End games

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am


Hong Kong has only ever won one Olympic gold medal. It was awarded to Lee Lai-shan, who took first place in women's windsurfing at the 1996 Atlanta Games, and with only a few weeks until the London Olympics, the Hong Kong windsurfing team is determined to see history repeat itself.

The stakes will be especially high at these Games, following the recent shock announcement that the sport is to be axed as an Olympic event. This could very well be the last opportunity for Hong Kong's windsurfing team to live the Olympic dream.

The team is installed close to the Olympic sailing arena at the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy, in Dorset, England. Four years of intense preparation came into focus at the Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta, held on the same course, just 50 days before the main event. The annual six-day regatta attracts the world's best sailors and windsurfers, and outcomes in an Olympic year often indicate where the medals are likely to go in August.

'It is the dress rehearsal for the Olympics,' says Hong Kong's head windsurfing coach, Rene Appel. It was Appel who guided Lee, aka San San, to gold in Atlanta 16 years ago and it is he who is tasked with repeating the feat this year. Two young athletes, Andy Leung Ho-tsun and Hayley Chan Hei-man, have been selected to represent Hong Kong. Neither of them has competed in the Olympics before.

FOR THE SKANDIA EVENT, there are 60 entries in the men's RS:X windsurfing competition, including Leung, sail No HK2, and 45 entries in the women's event, including University of Hong Kong student Chan, sail No HK5.

The women's event is particularly testing this year; both the Beijing Games silver medallist, Alessandra Sensini, of Italy, and bronze medallist, Bryony Shaw, are here. Sensini is the only woman to have won four Olympic medals in windsurfing. It's a challenging field and Chan will have her work cut out.

'She's an impressive athlete,' Appel says of Chan. 'Very strong; a model Olympic athlete.'

Things don't look much easier for Leung. Beijing silver medallist Julien Bontemps of France is in Weymouth to resume his rivalry with British favourite Nick Dempsey.

So what does it take to be a winning windsurfer at the Olympics?

'It's like playing chess and running a marathon at the same time,' says Appel.

Certainly the physical side is important and many of the athletes spend as much time in the gym as they do on the water. Studies have shown that windsurfers are in the top 10 per cent in terms of fitness among the 10,000 or so athletes who will compete at the London Games. After the 1992 Games, athletes were permitted to pump the sails, to create artificial wind and increase their speed. This is carried out in all wind speeds and, with nine or 10 races over six days of sailing at events such as Skandia, and up to three races per day, it is hugely demanding.

The Hong Kong support team has a full-time trainer, Micheal Cosby. He works with the athletes on a daily basis, using yoga, massage and other body strengthening techniques, so they can move power through their bodies with the least amount of effort.

'The really hard physical work will be done before they arrive at a competition,' explains Cosby, adding that there will still be two hours of yoga, body strengthening exercises or light running before breakfast in Weymouth.

Cosby has had only two 10-day breaks from the team since this year's Olympic preparations started in earnest in January.

'You can't learn elite windsurfing in school and you can't learn it in a book,' he says. 'The elite athletes have about 35,000 hours of experience on the water and they will not be at their best until 24 or 25 years of age.'

As well as Appel and Cosby, the Hong Kong support team includes coach Jochem Brenninkmeijer and sports psychologist Dr Si Gangyan.

'We also have a support team back at the Hong Kong Sports Institute that is very important,' says Appel.

That may sound like a full entourage but it is nothing compared with the one backing British windsurfing No 1 Dempsey and the Skandia Team GBR, as the country's sailing team is now called. In addition to coaches, Team GBR boasts sports scientists, physiotherapists, nutritionists, paramedics, meteorologists, logistics and communication specialists, a lifestyle adviser and, of course, a masseur.

Despite the support teams, this is clearly not like Formula One motor racing, where the millionaire driver just jumps into a car prepared by a pit crew. On practice day in Weymouth, the athletes, including Leung and Chan, can be seen adjusting their rigs and making repairs themselves. Every athlete carries his or her own board to the water and attaches the distinctive gold RS:X sail before setting off. At the end of a practice session, the athletes spray their own kit down with fresh water.

Dempsey waits patiently behind the Hong Kong athletes for his turn to wash his kit on the quayside. How confident is the Olympic favourite feeling?

'Ask me again at the end of the week,' he replies casually, with a confident grin.

Cosby buys coffee for everyone while they wait for instructions and Taiwan coach Alex Mowday comes over to chat about the conditions. There appears to be little room for prima donnas in top-level windsurfing. In fact, given the importance of this regatta and the proximity of the Olympics, it is a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere. On a sunny morning with a chilly easterly wind blowing in from the English Channel, windsurfers and coaches of all nationalities greet each other warmly.

Standing amid a sea of windsurfing boards and golden sails, a relaxed-looking Leung is smiling broadly as he pulls his wetsuit top over his head. He arrived in Weymouth from the Netherlands, where he was training in hot sunshine and light winds.

'People good, food good, wind not so good,' he says cheerfully.

There is a noticeable absence of shouting or beating of chests, or of athletes running round, doing warm-ups and exercises. It feels more like a provincial yacht club on a weekend morning than a trial run for the biggest sporting event of them all.

'It gets very competitive on the water, I can assure you,' says Appel. 'It's cutthroat out there.'

