Yoshida makes waves in China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 December, 2003, 12:00am

First contest of its kind hailed as a great success and forerunner of a revolution

Anyone seeking proof that China is opening its doors to the world need look no further than a unique event held on the weekend. No, not the Miss World beauty pageant on Hainan Island, but a full-blown competition in a sport long and wrongly associated with the excesses of Western decadence.

The event culminated with Japan's Shinichi Yoshida carving his way with controlled aggression to become the first surfing champion of China.

The 37-year-old former professional's popular victory in the inaugural 720 China Surf Open in Hong Hoi Wan, Guangdong, was the result of over two years of planning and searching for the perfect spot to hold the historic event.

The event was the brainchild of Australian sunglasses and sports clothing company chief executive Spencer Barton, who said that after years of living and surfing in Hong Kong he had always wondered whether it was possible to find bigger and better surf in China.

'People don't give China's youth enough credit for their ability in individual sport,' the 43-year-old said. 'I wanted to open people's eyes to the fact that there are more options than just mainstream sports like golf and tennis.'

Barton set out to find the right spot to bring surfing to the mainland. 'We had a couple of wild reconnaissance missions, but found nothing special. Then four months ago, the Sanwei Council for Sport offered us a car and to accompany us on a recce further north. The council up to that time had been quite coy about allowing us to hold the event.

'We found great surf, perfect three-to-four foot waves. After we came out of the water, the council members who watched us surf had become very enthusiastic.

'I was so stoked. Until then the council had not known what surfing was about. One of the members had been concerned about alerting shipping ...'

With the council's support, the event could go ahead. Seventy competitors, supporters and members of the media climbed aboard two buses in Central little knowing what awaited them.

Greeted by a fireworks display upon their arrival in Hong Hoi Wan, the competitors were hoping for more pyrotechnics in the water the following day. They were not disappointed - highly contestable, two-to-three foot waves blown smooth by a light offshore breeze awaited them at the venue.

The swell increased as the day progressed, culminating in a perfect moment just after lunch as the wind dropped and the waves sparkled under a cloudless sky. 'It could have been Trestles [a picturesque California surf spot],' said Barton. 'That was the moment I realised the event was a success.'

Curious spectators began gathering, laughing and applauding appreciatively at every manoeuvre and wipeout. 'They have never seen surfing in this part of the world before. I believe we have started something - opened peoples eyes to something different,' said Barton, who has decided to donate surfboards to children in order to propagate the sport in the area.

The day ended with contenders for the semi-finals decided, with no upsets and the light-footed Yoshida clearly the standout.

The next day the swell had doubled and the venue was moved to the more sheltered Cherry Point. The first semi-final was taken by South African Nick Combe, who came back from the dead in the final five minutes of his heat.

Yoshida crushed the opposition in the second semi with a series of long rides, weaving and carving all the way to the beach.

A large crowd had gathered by the time the finalists paddled out. TV crews, photographers and newly surf-stoked kids lined the beach and point. Yoshida was the wave magnet. Attracting the biggest waves and longest rides, he built up a strong lead. Australia's Richard Wallace fought back, picking up some clean inside waves and a solid left-hander. Fellow Aussie Antony Dickson and Combe struggled to find waves offering any length of ride and were left playing catch-up.

The final hooter went and the boisterous crowd assembled for the prize-giving. A roar went up as Yoshida was announced the winner, with Wallace, Combe and Dickson the runners-up.

Yoshida was overjoyed to be the first champion of China. 'It's unbelievable,' he said. 'I'm very happy to be the first. I want to teach everyone in China to surf. My friends back in Japan were too afraid to come to China to surf. This has shown it can be done.'