Up where they belong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 March, 2005, 12:00am

AT FIRST GLANCE, it could be a weekend scene from any number of parks and open spaces around Hong Kong: youngsters in T-shirts and jeans whizzing past on skateboards and inline skates, or peddling furiously on their BMX bikes.

But on this Saturday at Lai Chi Kok Skate Park, there's more at stake than showing off their latest moves to friends. The chance to represent Hong Kong is up for grabs, and this is serious business.

Among the 20 or so youngsters gathered for the competition is 18-year-old Cheng Wai-hong. Sitting on his small stunt bike, Cheng waits at one end of a half-pipe before launching himself onto the ramp.

Gathering speed on the way down, Cheng careers into the air on the opposite side and flips the bike into a 360-degree spin, making a perfect soft landing before again hurtling upwards, twisting the bike horizontal in the air.

As with most extreme sports enthusiasts in Hong Kong, BMX - or Bike Moto Cross - was once nothing more than an exciting hobby for Cheng. But these days he has his sights set on the first Asian Indoor Games, to be held in Bangkok in November, where he hopes to manoeuvre his BMX through a breathtaking routine of tricks and turns while wearing a Hong Kong jersey.

'It'd be an honour to represent Hong Kong,' says Cheng, whose dream is to make it as a professional BMX rider. 'It'd also be a chance to go away and see the world and to get to know more about the sport.'

The biennial games, to take place indoors from November 12 to 19, have been established by the Olympic Council of Asia as an event it hopes will one day rival the Asian Games.

Hong Kong is one of 45 nations taking part in a programme which includes extreme sports such as bicycle stunt riding, inline skating, skateboarding and sports climbing alongside competitions in aerobics, acrobatics, indoor athletics, dance sports, futsal (indoor football), inline hockey, fin swimming, and 25-metre shortcourse swimming.

'The main objectives are to provide additional means to promote the Olympic ideal, and to encourage a higher level of participation from the youths of Asia via the promotion of a greater variety of sports,' says a mission statement posted on the Olympic Council of Asia's official website.

Cheng has put in weeks of practice for this Hong Kong BMX Freestyle Competition. Organised by the Hong Kong Cycling Association (HKCA), it's the first official BMX contest to be held in the city. A total of 27 riders are competing in two categories - flatland and park - performing their freestyle routines on the ground or over a variety of apparatus. Riders are judged on the difficulty of tricks, smoothness of their runs and crowd reaction.

HKCA secretary Chan Chi-keung, aka Lun Mo, says they're hoping to spot talent for the Bangkok games and other future events in the competition. 'We know there's a possibility Hong Kong will send [an extreme sports] team to take part in the competition, which is why we've put together this event,' says the veteran BMX enthusiast.

Next month's Hong Kong Skateboard Championship will give boarders an official Hong Kong ranking for the first time. As with the top BMX riders, a Hong Kong squad will be selected from the best skateboarders, and the Hong Kong Amateur Roller Skating Association and Hong Kong Mountaineering Union are also likely to be sending teams.

Of all the extreme sports, it was BMX that caught Cheng's imagination after he saw a freestyle demonstration in the street. He says the chance to represent Hong Kong in regional and international events has pushed him to take his hobby more seriously and practise harder.

Cheng, one of the favourites to win the competition, says the Asian Indoor Games will help to promote extreme sports and boost the standard of local competitors - especially the younger generation.

'It would be great if Hong Kong could provide more alternative and healthy sports for young people to choose from, as opposed to the usual sports such as badminton and tennis,' says Cheng.

Cheng is keeping his eye on the ultimate games - the Olympics. The games will include BMX for the first time in Beijing in 2008. It's a move organisers hope will attract a younger audience, as adding snowboarding to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano and freestyle skiing at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville did.

Although the BMX event in Beijing will only feature a racing programme, Chan says it will help make the sport more popular and perhaps lead to the inclusion of a freestyle event at future games.

Some in the sport believe it's not too late to include extreme sports in 2008. 'Although there's still a question mark over whether [the Beijing Olympics] will take skateboarding on board, in any case, there will be a skateboarding demonstration,' says local veteran skateboarder Warren Stuart, who's been involved in developing skateboarding in the city for years. 'It'll be the first step towards introducing extreme sports into the Olympics.'

With extreme sports rapidly growing in popularity around the world thanks to events such as the X-Games, Stuart and his fellow extreme sports enthusiasts formed the Hong Kong X-Federation in September last year, with the aim of jointly promoting the sports in the SAR. The federation acts as an alliance of all the local extreme sports groups and promotes the interests of BMX, mountain biking, skateboarding, speed climbing, surfing, wakeboarding, kiteboarding and skim boarding.

'We've been struggling in recent years to promote our individual sports,' says Stuart. 'We thought it might be a good idea to come together and form a group with more people, creating a louder voice and promoting all the extreme sports in a positive way while keeping the sports' core values ... having fun, being progressive and staying free.'

In November, the federation brought the Asia Pacific final of the Australasian Skateboarding Titles to the city. It was the first time the competition - a qualifying event for the Globe World Cup Skateboarding, held in Melbourne last month - has come to Hong Kong.

The group is building a website with information about extreme sports and how to get started, and hopes to organise competitions and collaborate with other sports associations to run beginner classes for youngsters. It is also producing sports videos with the hope of attracting corporate sponsorship. 'From here we can consolidate and solidify everything we do,' says Chan. 'If someone wants to go on to the competitive level, we hope we'll be able to give them the boost they need and help them reach that goal.'