Young stars on board for Paris

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From a sole representative in Tokyo, to a young quartet riding to Paris: Chinese skateboarders are hoping to make their increased presence felt on the Olympic stage, as the sport's popularity soars to new heights.

Not quite at the top yet, but showing a lot of promise during their ascent, the impressive collective performances of China's skateboarders at the Olympic Qualifier Series have helped ramp up the sport's profile as not just an urban pastime, but also a cool career — and a possible pathway to Olympic glory — that is particularly suited to the creativity and daring of youth.

Cui Chenxi of China competes during the women's street qualifiers at the 2022 Skateboarding Street and Park World Championships in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Feb. 1, 2023. (Xinhua/Wang Dongzhen)

Led by reigning Asian Games champion Cui Chenxi, China's emerging women's skateboarding squad stole the show at the OQS final leg in Budapest last week, bringing home three quota places in the street discipline — the maximum for each National Olympic Committee — and one in park for Paris 2024, where the sport will return as an official medal event following its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020.

Cui, a 14-year-old prodigy, repeated her deep run at last month's series opener in Shanghai by again riding into the final eight in Budapest, eventually finishing 8th in the overall Olympic World Skateboard Ranking after the doubleheader to clinch her ticket to Paris.

Pioneer Zeng Wenhui, China's only skater in Tokyo, also ended up above the top-20 cut, finishing in 12th place, to earn an Olympic spot, together with 13th-placed teen Zhu Yuanling, despite the fact they were both knocked out in the semifinals in Budapest.

Skateboarding's street event at the Olympics is competed over two sections, where each skater takes two 45-second runs on a course featuring stairs, ledges, curbs and handrails in the first phase, before each performing their best five tricks in the second.

A skater's final score is aggregated from their best run and the two best tricks, requiring a versatile repertoire imbued with quality, creativity and style to prevail.

While the trio of street specialists celebrated their Olympic berth, their younger compatriot Zheng Haohao capped China's Budapest trip with a happy surprise in the park event, when the schoolgirl squeezed into the Paris field despite finishing 26th in the overall rankings.

As the youngest in the field, Zheng, who is only 11 years old, will turn 12 on the closing day (Aug 11) of Paris 2024. However, she put her fearlessness, an integral part of the sport's identity, on display in the preliminary round, where she rode up against an established cast of Olympic medalists and X-Games winners in a discipline that involves athletes skating across a bowl-shaped course and performing gravity-defying tricks.

Not powerful enough yet to get as much air as her elite opponents, Zheng managed to impress with her smooth trick transitions and the variety of her repertoire, without having to launch herself high off the side of the sloping bowl to stomp dazzling tricks.

She failed to advance into the semis in Budapest, following a prelim run in Shanghai, but still snapped up a qualification berth for Paris after several skaters from Japan, Brazil and the United States, who'd finished above her on the day, were denied due to their respective NOCs' full-quota status.

With most of her peers busy preparing for their final exams at school, Zheng's booked a summer trip she's been longing for since she first rode a skateboard four years ago.

"I was watching an older girl competing in a qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics. She looked really cool, and I was fascinated by skateboarding right away," said Zheng, who is sure to be the youngest member of China's Paris Olympic delegation.

"It's been my dream to participate in the Olympics since then.

"Hopefully, I can go to visit the Eiffel Tower and check out the skateboarding parks in Paris. There must be a lot of French kids my age there. It should be fun riding with them," Zheng said of her Olympic trip bucket-list.

Wider recognition

Thanks to the Olympic exposure, skateboarding is gaining traction across China, highlighted by the bustling scenes at Shanghai's dockland park, where parents and kids joined long queues to sign up for entry-level junior courses during last month's qualifying event.

Stoked about the sport's bright future, Cui, who started skating only four years ago influenced by her dad, shared her advice for newcomers.

"If you're just starting, I want to encourage everyone to maintain their love for skateboarding," said Cui, who, at 13, became China's youngest ever Asian Games champion across all sports when she won gold in Hangzhou last year.

"Practice tricks with a positive mindset: If it doesn't work now, keep going every day, and eventually, it will. Stay persistent."

The sport's growing appeal among young fans has turned Team China's teen stars into highly sought-after spokespeople for a range of sponsors. Since signing an endorsement deal with the Chinese skateboarding team in September, high fashion and trendy sports brand FILA FUSION has seen its market awareness grow exponentially alongside Chinese skaters' increasing international presence.

Its tailor-made products for Team China, such as customized skateboarding shoes for Cui and Zeng, and classic outfits made with anti-friction fabrics and accessories, have helped Chinese skaters push beyond their limits on ramps, rails and slopes.

Donning the bright yellow and red — inspired by the national flag — and the brand's iconic blue, Chinese athletes wearing specially designed T-shirts passed the OQS tests in Shanghai and Budapest with, literally, flying colors.

Their workwear-inspired skateboard pants, using CORDURA fabric, also helped them try jaw-dropping tricks without worrying about rips or tears, thanks to the excellent strength and abrasion resistance of their outfits.

By hosting all kinds of skateboarding promotion events on the sidelines of top competitions, such as the Shanghai OQS leg, FILA FUSION is also helping grow skateboarding culture, increase access to the sport and encourage greater participation together with Chinese athletes.

Community outreach initiatives, such as the FUSION PARK event, is engaging with an increasing number of young skateboard enthusiasts, offering them a shared platform to perfect their skills, express themselves and promote the urban sport culture at the same time.

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