.
“Skateboarding training will be everywhere and more capital will be drawn into the skate scene,” says Yuan, who is unrelated to Yuan Zhenzhen. “There will also be a better market for skateboarding clothing and equipment. “
Zhang Xin competes in the Women’s Park Open Qualifiers Dew Tour 2021 in Des Moines, Iowa, United States on May 20, 2021. Sean M. Haffey via People Visual
Zhang, on the other hand, is just focusing on her routine for the next week. The prospect of performing at the Games is both exciting and scary, she said.
“I just hope to be calm during the competition,” said Zhang. “I’ll do my best to show my abilities.”
The women’s park competition will take place on August 4, with Zhang facing top skaters like Japanese duo Misugu Okamoto and Sakura Yosozumi and Briton Sky Brown. Her teammate Zeng will compete a week earlier on July 26. Faves in her event include Brazilians Pamela Rosa and Rayssa Leal as well as Japan’s Aori Nishimura.
Yuan Fei is realistic about the Chinese pair’s chances of victory, but he hopes they could come up with a surprise.
“We don’t expect them to win medals, but who knows what’s going to happen? he says. “After all, Chinese skaters train differently from skaters in most countries. And in this competition, there are elements of randomness and luck.
And for Yuan Fei, Tokyo is just the beginning. He has higher hopes for the Paris 2024 Olympics, which could be a watershed moment, especially for Chinese skateboarders.
“Considering the way they are trained, they will reach another level in three years,” said Yuan Fei.
Publisher: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Zhang Xin competes in the 18th Asian Games final, in Palembang, Indonesia, August 29, 2018. Cheng Min / Xinhua)