796 days to go

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 June, 2006, 12:00am

Olympic watchers will swivel their telescopes seawards later this summer to scrutinise preparations for 2008.

Qingdao is to host the 2006 International Regatta in August and the event is being hailed as the first big test of the venue prior to the games proper. The doors to the new US$500 million Olympic Sailing Centre will swing open to welcome an international contingent of sailors, sailing experts, media, spectators and, of course, cynics.

If one is to believe the 'on-message' hyperbole issued from the plethora of official Olympic portals - including the hastily formed Test Regatta Organisation Committee - this modern seaside city of 2.2 million is fast becoming a sailor's paradise.

The regatta will be first of two dress-rehearsals for the games and will feature all 11 Olympic events. Moreover, it will either fan or allay widespread fears that a lack of wind in the usually breathless summer months will blight the sailing spectacle. Also being put to the test will be Qingdao's hospitality. Radio stations are increasing their daily English lessons and cab drivers listen intently and repeat phrases such as 'Welcome to my Olympic City' through fixed smiles.

Good street etiquette is evident. Spitting is not as widespread as in Beijing, and though many people smoke and factories to the south spew pollution, the sultry sea breeze eventually whisks away most unsavoury smells. The tree-lined streets are spotless, the popular sandy beaches almost devoid of litter, the construction sites consigned mostly to the suburbs of this sprawling municipality.

Water quality is seen as the biggest hurdle to overcome and while the southern beaches suffer from unsightly flotsam, the sailing area is being cleared of sewage outflows and other dumped waste. Even 65 abalone pools have been targeted for removal to ensure safe passages for competing sailors.

On the surface, Qingdao appears ready for its first test and one can well believe Mayor Xia Geng's 'great progress, great venue' mantra as she turns her city into China's sailing capital.

This pleasant city in cash-rich Shandong province is a modern China success story. It is affluent, has strong investment from domestic and foreign companies, has China's third-largest container port, a sizeable expatriate community, and a skilled, sophisticated populous. It is perhaps one of China's best-kept secrets in terms of quality of living. And it will soon have sailing facilities that will be the envy of the world.

But there's one big snag. There are only an estimated 1,000 leisure boats in China and very few sailors - hardly a fan base from which to issue loud home-side cheers during the two-week regatta.

The lack of interest in sailing among Chinese is so clear it startles. August will offer an insight as to how much needs to be done to get people interested enough to make their way to the water's edge. Qingdao citizens are relishing the attention and the improvements the games are already delivering, but they, and the 22 million domestic tourists a year who visit, are seemingly not too bothered about sailing.

'Sailing?' muses taxi driver Cao Lui, 42. 'I can't swim. I don't like the water. Anyway, sailing is for rich people.'

Although Chinese competitive sailors are making some headway on the international circuit, especially windsurfing, it is unlikely they alone can attract the crowds in 2008.

They severely lack profile in a country otherwise obsessed with the upcoming games. Search the organising committee (Bocog) website for 'sailing' and you'll draw a blank. Even the new official, bilingual Olympic Magazine fails to mention Qingdao or the Olympic sailing disciplines.

The various committees in both Beijing and Qingdao have been so preoccupied with spinning the benefits of the games to their citizens and the world, that they have neglected a cultural anomaly on the coast. Failure to attract the masses might be down to the thing most sailors adore after a stiff breeze and following sea - the sun, argues one of the most respected China boat business watchers in Asia, Y.P. Loke.

'A huge cultural shift is needed. Boating as a recreation isn't in Chinese culture. In fact, most outdoor activities aren't. The Chinese value fair skin. Sunbathing is unthinkable. It shows they are doing well enough in their careers not to have to work in the paddy fields,' claims Loke, the managing director of Singapore-based Spinnaker International.

But it can change, he argues. 'I think the Olympics has resulted in a sailing infrastructure that is a legacy for future development. It could be a strong promotional event to spark interest, but how to sustain that interest is key.'

Weidong Liu, the general secretary of the Chinese Yachting Association, says raising awareness needs to be done in stages. 'First, we are going to use well-known events like the America's Cup, and the Sydney-Hobart to raise awareness,' he said. 'At the same time, we want to develop yacht clubs and sailing schools. The young need to learn how to go sailing. This is a general overview but these are the foundations we need to build. And as we say here: you don't build a house in a day.'

The irony of Liu's cliche is stark. In China, houses are knocked down and rebuilt in a day. 'All hands to the pump,' may be a better call to arms.