Winds blow 'brothers' in different directions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am


A controversial decision last weekend by the ISAF, the international sailing federation, to include kiteboarding at the 2016 Olympic Games but drop windsurfing has left both sections of the local boardsailing community, 'brothers' as one top official called them, with conflicting emotions.

The kiteboarders, a tiny and fledgling group, are stunned but happy. While other sports spend years trying to achieve Olympic status, this small and little-known discipline of sailing has swept in under the radar.

'We were very surprised to hear kiteboarding is in the Olympics from 2016,' said Jay Chau Hong-wai, vice-president of the fledgling Hong Kong Kiteboard Federation. 'It is great for the sport, but at the same time we feel for our brothers and sisters in windsurfing. We didn't think they would be out.'

Stunned windsurfing officials, meanwhile, are bitter with disappointment. Everyone from Lee Lai-shan, Hong Kong's 1996 Olympic windsurfing golden girl to Cowen Chiu But-kau, president of the Hong Kong Windsurfing Association, was in shock. They have been effectively told to go fly a kite.

'It is a pity windsurfing has had to make way for us,' Chau said. 'We are the only two board sports in sailing, the two disciplines which are the most accessible to the public. Sailing is generally regarded as a rich man's sport, but that is not the case with us two.'

Hong Kong-based Englishman Neil Godbold, founding director of the KTA Kiteboard Championship Asian Tour, is busy preparing for next week's leg in Pingtan Island in China. He agrees it is a pity the ISAF had to sacrifice windsurfing to make way for what is regarded as the more hip kiteboarding. 'It is a shame it has boiled down to an either/or situation with kiteboarding and windsurfing as both meet all the criteria and merit being part of the Olympic sailing programme. Ideally both sports should be represented,' says Godbold, who has been involved with kiteboarding for more than 20 years.

'I thought we had a very strong bid and kiteboarding does meet all the IOC [International Olympic Committee] requirements and is the fastest growing watersport worldwide,' Godbold adds. 'However, I thought it would take a bit longer, as we are so new and the other sailing sports are so well-established.'

An Olympics trial for kiteboarding in Santander, Spain, in March is believed to have clinched the deal for the sport, where sailors use a board, with or without foot-straps, combining it with the power of a large, controllable kite to zoom across the water.

A narrow 19-17 decision won the day for kiteboarding at the ISAF meeting in Italy. Britain's Nick Dempsey, who won a windsurfing bronze medal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, blasted the decision, calling it 'bizarre' and one made by a 'bunch of out-of-touch old men who have no idea of what they are talking about'.

But now that the change has become ISAF policy, it can only be overturned by a 75 per cent majority vote by the full council, which will meet in November.

Windsurfing is up in arms and has promised to fight tooth and nail, but many people fear the worst.

While there are an estimated 1.5 million kiteboarders worldwide, in Hong Kong there are only around 250 enthusiasts. The sport is newly organised in the city, with the local governing body formed only a year ago, though it is recognised by the International Kiteboarding Association (IKA), the world body.

'We are very few right now but I believe this sport will catch on, especially now that it is in the Olympics,' Chau says. 'We have a number of things going in our favour, the main one being that our discipline is the cheapest of all classes in sailing.

'It is even cheaper than windsurfing. For around HK$20,000 you can equip yourself and the best part is that you can be highly mobile. You can pack your sails [kite] in a backpack and take it with you on a flight. There is no need for hiring a container to pack all the equipment which windsurfing does.

'The best part is, kiteboarding looks an exciting sport. With the kites in the air, it looks very colourful, and it is an easier sport to learn, and not as technical as windsurfing,' Chau adds.

The ISAF president, Goran Petersson, holds the same view. Soon after the council reached its decision, he said: 'Kiteboarding has proved to us it is ready to be included in the list of ISAF events [World Cup and world championships] and it is a fantastic addition for the 2016 Olympic Games.'

Hong Kong will have to make huge strides if it is to be represented at the 2016 Games. The sport lacks any profile and is all but unknown among the people that count - the Hong Kong Olympic Committee. When asked about the newest Olympic sailing discipline, Pang Chung, its secretary general, said he knew very little about it and was unaware of a kiteboarding federation. Chau has promised to work on that.

'We have just applied to become a member of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee. That is our first step. Then we have to start looking around for financial support from the government and the Hong Kong Sports Institute,' he said.

'We hope that one day we can be supported in a similar way to what windsurfing is getting now. They get millions of dollars, we get nothing.'

Windsurfing is one of 15 elite sports at the Sports Institute. It receives around HK$5 million a year. On top of this, the only sport at which Hong Kong has won an Olympic gold medal has been receiving HK$1.5 million from the government since 2009, so that it could build towards this summer's London Olympics.

But the roles could be reversed soon. The pauper could well become the king.

'Now that kiteboarding has been recognised by the ISAF, and since it will be on their world tour and world championships, there will be a lot of competition overseas, I hope we can get funding to take part in these events so that we can make progress,' Chau said.

However, everything is still up in the air, with windsurfing promising not to go down with a fight, and hoping to reverse the decision in November. Windsurfers want to tell the ISAF to go fly a kite themselves.


The cost, in Hong Kong dollars, to buy the equipment needed to be a kiteboarder