The sun beat down on the concrete of Wanda Plaza, a popular shopping area of Shanghai’s northern Yangpu district. It was a surprisingly hot late April preview of the summer to come. In the middle of the central plaza, flanked on each side by an Imax theater, a Wal-Mart, a Pizza Hut and the chattering construction of yet another subway line, stood an unfamiliar site in China’s public spaces: a vert ramp. Splattered with the insignia of key sponsor KIA, the makeshift ramp – extremely tame by American standards – was there to advertise the Asian X Games, which would be returning to Shanghai for the 6th consecutive year directly across the street. The attention-grabber was doing its job perfectly: a crowd was amassing.
As soon as the first set of urethane wheels rumbled down, the usual crowd of Sunday shoppers jockeyed for position. Security guards and food stand owners left their posts to shuffle into the mix. Three skateboarders (one who could not have been more than 7 or 8 years old, another in his late adolescence), two BMX riders and an inline skater took turns traversing the short course. A small ramp was placed in the center for a small but photogenic leap. First, the youngest skateboarder simply made it successfully across the gap to awes from the crowd. Then the inline skater built up enough speed to grab the bottom of his stakes mid-air and pull his legs parallel to the ground in the prototypical aggressive inline photo-op. The BMX riders came last. The first, like the previous participants, was a Chinese rider. He was much bigger than the small frame of his white, low-slung park bike. He easily caught air off of each ramp he approached. The second, though, received the most attention. With a beehive of knotted dreads and ripped jean shorts, the Australian commanded a crowd of gasps after landing a 360 off a ramp that seemed way to low for such a trick. If it weren’t for the dancing flash mob that commenced immediately after he returned to his perch, the cell phone pictures might have gone on for hours.
George Jackson is a 26-year-old Australian from southeast city of Brisbane. He is just less than six feet tall with a narrowframe and eyebrows that descend at their outside tips. His impressive mass of dreaded hair and scraggy beard make his head seem twice as big as it actually is. Jackson arrived in Shanghai in 2005. He described himself as “just a regular backpacking biker.” Coincidentally, Shanghai opened the largest skate park in the world that very same year, the SMP Skatepark. Built by SMP International (the global licensor of SMP and Shy lifestyle clothing), the park exceeds 12,000 square meters and features a variety of trick-inducing obstacles. Jackson became a regular fixture and soon began making friends. One of the first people he met was a local biker named Shen Jian. According to Jackson, he opened with something like, “I can’t speak English. You are a good biker. Come live with me.” With not much to lose, Jackson accepted.
The inaugural X Games took place in Rhode Island in 1995. They are an annual event that feature sports that lack proper mainstream coverage and accreditation, such as skateboarding, BMX, Moto X (freestyle motocross), inline skating and the like. It did not have an immediate earth-shattering impact on the sports world, but it was popular enough to quickly expand to include a Winter X Games. By 1997, sports like snowboarding, snowmobile and aggressive skiing joined the sphere of alternative sports it promoted. Not all left-of-center sports are welcomed at the X Games though. There is quite the list of events that were given a chance but failed to retain audiences, including, but certainly not limited to, street luge, skysurfing and bungee jumping. This exclusivity-to-an-audience brings to question just what the X Games stand for: Are they a platform for promoting alternative sports? Or are they an event that exists solely to profit off of an untapped audience?
The X Games are the brainchild of the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, which is much better know as ESPN. By most standards, the decade-and-a-half run of the Games has been a success. Not only do they have two regular events in the traditional Summer and Winter Games, but the X Games Asia have also become a yearly fixture. The audience (and sponsors) remains loyal if finicky, if the constant stream of sports line-up changes is to be understood correctly. This is a key element of how it differs from other sporting events. There is little history, and because of that, there is no tradition. Now in its adolescence, how will the X Games come into maturity?
In a 1999 profile of Tony Hawk in The New Yorker, the author, Mark Levine, talks to the director of marketing and communications for the X Games, Chris Stiepock:
“What interested ESPN, Stiepock said, was the youth market’s buying power. ‘The X Games is looking for Generation Y – twelve-to-twenty-four-year-old males,’ he told me. ‘They’re nebulous and hard to reach, because nobody knows what to call them or what they are or what they’re doing. All we know is that they’re not doing traditional stuff anymore. But on any given telecast on ESPN of the X Games there are about fifty males ranging from twelve to twenty-four for every hundred households watching. That’s higher than for any other sporting event on television. That’s a direct hit. That’s a household concentration that’s very attractive to the Mountain Dews, the Taco Bells, the Marines, Snickers, Pringle, A.T.&T.—right down the line.’”
Most major sporting events and leagues rarely pander so blatantly as the X Games. Not a big crowd at the windsurfing event this year? No problem, leave it on the scrap heap next year. The sponsors aren’t seeing a big return on the Barefoot Waterski Jumping telecast? Consider it a thing of the past. The fan, and his or her financial support, has decisive power over the future of alternative sports.
Is this selling the sustainability and culture of the X Games short though? If the NBA were founded fifteen years ago, would the dunk be worth three points instead of two, since it is a fan favorite? Would curling be in the one-and-done pile of scrapped Olympic events? The X Games are a product of its generation. They are not only competing with other well-established sports, but also TV, the music industry, box offices and the Internet on every device within arms’ reach. It’s no wonder they do whatever they can to retain your attention.
George Jackson moved in with Jian Shen, or Jason, as he is better known. George schooled Jason in BMX riding and the proper vocabulary and idioms that go along with the scene. Jason taught George Mandarin by means of increasingly complicated charades and gave him access to the local realm of alternative sports. They made their way across the country following BMX events and the newly opened parks that accompanied them.
