Urban sports festival gathers top athletes, sports lovers

Chinese skateboarder Zhang Jie competes in the Olympic Qualifier Series - Shanghai on May 16, 2024 in Shanghai. Photo: Chen Xia/GT

Chinese skateboarder Zhang Jie competes in the Olympic Qualifier Series – Shanghai on May 16, 2024 in Shanghai. Photo: Chen Xia/GT

Accompanied by cheers and dynamic electronic music, Australian skateboarder Aaliyah Wilson glides effortlessly across the halfpipe, with her board seemingly an extension of her own body. Her fluid and graceful movements make her look like she is flying through the air.

“I’m really happy, I just had a good time with my team,” Wilson told the Global Times on Thursday, minutes after she finished her match in the Skateboarding Women’s Park prelims in Shanghai.

“My goal is ideally the Olympics, but also just to have as much fun as possible on my skateboard,” smiled the 18-year-old, who ranked eighth in the prelims.

Wilson is among the 464 top global athletes, including seven Tokyo 2020 Olympic champions such as BMX (bicycle motocross) rider Logan Martin, who have gathered in Shanghai to earn quota places for the upcoming 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

The “Olympic Qualifier Series (OQS) – Shanghai” is being held from Thursday to Sunday at the city’s iconic Huangpu riverside, where athletes in four sports – BMX freestyle, breaking, skateboarding, and sport climbing – are competing for over 150 quotas for Paris 2024.

“[People] will see an incredible level of competition in these four sports…[with] the very best athletes in the world,” Pierre Fratter-Bardy, Olympic Games strategy and development associate director, said at a OQS press conference on Wednesday.

It is the first-ever OQS event to serve as an ultimate qualification stage for the four sports for Paris 2024.

In the past, quotas for the Games were decided by associations of respective single sports through events such as tournaments, Liu Dongfeng, a professor in sport management at Shanghai University of Sport, told the Global Times.

“And now the OQS, as a multi-sport event of the International Olympic Committee [IOC], is expected to attract wider attention, and to stimulate the interest in these four sports among more people, particularly young ones,” said Liu, who is also a vice-president of the International Association of Sports Economists.

The four OQS sports share common highlights that make them popular among young people, Liu noted. “They are dynamic, fashionable street sports with some extreme sports elements.”

As a key project in the Olympic Agenda 2020+5, the OQS in Shanghai aims to offer the Olympic candidates a high-standard competition area, and also to bring the public an immersive Olympic experience that merges sport, art, music and culture.

A public sports festival named Urban Festival is also held at Huangpu riverside during the OQS, consisting of a variety of experiences and shows built around the four OQS sports. The Urban Festival allows spectators of all ages to have an inspiring experience while watching high-level competition, said the OQS organizers.

On Thursday morning, people at the Urban Festival were excited to see the presence of some famous Chinese sports stars, such as former Olympic diving champion Wu Minxia and former captain of China’s national soccer team Fan Zhiyi, who tried the four OQS sports perhaps for the first time in their lives.

“It’s a hard ride!” laughed a sweaty Fan after the 54-year-old tried BMX. He encouraged the public to try these sports, saying that they can help temper one’s willpower and build a strong body.

The OQS venue in Shanghai is a half-outdoor and half-indoor riverside sports park where professional athletes and public enthusiasts generally share a common space. Liu praised the creative combination of the OQS and the public sports festival, which he thinks is a meaningful effort in promoting Olympic sports and events.

“It is not merely a competition, but also sort of an interactive carnival that allows everyone to participate and enjoy the charm of sports,” he told the Global Times.

At a gate of the venue on Thursday morning, an 8-year-old boy, carrying a skateboard in his hands, was waiting in line to enter. Coming from Southwest China’s Sichuan Province, the boy, nicknamed Hengheng, had traveled thousands of kilometers to Shanghai with his family specifically for the event.

“I’ve come to see my idols. They are all great skateboarders!” Hengheng told the Global Times. With four years of skateboarding experience himself, the boy is also looking forward to enjoying skateboarding at the Urban Festival, apart from meeting top players.

Ticket platform data reflects the popularity of the event. All the tickets for the semi-finals and finals of almost all the four sports have been sold out, the Global Times found on Thursday.

The popularity of the event in Shanghai did not surprise Liu. 

“Shanghai has a good sports atmosphere with a broad mass base, and it has rich experience in holding major sporting events,” he said, adding that there are about 170 national and world-class sporting events scheduled to take place in Shanghai throughout this year. 

“Almost one every two days.”

For many overseas athletes, this is their first time visiting China. Some of them told the Global Times that they are very much impressed by the beautifully designed venues, good facilities and the great passion of local sports lovers in Shanghai.

“I love this [skateboarding] venue, it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Wilson. She described her trip to Shanghai as an amazing experience that has been much better than she thought it would be.

The Olympic Qualifier Series serves as a crucial stage leading to the Olympics, and it is also a public festival where sports events blend with urban culture, said Shanghai Mayor Gong Zheng at the opening ceremony for the OQS on Wednesday night.

“Hosting the qualifier series in an Olympic year injects new impetus and advantages into Shanghai’s efforts to accelerate the development toward a globally renowned sports city and enhance its soft power in urban culture,” Gong noted.

The OQS employs a points system designed to determine which athletes will secure quotas. Athletes in the four sports get the OQS points by competing at the Shanghai stop this week, and later at a Budapest stop in June.

According to the organizer, athletes in BMX freestyle, sport climbing, and breaking will compete for a maximum of 50 points at each of the events in Shanghai and Budapest. For skateboarding, the points system is divided into three parts: results from prior competitions and the results from the Shanghai and Budapest OQS events.