The Sleeping Dragon awakes
Recently, China held its first wavepool competition at the Xing Feng Extreme Sports Center. The Chinese pool is a patent-evasive version of the Kelly Slater wavepool, though the wave breaks more like Surf Snowdonia. It's located 300kms from the waveless Yellow Sea.
The competition was also the Chinese National Surf Championships. Previously, China had run its national titles at Hainan Island in the south of the country, but this was the first time it'd been run in a pool.
Bryan Dickerson from WavePool mag estimates that the Xing Feng Extreme Sports Center is the first of five pools to be built in China.
With this in mind, Matt George winds the clock back to get an insight to the future.
Summer, 1987, The Peoples Republic of China
To call it a delegation was a stretch for me.
But not for the Peoples Republic of China. That’s where I found myself in the spring of 1987 as the only man to have ever carried a surfboard on the Great Wall of China. One old lady had asked through our translator what I was doing walking around with an airplane wing. I had been invited by the Chinese government to lead an effort to introduce surfing to their country. China’s state run athletic programs, inhumane in their discipline, are designed for global athletic dominance. So I brought some real characters with me. Hawaiian flower Rell Sunn, who was stunning in her gold lame jumpsuit, Willy Morris, a giant in the “Land of the Red Dragon”, Jon Damm, smooth as James Bond and photographer Warren Bolster, the immensely talented misanthrope.
Now mind you, surfing impresario Peter Drouyn, had visited the year previous. But his sojourn was shrouded in the mystery of what prompted his foggy exit. It might have been from the banquets where he would apparently cue Jimi Hendrix and Greenough tube footage and declare, “Comrades! This is what it is like to ride inside a moving sea!”
Delivered in Mandarin, no less. Drouyn having always been thorough in his approaches to life’s challenges and...well, changes.
His attempt at becoming China’s first surfing warlord was a hell of an act to follow. Admittedly, my motivations were far less lofty, though just as earnest. Our delegation was given the Junior Chinese Springboard Diving Squad and expected to turn them into Tom Curren within the week. Still, the kids were cool. Like all kids. Loving the freedom of what translated into “surf frolic” on Hainan Island, hard against the contested waters of the South China Sea.
On the way through the paddies to the surf breaks were overgrown bomb craters left over from the Vietnam War. But the lazy days at the beach were intoxicating to these young Chinese divers. And that seemed like introduction enough of surfing for all of us. Far from the strict discipline of their pool training that one kid described as “agony and sorrow”. With no agony and sorrow, by the time we left, all I was worried about was how long the boards I gave away would last these poor kids. I ended my feature article in Surfer with this:
“So the Father turned and started his walk home with his hand gently on the back of his son’s neck. His son had been in at the beach surfing all week. And all this father could think of as they made their way back through the mud of the rice paddies, was that it was going to take days to get his son’s mind back on the tending of the fields.”
2018, Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia
The REnextop Asian Surfing Tour was in town.
I was on the lead broadcast and reportedly over 5.4 million Chinese were tuned in watching the contest live. Over the five days of competition we were told that the viewership swelled to just over 17 million. I wondered what the WSL would think of those numbers. I guessed it must be said that the Chinese seem pretty keen on this surfing thing.
The question now is, where is it all leading to? The global dominance in every other aspect on the globe that the Chinese are now maneuvering so deftly for? Will America become a fallen Rome? Australia an oppressed Sparta? Will our grandchildren speak Chinese and shape their backyard boards with dimensions from the Chinese numeration system?
2020, Hainan Island, Peoples Republic of China
There was only one man to ask.
Our great 1976 World Champion and surfing impresario Peter Townend.
So I got a hold of him and here goes:
With the generous financial blessings of the Chinese Government, Peter has been coaching China’s developing international surf team. He got the gig right around the time of the Olympic surfing announcement. He was coaching at a Chinese tidal bore surfing contest. Yes, you heard that right. A tidal bore. Anyway, he soon found himself with officials from Beijing’s Bureau of Water Sports. “They looked at me and said, ‘How do we get good at this? And I said, ‘Well, first you’ve got to learn how to swim, mate!’” Peter recalls, “There was no point blowing smoke up their arse.”
And so, in pure Aussie fashion, Peter was off and running. Back and forth to Hainan Island to train the Chinese national 'squad' on the same beaches Drouyn and I found ourselves on so long ago.
Soon realising it would take years and years, the Chinese Government, impatient for Olympic Gold, tried to convince some Chinese/American surfers to switch flags. “The government gave me a million dollars to go and find those people”, said Peter. “But there was one condition: You cannot have dual citizenship - ever.”
That put the kybosh on the thing. Still, Peter did find one surfer who considered the jump. With government backing and free reign to accept enormous Chinese sponsorships, the deal would be worth untold millions.
The surfer eventually backed out. That is how much the guy dug his family’s hard-won American citizenship.
(Any Aussie takers out there willing to trade dog’s eyes for dim sum?)
Peter bravely admits that China has no chance of qualifying for Tokyo next year. “There’s never been a beach culture in China,” he says, “Surfing is, at its core, about fun. Not the merciless intensity that China trains its other athletes.”
Still, Peter remains hopeful as he eyes the L.A. Olympics in 2028. And here is where wave machines will come into play as more than just kiddie pools for Jackson Dorian. Secretive as always, China is rumored to have installed such a “wave simulation” apparatus on Hainan Island and allegedly has plans for many more. Peter prays that the 2028 Summer Games will be in a pool.
Which opens up a whole new train of thought. Do other surfers hope we face off with the Olympic Chinese in a wave pool? Exit polls at Kelly’s wave ranch indicate that most surfers under 14 years old are an enthusiastic yes, while the adult set are mostly undecided. And both groups agree that if it need be so, it can only take place on a wave like Kelly’s. Chinese or not, other wave pools are just too short an experience to decide anything.
Either way it looks like the Chinese are serious about finally entering surfing’s competitive sphere. The question remains if they will ever be able to do this in a biosphere. The thing about the possibility of wave pool competitions is that it suits the brutal training philosophies of the Chinese to a tee.
Where it is possible that the great, natural sport of surfing will become a display of discipline, repetition and consistency. The three hallmarks of any competitive success within the Chinese culture.
What the hell, I thought, it’s worth a try.
Mick Fanning brought home three titles using the same formula.
// MATT GEORGE