As Chinese citizens gained access, however limited, to the Internet, sports outside of the mainstream began to grab attention. The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing provided a convenient spark for all citizens to start exploring different sporting options. The Olympics especially helped popularize BMX as the 2008 games was the first to include it as an official event. Between the 2003 announcement that it would be included in the line-up and the 2008 commencement, BMX popularity in China grew exponentially.
Jackson and Jason were able to make a living off of competing in events alone. Where a winner’s share would provide a good weekend in Australia, Jackson could afford to live without a day job with his earnings in China. The pair travelled the country, appearing at any event they could find. Jackson was surprised at the size of the audiences that would show up to watch. At one mountainside city, he recalled an audience approaching 40,000 gathering to watch a BMX event. It was so inundated with people that they had to block off the entrance bridges to the mountain. When they announced a photo signing, it felt like the entire crowd collapsed on the riders.
The duo eventually decided to incorporate and started their own company: The Future BMX. They saw an opportunity in a void of connection. Like many companies, the makers of alternative sports clothing and gear took one look at the demographics and the expanding bank accounts of China and realized that there was money to be made. Major brands, like Vans and DC Shoes, wanted to move into this market but lacked feet on the ground. Jackson and Jason were exactly the middlemen required. They also made themselves available to Chinese companies who wanted to use BMX and alternative sports in their own advertising. One week they perform at an event like the pre-X Games road show (Jackson was the announcer at the first X Games Asia in Shanghai), the next they may be filming a commercial for a Chinese company trying to look hip.
At first glance, China may not appear to be a particularly fertile setting for these kinds of sports, but there are two notable indications that they can succeed. First, and most importantly, these sports have no stigma in China. Alternative sports, and skateboarding especially, are analogous, in most Western cultures, with vandalism, teenage crime and disrespect. In China, though, none of that exists. Jackson said that he encountered security guards while riding in both Australia and China. While they would run him away in Australia, Chinese security guards often sat down and watched. Freestyle riding has no negative associations in China; it is just a curious spectacle. As long as riders play by the usual laws of the land, they are welcome to use most any public space for their enjoyment.
The second reason these alternative sports stand to do well in China is that they are individual sports. According to The Economist in their article on why China can’t field eleven decent footballers, “China’s Party-controlled, top-down approach to sport has yielded some magnificent results in individual sports, helping China win more Olympic gold medals in Beijing in 2008 than any other country. But this ‘Soviet model’ has proven catastrophically unsuitable for assembling a team of 11 football players, much less a nation of them.” What is detrimental to team sports is beneficial to the alternative sports. The intensely solo process of trying a trick, failing, trying again, failing, trying again, ad infinitum, is conducive to the Chinese method of achieving most anything. The flawed but established method of sports improvement in the country is suited perfectly for solo alternative sports.
Despite the potential, there will be a noticeable lack of Chinese participants in this year’s X Games. Jackson feels that there is still a chunk of time before the Chinese will be able to compete with international athletes who have grown up in a culture accepting and promoting alternative sports. The first phase of ground breakers and early adopters may be coming to an end, but it will be another generation before China witnesses the emergence of truly great alternative athletes. The younger the kids who take an interest in these sports, the longer they will have to practice and master their skill of choice and potentially make an impact on the world stage.
The front entrance of the KIC Jiangwan Sports Centre has a castle-like, lazy Coliseum façade. Archways dot the outer wall, and within them are the normal Chinese storefronts: English academies with copyright-questionable names (Lego English?), stationary stores, and Chinese history memorabilia boutiques. Outside are a series of cement courtyards where amateur inline skaters weave through small, multi-colored cones, couples play badminton, kids jump rope, the elderly practice Tai Chi and families stroll. Forming a triangle with the entrance is a Feng shui-friendly garden and a series of futsal fields. There are modern gyms, tennis courts and congregation halls. It is a quintessential picture of modern China: heavily invested infrastructure bridging Eastern and Western design.
Inside, a week before the KIA X Games Asia 2012 is set to take place, both foreign and domestic workers are piecing together the field. There will be a street course and a vert ramp for all three of the main disciplines to take part in: aggressive inline, skateboarding and BMX freestyle. There is also the increasingly popular Mini-MegaRamp, a structure that begins with a steep downward slope into a ramp that launches riders nearly 10 meters into the air before landing them in a large half-pipe. In addition, there will be a Big Air Moto X freestyle demonstration. The Games brought in over 60,000 spectators in 2011, and since it is scheduled during China’s Labour Day weekend, event planners are expecting to exceed that number. The USD$165,000 in prize money has also lured in a high level of international talent. Yet this is the end of X Games Asia’s contract with Shanghai, so it may be the last official ESPN event Shanghai citizens will be able to see in person for some time.
The X Games Asia will take place from Saturday, April 28th through Tuesday, May 1st. There are a slew of international participants, including athletes from Australia, Brazil, China, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong SAR, Columbia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Indonesia, India, Japan, Korea, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, South Africa, Singapore, Spain, Thailand, Ukraine, the United States of America and Venezuela. Among these athletes is seven-time X Games skateboard gold medallist Pierre-Luc Gagnon, who will attempt to win his third consecutive Mini-MegaRamp title. Accompanying him is eight-time gold medallist Andy Macdonald and two-time gold medallist Sandro Dias. Headlining the BMX field are four-time X Games gold medallist Kevin Robinson, three-time gold medallist Chad Kagy, nine-time medallist Simon Tabron, six-time medallist Steven McCann and two-time X Games Asia gold medallist Vince Byron. Japan’s high-flying inline skater Takeshi Yasutoko will also be seeking his sixth-consecutive gold medal.
WORDS: MICHAEL ARDAIOLO
PICTURES: MICHAEL ARDAIOLO