Kiteboarding pioneer Su Kay plans to help Hong Kong in the new sport

Three-time New Zealand champion Su Kay has arrived in Hong Kong, hoping to help the city's bid for Olympic glory despite bitter infighting

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2012, 2:28am

Kiwi kiteboarding star Su Kay has landed in the troubled waters of Hong Kong - the Bermuda Triangle of the sport where three factions are embroiled in a bitter fight to be recognised as the official governing body.

The three-time New Zealand freestyle champion hopes to nurture the next generation of kiters, which may potentially include Hong Kong's future Olympic hopefuls.

But Kay knows it won't be plain sailing with the sport in a state of chaos, as three organisations chase potential windfalls and a ticket to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"That is a minefield many people joining the Hong Kong kiting community have to negotiate and, like me, many don't join any of the organisations or associations for fear of offending or being seen to be doing the wrong thing," Kay, 36, said.

"I am sure Hong Kong kiting would have a much stronger voice if these groups were to settle their differences and come under one banner. This one act would probably do more for kiting instantly in Hong Kong than any individual could do in many years.

"The publicity that has been received, even though it has been mostly negative, has brought both sports of windsurfing and kitesurfing to the minds of many people," said Kay, who recently moved to Hong Kong.

Together with her husband Dave, who heads the board product division of Cabrinha Kiteboarding, Kay helped pioneer kiteboarding in New Zealand 10 years ago and has been involved in competing, coaching and organising competitions ever since. While her plans for Hong Kong aren't settled, she hopes they may include establishing a new instructional facility as well as organising tours around the region.

"Kiteboarding is my passion and assisting kiters and potential kiters to achieve their goals is what I love to do - be it to teach them how, give them the confidence to improve their skills, introduce them to new locations or to coach them to world-class level."

Kay is confident her experience and knowhow can be put to good use in Hong Kong.

But it is the pool of talented windsurfers, not kiteboarders, that Kay believes represents Hong Kong's greatest hopes at the Olympic Games in Rio if the International Sailing Federation's (ISAF) decision earlier this year to replace windsurfing with kitesurfing is upheld.

"I think a lot of the kitesurfers are going to be surprised by the windsurfers who cross over," said Kay, who was second on the Kiteboarding Tour Asia during the 2011 and 2012 seasons,

"Because of their experience, racing and training knowledge, as well as the support they already have within the Olympic community, they are going to have a potentially much easier route into kitesurfing and into Rio in 2016."

Rene Appel, head coach of windsurfing at the Hong Kong Sports Institute, agrees.

"From a purely performance point of view, the equipment is just a tool. The technical skills can be learnt relatively quickly," he says. "The best windsurfers internationally, given the same level of funding, will become the best kitesurfers."

According to Appel, who trained Lee Lai-shan to Olympic gold glory at the 1996 Atlanta Games, race tactics, wind and weather knowledge as well as experience in setting up an Olympic campaign will distinguish windsurfers from kitesurfers, should they decide to make the switch.

"When you look at being successful in any sport, there is an enormous amount of administration, programming, planning and logistics that needs to be worked through," he says.

But for now, Appel will focus on the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, and delay any decision regarding a switch until the judicial review of the ISAF's controversial decision in November.

In the meantime, Appel believes there are a number of obstacles that kiteboarding must overcome, which boil down to investment and funding.

Unlike windsurfing, where surfers use mandated equipment, kiteboarding will have a "box rule", allowing the use of any equipment provided it fits within the International Kiteboarding Association's guidelines.

"It will not just be a matter of being the best, but also developing the best boards," says Appel, which will make for uncertainty in the sport, as well as requiring significant investment and development to stay at the competitive edge.

"Putting something like that in your Olympic programme is taking an enormous risk," says Appel.

"The bottom line with any Olympic programme is you want to make sure it is already established and that it works. Kitesurfing still has to prove itself."

Despite its rocky beginnings in the Olympic arena, Appel is open to the sport should the decision remain and is prepared to do what it takes to coach Hong Kong's future kiteboarding Olympians.

"I have nothing against the sport, it just would have been better had they given it time," says Appel. "But if it is not reinstated, every athlete still wants to compete in the Olympic Games and if they want to do it, I believe they can change."

Andy Leung Ho-tsun, 21, is one such athlete considering making the move to kiteboarding. Leung, who finished 13th in windsurfing at the Olympic Games in London last month, also believes his Olympic knowledge would help him to excel at the sport.

"I think I know more about the tactics, rules and strategy on the racing side, as well as the discipline for an Olympic campaign to be successful," he says.

But with Leung focusing on winning a medal in windsurfing at the Asian Games and having yet to pick up a kiteboard, he also agrees that his future Olympic dreams require significant resources to allow him to make the switch. "I would need to secure funding for a transition period to allow me to learn and close the gap without having to produce results straight away," he says.

"One of the biggest challenges would be to find a large budget to develop or buy the constantly changing equipment under the rules proposed [box rule]."

Despite these challenges, Kay is focusing on the opportunity for the sport in Hong Kong and believes that the region has a lot of untapped potential. "It would be nice if kitesurfing could be included without losing RS:X [windsurfing]," she says.

Even if windsurfing is dropped from the 2016 Olympic Games, Kay does not consider it marks the death of the sport, which still races in many classes at an international level, but an opportunity for boardsailing to evolve and reach new heights.

"Unfortunately, racing is only one discipline of these two awesome sports," she says. "There is one thing that kiteboarding has above any sport, and that is the ability to jump to heights that can curl your toes and make you feel very free."