How self-confessed gamer geek and fast-food addict from Hong Kong became world-class athlete with Street Workout
Hong Kong champion Nicholas Wong puts Post reporter Rachel Blundy through her paces in Causeway Bay’s Victoria Park
When you first meet Nicholas Wong, a small and softly spoken Hongkonger with a cheeky smile, he doesn’t seem likely to be a world-class athlete.
But this summer, the 23-year-old from Wong Tai Sin ranked 11th in the World Street Workout Freestyle Championships in Moscow, Russia. He is also the three times Hong Kong street workout champion.
His achievements are all the more impressive given Wong, formerly a self-confessed video games geek and an ongoing fast-food addict, only took up the sport in 2012.
His signature move is the human flag, whereby the athlete holds his body at a right angle to a vertical pole.
Speaking to the Post, he said the sport had liberated him after living his teenage years largely as a hermit.
“This sport is very creative and there’s no limit,” he said. “I have no need to go to a gym; if sometimes I’m feeling lazy then I can just do it at home. Before I did street workout, I was just playing computer games at home and I did hardly any workouts.”
Wong and the Street Workout team agreed to put me through my paces on the bars in Causeway Bay’s Victoria Park. As a runner, I consider myself relatively fit, but my upper body strength is poor.
As I tried out beginner street workout exercises, it was the searing pain in my hands and the bars’ slipperiness which made it difficult to master even the basics. After just a few short routines, I was wimpishly massaging my palms as they started to develop small but raw calluses.
My teachers were nothing but encouraging, but I would guess I’m a little way off becoming the next world champion.
The concept of “street workouts” evolved from callisthenics, essentially body-weight training exercises which generally avoid the use of equipment or apparatus. At the beginning of the 20th century, the exercises appeared closer to what we might consider traditional gymnastics, but since the turn of the 21st century, they have incorporated a progressively more urban edge through the street workout movement.
In 2011, the World Street Workout Freestyle Championships were launched and have since traditionally been dominated by European competitors. This year’s winner was Latvian teenager Daniels Laizans, a former world champion and three times national champion.
Like many of his contemporaries, Laizans has said he would like to see Street Workout become an Olympic sport.
For competitions, street workout participants must coordinate a mix of static and dynamic moves into a three-minute routine set to music.
In Hong Kong, fitness coaches Kevin Lee and Czon Wong founded Street Workout Hong Kong in 2014. Although it operates as a private company, they said they invest a considerable proportion of any profits they make back into developing young talent.
Czon Wong said many of the city’s street workout talent hailed from the city’s public housing estates, and some lack an overall career direction. She said the sport gives participants a new sense of self-discipline which often, as in champion Nicholas’ case, encourages them to go back into education and perhaps even leads to better employment opportunities.
“I like [street workout] because it encourages people to do exercise no matter what your age; your gender; whether you have money or not,” she said. “There are no limitations at all. Although our athletes are mostly aged 15 to 25, and they are very dedicated; training for three hours per day. Most of them are from underprivileged families – perhaps they are not studying very well. But we want to show them that studying is not everything. You can be successful in all kinds of things.”
She added the international street workout competitions provided important bonding sessions for the athletes.
“It gives them the chance to discuss their moves and become friends”, she said.
Lee said the advent of social media had significantly boosted the street workout movement, allowing participants to more easily share videos of their impressive routines.
“It is really the internet which increased the visibility of street workout,” he said.
While Hong Kong has not yet produced an international Street Workout champion, Lee said his group was developing amateurs into world-class athletes.
“We try to help people if they want to listen – it’s all about having an open mind,” he said. “Apart from being a fitness regime, this is also a social movement. This sport gives [participants] a chance to travel and pursue their dreams.”