With an eye on 2020, enthusiasts see the awakening
From counting pennies for the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union more than two decades ago, Chris Howarth has moved on to a bigger crusade today - calculating the chances of wakeboarding becoming an Olympic sport in 2020.
Howarth, the former treasurer of the HKRFU, believes his new sport has a very good chance, and is pinning his hopes on the fact that wakeboarding's cousin, snowboarding, is a huge hit at the Winter Olympics - plus the fact the International Olympic Council is heavily in favour of sports that attract young people.
'We are seen as a young sport or rather a sport for the young. We were initially surprised to find ourselves in the running to become an Olympic sport, but having seen how popular snowboarding was at the Winter Olympics, we are quite confident about our chances,' says Howarth, treasurer of the Hong Kong Water Ski Association.
Howarth, who is also the treasurer of the International Waterski and Wakeboard Federation, says the sport will be modified for the Olympics and it will be called cable wakeboard.
'Traditionally in wakeboard, the athlete is pulled by boats. But in Europe, due to environmental concerns over the use of boats on lakes, noise and fuel pollution, as well as worries that the wake from boats causes erosion along the shore, there has been a move towards cable wakeboard.
'This involves a system of electric cables erected on shore that use pulleys to pull the skier through the water. The athlete will perform the tricks on which he or she is judged. It is a very popular sport, especially among the young generation,' said Howarth, who was treasurer at the HKRFU from 1989 to 1992.
The belief that it attracts youth provides the main wellspring of hope for wakeboarding, which will find itself pitted against seven other sports bidding to join the Olympic family at the 2020 Summer Games.
The other sports in contention for just one berth are baseball, softball, roller sports, squash, sports climbing, wushu, and karate. At this Summer's Olympic Games in London, the programme will only have 26 sports. But at the following games, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, rugby sevens and golf will take the programme to 28 sports. One of the sports at the London Games will be put on notice for 2020, and will find itself joining the eight contenders in the fight to win a berth.
Wakeboarding has a strong following in Europe. Howarth says that there are 30 million enthusiasts worldwide with the number growing, especially in Asia.
'We have 80 federations around the world, Hong Kong being one. What is good is that the sport has a large following of women, too. It is also not an expensive sport. Setting up a moveable cable system will cost around US$30,000. At an Olympics, the rowing centre or any open stretch of water can be used, and the whole programme can be completed in three or four days,' he said.
In the next couple of months, a cable park will be opened at the Olympic rowing centre in Beijing, and it is hoped this will be the forerunner of similar parks in other mainland cities in the near future.
Howarth arrived in Hong Kong in 1977 as an employee of auditors Price Waterhouse, then joined Outboard Marine in Tsing Yi in 2001.
'Part of the allure of the new job was waterskiing. But I only learned to ski after I joined them,' laughs Howarth, who has since been a force behind the sport throughout Asia as well as Hong Kong.
Two years ago, the Olympic Council of Asia included wakeboarding in the programme at the 2nd Asian Beach Games in Muscat, Oman. It created such excitement within the sporting community that it came under the radar of the IOC, which had only shortlisted the sport as a prospective event for the 2020 Olympics.
Even sporting giant China sat up and took notice. On the request of OCA president Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, the Chinese Olympic Committee belatedly included wakeboarding as the 13th sport in the programme for June's Asian Beach Games in Haiyang, Shandong province.
'Hong Kong will be represented by three athletes in wakeboard and we hope they will do well,' said Howarth.
Hong Kong has one wakeboard facility at Tai Po, a venue where medal hopefuls Wan Ka-choi, Ronnie Cheung Ho-lung and Julien Breistroff are honing their skills before the challenge in Haiyang. Cheung and Breistroff also participated at the last Games in Muscat.
Every bit of international exposure will help wakeboarding on its crusade. According to Howarth, the sport lacks the draw of other sports and is lacking in corporate backing.
'We have a World Waterski Cup where wakeboard is also a discipline. But now we have more standalone events like the Beach Games and the Asian championships. This is further proof of the sport's growing popularity,' says Howarth.
But the ultimate test will be of Olympian standards. Howarth and the wakeboard federation don't have much time. By the end of this year, the IOC will trim the contenders and make a shortlist of three or four sports that will then bid in earnest for 2020 inclusion.
'That decision will be made in Argentina next year,' Howarth said. 'But our immediate focus is to make the final shortlist. Ours is a growing sport and we are quietly confident.'