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Subway racer’s stunt may inspire more extreme sports
2015-02-02
By Doug Young

I OFTEN write about the Shanghai subway in the context of its many quirks and special features, but this week a different kind of underground story from the world of extreme sports caught my attention. The tale involved a man who created a sport out of literally outrunning a Shanghai subway train.

The man got off at one station, then ran out and onto the street, before re-entering at the next station in time to get on the same train he just exited. This kind of extreme sport is quite common in the West, where people often like to test their athletic ability by posing unusual challenges that pit them against nature, technology and other forces.

Such activities are a natural extension of sporting traditions that have a long history in Europe and North America but are much newer to China. I was excited at first to read the story of this subway racer, thinking Shanghai was at the cutting edge of extreme sports innovation in China. But then I found out the Shanghai subway racer was actually copying a similar feat originally performed in London.

There’s no question that today’s sporting scene in China has evolved quickly in step with the country’s rapid economic development. In the 1980s sports like basketball and tennis were known in China, but were marginal compared with the local favorites of ping pong and badminton.

Nowadays most Western sports are quite well known here, thanks in no small part to their popularization by a growing number of Chinese athletes who can compete and win in major global competitions.

The Shanghai subway story was hatched by a 30-year-old retired soldier and avid amateur runner who was inspired after seeing video clips of the feat performed on the London underground. He assembled a team to help him plan and film the event, and then try to clear the way during the actual run through subway stations and on the street.

The man and his team trained hard for the feat, and finally succeeded on their seventh attempt by completing the run in just 185 seconds — about the same time I usually wait for an average train. The story made national headlines when video clips went viral on Youku, China’s equivalent of YouTube.

His feat reflects China own rapid advances in the realm of professional sports, where the popularization of games like basketball, tennis and golf have begun to produce some internationally competitive players.

That marks quite a shift from the China I first encountered in the 1980s, when ping pong, badminton and soccer were all the rage and games like cricket, rugby and American football were virtually unknown.

Professional sports were also non-existent back then, and the closest thing to players of that caliber were China’s squadron of highly revered Olympic athletes.

One of my major memories from the two years I spent teaching at a Beijing university then was trying to teach some of my students to play American football. They were completely vexed by the ball’s olive shape, which was unlike anything most had ever seen and was the basis for the sport’s Chinese name of “olive ball.”

The students marveled at how I could make the odd-shaped ball glide through the air by throwing it forward and snapping my wrist simultaneously, sending it on a smooth, spinning arc.

Their own throwing attempts were much clumsier, causing the ball to tumble wildly through the air. I later found out “olive ball” really refers to rugby and American football goes by another name, but in those days it didn’t really matter since both sports were almost completely unknown to most Chinese.

That image contrasts sharply with today, when the importance of physical fitness has spawned an explosion of gyms in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, and sports have also taken off as a major social and recreational activity.

The soaring popularity of basketball owes in no small part to former Houston Rockets star and Shanghai native Yao Ming, and extremely savvy marketing efforts by the NBA. Likewise, tennis has suddenly rocketed into the popular realm on the huge success of colorful superstar Li Na, who put China onto the global map with her wins at the Australian and French opens, two of the sport’s biggest events.

While it’s nice to see Chinese taking a growing place in global sports, I’ll admit I’m also just slightly disappointed that local athletes haven’t tried to innovate more with their own extreme versions of local past-times like wushu and other martial arts. But that said, it’s the sporting spirit that’s the most important, and it’s quite encouraging to see cities like Shanghai get into the game of extreme and other sports with feats like the retired soldier’s eye-catching subway race.

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