Siqi rips! Photo: Jersson Barboza//ISA

The Inertia

China just produced an Olympic surfer and it happened much faster than we all expected. It took the Chinese just eight years after surfing’s 2016 Olympic inclusion to build a program from the ground up and churn out an Olympian. And, take my word for it, this is just a taste of what’s to come.  

The 14-year-old Siqi Yang earned her ticket to Paris 2024 at the ISA World Surfing Games. Her 15th place finish was enough to earn one of the eight slots for women that was in play. She’ll be not only the first Chinese surfer to compete in the Olympics, but she’ll be the youngest Olympic surfer ever when the event takes place at Teahupo’o in July.

Yang’s qualification is the first major milestone in China’s Olympic surfing program. But it’s also just a part of a giant machine that was carefully crafted with one goal: to win Olympic medals. When the dream of Olympic surfing became reality, the Chinese got to work.

They hired a slew of international coaches, including the first ASP champion Peter “PT” Townend. They hand-picked kids, often based on swimming backgrounds or athletic builds, to join their eight regional surf teams that feature up to 70 surfers each. The kids train for six hours per day. They formed two national teams, an A team and a B team, to select surfers to compete each year in the World Surfing Games. They took their teams on surf trips around the world to locations like California, Indonesia, and Japan. And they imported the best equipment. Back in 2022, one source told me they were importing around 500 boards per year for their surf teams, coming from top brands like Sharp Eye, Chilli, Channel Islands, Warner, and Thunderbolt Technologies. 

While working on a story back in 2022, I also spoke with the program’s head honcho, the Director of the Surfing Department for China’s Water Sports Administration, Zhou Changcheng. Zhou told me that their budget of USD $1 million for the first Olympic cycle had been increased to USD $3 million for the Paris 2024 cycle. And while he thought the 2032 Olympics would be a more realistic goal for qualifying one of their surfers, he underlined that if they did qualify, their funding would “greatly increase.” Given that their funding for Paris 2024 increased by 300 percent fom Tokyo 2020, one can imagine that a lot more cash will flow into Chinese surfing for LA 2028.

Some might call Yang’s qualification a fluke in choppy Caribbean wind swell, but that’s not really the entire story. No other country in the world is creating a foundation that ushers kids into the sport and, in a matter of years, turns them into high-level surfers, at least not at this level. I would argue that, given the funding and focus of the Chinese team, it was inevitable that a Chinese surfer would reach Olympic qualifying soon enough. As a parallel, look at how China progressed in snowboarding. 

Snowboarding was added to the Olympics in 1998. Twenty-two nations qualified for that debut event. China was not one of them. At the 2006 Games in Torino, China qualified its first two snowboarders in women’s halfpipe. Fast forward to 2018 and China earned its first snowboarding medal when Liu Jiayu took silver in women’s halfpipe. The following Winter Games in 2022, Chinese snowboarder Su Yiming was one of the stars with a gold medal in men’s big air and a silver medal in slopestyle.

The Chinese Olympic program has shown time and time again that it can manufacture Olympic gold medals, be it gymnastics or snowboarding. It won’t be long before they repeat that formula for success in surfing.

And for those who think China doesn’t have the quality waves to produce surfers: First, the waves of Hainan Island are probably significantly better than most surfers think. Second, don’t forget the greatest surfer of all time comes from the mediocre surf of Cocoa Beach, Florida. Having consistent, world-class waves at home would be beneficial, but it’s not a prohibitive factor in creating high-level surfers.

While China exceeded everyone’s expectations in its timeline for qualifying a surfer for the Olympics, I’m sure that even the Chinese would agree that they still have a long way to go to earn a medal. Yang will definitely not be one of the favorites at Teahupo’o, especially if the Olympic waiting period coincides with a large swell. 

But that does not take away from Yang’s accomplishment. She’s a pioneer of competitive Chinese surfing, going where no other compatriot has gone before. There certainly will be more who follow in her footsteps considering China’s exponentially increasing government support. Given how fast Chinese surfing has progressed in just eight years, it’s even possible that the Chinese surfers in the running to qualify for Brisbane 2032 are kids who, as of now, have never touched a surfboard. And if surfing follows the trajectory of Chinese snowboarding, don’t be surprised if Chinese surfers are earning Olympic medals come 2036.


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