Surf and deliver

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2007, 12:00am

The wind is calling - and the local windsurfing squad bereft of the experience of golden girl Lee Lai-shan will hope to answer this slogan for the ISAF Sailing World Championships in Portugal in resounding style by booking Hong Kong's berth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Four men - Ho Chi-ho, Chan King-yin, Cheng Kwok-fai and Ma Kwok-po - and sisters Vicky Chan Wai-kei and Chan Wai-man leave tomorrow for the picturesque Atlantic port city of Cascais, where from July 3-13 the fate of 75 per cent of the field for the Beijing Games will be decided.

'This is a crucial event as 24 places for men and 20 places for women at next year's Olympics will be decided here. We want to win our berth at this event so we can then focus on preparing for the Olympics immediately,' says Rene Appel, Hong Kong coach.

Despite the absence of 1996 Olympic gold medallist Lee Lai-shan - now retired and expecting her second child - and the fact the goalposts have been moved with the Olympic class switching from Mistral to the RSX boards, Appel rates Hong Kong's chances of booking an Olympic ticket under the one-country, one-berth formula as high.

'What matters is finishing inside the top 24 and top 20 countries in men's and women's respectively. Only one berth is available for each country so, for instance, if two athletes from one country finish in the top 24 in the men's regatta, only one will count for the Olympics,' explained Appel.

As things stand, and going on recent results, it seems that newly married couple Vicky Chan Wai-kei and Ho Chi-ho will be the standard-bearers, and also prove there is life after San San.

Vicky Chan and Ho have taken over the mantle of Hong Kong's first couple of windsurfing from San San and husband Sam Wong Tak-sum, at least as far as walking down the aisle together. Appel hopes the newlyweds will also be as fruitful as their predecessors in terms of results.

'The current crop of elite windsurfers is starting to get excellent results in international competition. However, San San was an exceptional athlete in that she was an incredible all-round sailor who could win in different conditions.

'At the moment, it is difficult to be able to find someone who can win as many events throughout the year as San San did. But having said that, I still believe we have the potential to win an Olympic medal in 2008,' Appel said.

It will be a strange feeling for Dutchman Appel not to have San San by his side. The Cheung Chau-born San San has been a part of the windsurfing scene for the best part of two decades.

And Appel has been an integral part of San San's successes, which include winning Hong Kong's first Olympic medal - a gold one at that - at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, two Asian Games gold medals, three world championship crowns and a cabinet full of other silverware from regattas around the world. But marriage and motherhood has put the world in a different perspective for San San.

'My first Olympics as Hong Kong coach was in 1992 in Barcelona. I believe Hong Kong windsurfing had taken part in one previous Olympics, in 1988 when Sam Wong represented the territory in Seoul. But after I came, we have been to every Olympics with San San leading the way,' says Appel.

'I'm very confident we will be able to go to a fifth Olympics.'

The once sleepy fishing village on Cascais Bay, now a fashionable town for the young European jetset crowd, will become a hive of activity next week when 1,710 sailors from 76 countries arrive to take part in 11 different sailing classes. A total of 287 races will be held over five different courses. The RSX class for both the men and women will each have 11 races.

The Chan sisters will have their work cut out as they face a competitive 79-strong field from 29 countries. Leading the way will be Athens Olympics gold medallist Faustine Merret of France.

China will field six competitors, including Athens silver medallist Yin Jian. But as host, China is expected to get a free entry to the Beijing Olympics, leaving one less hurdle for Hong Kong to climb.

Israeli Gal Fridman, gold medallist at the 2004 Games, will lead a 116-strong fleet from 51 countries in the men's event. Ho, who took part in Athens, and the other three Hong Kong sailors will need to be at their best to finish inside the top 24.

It has only been since January that Hong Kong has fully focused on the newer RSX class. With the Asian Games last December still using the older Mistral boards, Hong Kong's attention was divided.

Once the Asian Games was out of the way - Chan King-yin won the gold medal and Ho the silver in the men's category while Vicky Chan also brought home a silver - it has been full steam ahead on the RSX boards with the squad taking part in four lead-up events since January. The switch has not been easy, with the RSX equipment tending to favour heavier windsurfers.

But in a strange twist, Hong Kong's squad, relatively lightweight compared to international standards, can benefit in Qingdao (where the Olympic events will be held) as the wind strengths are expected to be light and the RSX boards are expected to favour the lighter athletes.

'There were complaints in the past that the [Mistral] equipment was too biased towards lighter sailors, and that it was outdated and not representative of what was used by most recreational windsurfers,' Appel explained.

'The RSX equipment does indeed favour heavier windsurfers. Ironically in the light conditions that we expect to see in Qingdao, it favours the lighter athletes even more. Now, more than before, wind speed will play a more dominant role.'

But all of this will be moot if Hong Kong fails to qualify for the 2008 Games. It is something Appel refuses to contemplate, though. 'When we were training for the 1996 Olympics, I saw a Chinese proverb in the gym which said: 'The person who thinks it is not possible should not disturb the person who is doing it'. I thought that was quite fitting for our situation at the time because everyone in Hong Kong told me that it was impossible for a local athlete to win a medal,' Appel recounted.

History proved those doubters wrong. But of course, Appel had an athlete called San San around at the time. Now Appel's task is to prove a second medal can be won.

'Make no mistake, a second Olympic medal for windsurfing will be a very difficult mission. But not impossible,' he adds.