Liu Jiaming, 22, is in his most natural state on the skateboard.
Every day for five hours, he practices jumps, flips, and spins in a park in Nanjing, the official home of China’s national skateboarding team.
Liu joined the team after winning a national championship in April. At the time, China was assembling a team of skateboarders—six men and six women—to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where the sport will be an event for the first time.
“I was the oldest among the trainees,” Liu says. “The others are young kids who were scouted from martial arts schools, acrobatic troupes, or other groups.”
The ragtag team trains every day from 9 am until 6 pm, with a two-hour lunch break in between. For Liu, it’s his first time going through formal training.
“I never underwent systematic training before joining the national team,” Liu says. “I am a street skateboarder.”
Liu picked up skateboarding while growing up in Shenzhen, just north of the border with Hong Kong.
He asked older skateboarders on the street to teach him the tricks of the trade. By age 15, he’d become good enough to quit school and go pro full-time.
“I have my own ideas and wanted to pursue my dreams.”
“I don’t like being told what to do at school,” Liu says. “I have my own ideas and wanted to pursue my dreams.”
Since going pro, Liu has participated in about 70 skateboarding competitions in China. He subsists on sponsorships from fashion and skateboard gear companies.
Liu admits China’s Olympic prospects in skateboarding are not bright, since the country lags behind the West at the men’s professional level.
“Foreigners have been doing it for decades,” he says. “Our national team has just been formed.”
But that isn’t stopping them from trying.
In 2014, Liu represented China at the Asian Beach Games, one of the highest levels of competition for the sport, and finished third in the street section, earning his first medal for the country.
There’s also hope for the Chinese women’s team.
Unlike the men, who face a tough playing field, the women have a better shot at Olympic glory, Liu says.
From underground sport to national project
Like many skateboarders, Liu is happy that the sport has finally won government support after decades of being underground.
Skateboarding took off in China in the late 1980s when Western movies featuring skateboarding, such as Gleaming the Cube (1989), were screened in China.
In 1991, Beijing Sport University students set up the first skateboarding corps with the sponsorship of a sports equipment company.
A year later, Powell Skateboards opened its first shop in China and organized the country’s first skateboarding competition in 1994.
As more sports brands organized more competitions around China, more young people with a hankering for street cool took up the sport.
But the big catalyst came in 2016, when the International Olympic Committee announced that it would add skateboarding to the list of events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
A year later, the Chinese government set up training corps around the country to nurture skateboarders.
“Instead of being seen as a form of underground dodgy activity like in the past, the sport became a source of positive energy,” says Yang Zi, the owner of a skateboarding gear shop in Beijing.
He says that he sees more parents enrolling their kids in classes to help them learn skills like resilience and problem-solving.
There will be two main types of skateboarding at the Summer Olympics: street and park.
Street competitions take place on courses with handrails, curbs, benches, walls, and slopes that competitors must navigate, while park competitions take place on steep curves that challenge skateboarders to perform midair tricks.
Judging takes into account factors like degree of difficulty of the tricks, height, speed, originality, execution, and composition of moves.
After the national government decided to support the sport in its quest for Olympic glory, more skateboard venues have sprung up around China.
The city of Nanjing recently completed a 2,000-square-meter skateboarding center to serve as the national team’s headquarters.
As a testament to how popular the sport has become, over 130 athletes vied for the 12 spots on the national team during the championships in April.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.