Windsurfing provides blueprint for Hong Kong's struggling sports

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 January, 2009, 12:00am

Ten years ago when he was nine, Andy Leung Ho-tsun decided to follow in the footsteps of Lee Lai-shan and joined the Hong Kong Windsurfing Association's development programme.

Last Sunday, Leung glided to the pinnacle of the sport at junior level when he was crowned RSX Youth world champion in Pattaya, Thailand. He is the sixth junior world champion produced by Hong Kong since San San stormed to Olympic gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

The previous five are Ho Chi-ho (1999), Chan King-yin (2001), Yu Wing-ho (2003), Ma Kwok-po (2006) and the only girl, Chan Hei-man (2006). The latter, who was crowned under-17 junior world champion, came close to also winning the under-19 title in Pattaya, but was pipped by Italian Lara Linares.

The latest success by Leung has cemented the reputation of windsurfing as one of the most successful sports in Hong Kong - and the best part is it has been achieved with homegrown talent.

Unlike other sports in town who have looked across the border, or waters, for imported talent to carry the flag, board sailing has shown that local boys and girls can hold their own on the international stage.

A large part of this has to do with San San's golden achievement. By going down in folklore as the only athlete to win an Olympic gold medal for Hong Kong, the Cheung Chau resident also became a role model for future generations - like Andy Leung.

What is it that makes Hong Kong a haven for windsurfing champions? Rene Appel, the man who has been responsible for the robust development of the sport in this city, shed some light on whether windsurfing's success can be replicated by other sports.

'Well, I can't see why not,' smiled the Dutchman, one of the longest serving coaches at the Hong Kong Sports Institute, where windsurfing is one of 11 elite sports.

'But Leung's success and that of others is proof that homegrown talent can perform on the international stage,' says Appel. 'San San's Olympic medal was the first and most convincing proof of that, and since then there have been many other achievements.'

Appel put down windsurfing's smooth sailing to a team effort and the absence of political infighting within the sport's administration. He also paid tribute to the officials who run the body, and stable funding from the government and other organisations like the Sports Federation and Olympic Committee and the Sports Institute.

'The focus of every person involved in the programme over all these years has been on achieving sporting success, and not on politics or power games, and this evidently has been very successful,' Appel said.

So does this imply that other sports are racked by infighting? We can only wonder. But windsurfing is fortunate. The impetus provided by San San and her Olympic medal is still being felt today. A long and successful relationship with the Sports Institute has guaranteed athletes a steady source of funding.

There are four senior athletes on the Sports Institute's scholarship programme and 13 juniors. A further nine juniors from the development squad will join the programme in the coming months. Leung has been part of the SI's scheme of things since January 2005.

So highly regarded is windsurfing, that the government recently acknowledged the sport as being one of a handful with the potential of winning an Olympic medal in the future - even a blind man could have seen that - and has promised more long-term funding towards achieving this target.

Appel said: 'The explicit target of winning an Olympic medal is a major step forward for Hong Kong and the government should be applauded for this bold step.'

It will be left to Leung and company to carry the flag. Last year, Hong Kong fared credibly at the Beijing Olympics when Chan King-yin finished sixth in the men's competition - after being at the head of the standings at one stage - while Chan Wai-kei came ninth.

Appel is convinced another Olympic medal is on the horizon.

'I refuse to believe we cannot win another Olympic medal, as much as I believed that we could win a medal when I started coaching,' said the man who was the force behind San San.

But he sounded a cautionary note and said while the potential is there, as shown by Leung and Chan last Sunday, only time will tell if that can be translated into success at the highest level.

'We have the potential to become future champions at the Asian level. Whether this potential can also materialise at the world level is a combination of many unpredictable factors. But the athletes are hell-bent on achieving these goals,' Appel said.

In the end, what matters is that Hong Kong has a sport which has clearly defined targets, and most importantly, a well-thought out plan implemented by dedicated people with a long-term focus.

'I would like to think our success is the legacy of a group of people who have been involved in this programme for many years, and a result of the dedication of individual athletes to achieving the highest possible level of performance,' Appel said.

He added: 'Of course, San San has been a role model, and certainly her achievements made finding funding for the programme much easier.'

So it seems success will only breed success. In San San, we had a rare athlete, a freak, where Hong Kong sport is concerned. She has created an environment for other youngsters to follow their dreams.

Sports needs heroes and heroines. Luckily for windsurfing, it has a homegrown one at that. No wonder there is success at junior level. Let's now hope that Leung and company can grow into Olympic champions like San San.