REUTERS - Kiteboarders from around the world kill time on a Chinese beach as calm conditions keep them grounded, but the 100 or so suntanned athletes seem unperturbed. Ever since their sport was included on the Olympic programme for the 2016 Games their spirits have been sky high.
The International Sailing Federation (ISAF) announced the decision to include men’s and women’s kiteboarding at the expense of windsurfing earlier this month, describing it as a “fantastic addition” for the Games in Rio de Janeiro.
While the decision to chop windsurfing prompted jeers from leading athletes, those at a recent Kiteboard Tour Asia event in Pingtan, a cluster of Chinese islands in the Taiwan Strait, lauded the recognition for the fast-growing sport.
Turkey’s Salih Cakir has already begun training for 2016 and says kiteboarding is on the up.
“It’s exciting, it’s fun, easy to learn, and it’s the new extreme sport everyone’s talking about,” added Cakir, who runs a training school in Gokova on the Aegean coast.
International Kiteboarding Association (IKA) Executive Secretary Markus Schwendtner estimates there are more than 1.5 million competitive and hobby participants globally for the sport, which sees around 100,000 new learners every year, though numbers are hard to pin down due to the independent nature of the sport.
Described as a mixture between windsurfing, surfing and wakeboarding, freestyle kiteboarders perform daring tricks such as the “hasselhoff” and the “unhooked raley”, though it is the fast-paced course racing discipline that will appear in Rio.
“Kitesurfing isn’t just jumping and hopping around,” Cakir said as kites float past the backdrop of Pingtan’s old stone village houses.
“The freestyle side of people are more relaxed, laid back and so on. But the racing people, they can be a little bit more serious.”
Proponents of kiteboarding say the sport’s visual appeal, portability and accessibility are ideal to get athletes from emerging economies involved.
“I believe there will in fact be tremendous increase particularly from the non-traditional sailing countries in Asia,” ISAF Vice President Low Teo Ping told Reuters this month.
KTA founding director Neil Godbold said lower costs for kite equipment compared to other sailing categories could open the sport to a wider range of competitors.
“We’re not like sailing, coming through a yacht club system. Kiteboarding has always come from a more commercial angle,” Godbold said, as crowds of Chinese spectators watched the competition under a psychedelic swarm of hovering kites.
Ken Nacor of the Philippines, a freestyle Asian champion who also has one eye on the 2016 Olympics, said kiteboarding was a perfect fit for his home island of Boracay thanks to its kite-friendly beaches.
”Pretty much anyone can learn, said Nacor, who coaches kiteboarding back home when he is not competing, “if you have good coordination and are not scared of the water”.
Critics of the ISAF’s decision have voiced concerns over the safety of kiteboarding, while windsurfing federations have vowed to get their sport reinstated.
“For kitesurfing, to disconnect yourself from the kite if something goes wrong is something very difficult to do, especially for kids,” Israeli windsurfer and kiteboarder Amit Inbar.
“And I don’t see kids at the age of eight up to 12 dealing with a kite in the same safe manner as they can deal with windsurfing.”
Reuters video: Kiteboarding soars after Olympic inclusion
Reporting By Sisi Tang; Additional reporting by Jonathan Gordon and Venus Wu in Hong Kong; Editing by Peter Rutherford