Even so, this feels like one big travelling family. It's not unusual for Leung and Chan to be on the road for more than seven months a year. Their fellow competitors become their surrogate family as they travel from one event and training camp to the next.

'This is a huge commitment on their part,' says Appel. 'Hayley was last home in Hong Kong in April for about 10 days. Andy had slightly longer because he was training in Korea.'

The plan is for both athletes to stay in their Dorset base until the Olympics are over.

There is a strong Asian presence on the elite windsurfing circuit and a lot of the regional athletes train together. The Hong Kong team trains in the Penghu Islands, Taiwan, which is notorious for 40-knot winter winds, alongside Taiwanese competitor Howard Chang.

There are six windsurfing entries from the mainland for the Skandia event and there is some friendly banter as the Chinese men nearly collide with Chang as they struggle to carry their sails back up the slip in the strengthening wind.

Psychologist Si believes windsurfing is uniquely demanding in terms of mental preparation.

'You need a very positive mind,' he says, 'because you are independent and must make your own decisions on the water.'

Being on the water is critical so close to a competition and is an essential part of the preparations for understanding the local conditions and trimming the equipment.

'This is about obtaining specific local knowledge, wind conditions and determining strategy,' says Appel.

The heavier wind conditions will tend to favour the physically larger and stronger athletes. So what would be the perfect conditions for the Hong Kong team?

'About 10 to 15 knots would be nice,' says Appel.

The weather forecast does not look encouraging for Leung and Chan. When the team arrived in Weymouth, there was no wind at all but the latest forecast shows winds in excess of 20 knots for the week ahead, with possible gales. Today is a gusty 18 knots for practice and, even within the protected confines of Portland Harbour, there are white caps on the waves.

For the Olympic event, the athletes will stay at the newly constructed Sailing Village, about two kilometres away from the academy, but that is fortified with metal fencing and is being patrolled by ex-military security guards until it opens. For the time being, the athletes, like almost everyone else involved in the event, are staying at one of the many modest bed and breakfast hotels scattered across the island of Portland and in the resort town of Weymouth.

'We stay in the same place every year,' says Leung. 'It is very nice.' The Hong Kong team has taken part in the Skandia event for the past four years.

The one subject that gets everyone agitated is the recent International Sailing Federation (ISAF) decision to axe windsurfing from the next Olympics in favour of kiteboarding. It's a huge blow to every windsurfer here. Ominously, a number of brightly coloured kites can be seen in the distance; they are a potent reminder of the controversy. More than 20,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that the decision be reversed.

Isn't this like replacing the marathon with tiddlywinks?

'It's even worse than that,' says Appel. 'Thousands and thousands of kids are committed to development programmes that may lose their funding overnight.'

All windsurfing competitors use the same standard RS:X equipment, designed by Hong Kong-based Neil Pryde. This means windsurfing is one of the few Olympic sports for which there is a level playing field. Big budgets might allow a bigger support team but they will not buy you better kit.

AFTER AN INTENSIVE practice session on the water, the two Hong Kong athletes would usually disappear to talk quietly with their coaches about the course, conditions and tactics for the start of racing. On the upper floor of the main academy building, teams sit around tables debriefing with their coaches in hushed tones.

Something is wrong, though. The mood of the Hong Kong team has darkened.

It transpires that Chan has collided with a 49er racing dinghy travelling at high speed on the windsurfer course. She is in a lot of pain and has been taken to hospital, where it will be discovered she has three broken ribs. The 49er has wings protruding from the side of its hull. The word on the quayside is that the dinghy, belonging to the Bermudan team, effectively cut Chan in half. This is clearly serious.

There is only one male and one female competitor allowed in each discipline from each qualifying country or territory at the Olympics, so Hong Kong's chances may have been cut in half, too. But no one who knows Chan is prepared to write her off as an Olympian just yet.

'She is one tough chick,' says Jannicke Stalstrom, a veteran Olympic windsurfer from Norway, who has trained with Chan for many years.

'One thing you can guarantee in Olympic preparations is that nothing will go smoothly,' says Appel. So will he need to make plans to replace Chan for the Games?

'We will assess it and see how things are,' he says calmly.

While Chan is being assessed in hospital, Leung has had to carry on regardless. It's a nasty, cold and overcast day for the first race of the competition and he looks a little queasy as he prepares his kit. How is he feeling?

'Excited,' he says, not entirely convincingly.

To his credit, Leung makes a great start and secures a respectable 13th place in a field of 58. As expected, it is the favourites, Bontemps and Dempsey, who lead the field.

Leung will go on to finish 20th overall in the nine-race event (a planned 10th had to be called off because of severe gales), an improvement on his world championship performance. He is still just 22 years old and will not reach his peak for at least two or three years, around the time of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

'We usually say that the first Olympics is for experience and the second time is for medals,' says Appel.

Sadly, unless the ISAF reverses its decision to axe this internationally established and popular sport, there will be no second time for Leung or Chan, or any of the other young Olympic windsurfers who have dedicated themselves to the sport.

The Olympic dream created by Lee Lai-shan in 1996, which has inspired so many Asian athletes, is likely to be extinguished on a windy beach in Dorset, next month.

UPDATE: As this article went to press, Chan was making a good recovery. Appel says: 'Hayley is recovering really well and there is no reason why she would not be able to compete in the Olympic Games.'