Daecheon Beach, Boryeong — When five-time Olympian Mike Gebhardt asserts that kiting securing a berth at the 2020 Tokyo Games would change everything in the sport, with an explosion of interest and money, it is not to be taken lightly. The renowned racing coach, who helped foiling prodigy Daniela Moroz to her first Formula Kite World Championship title last year at just 15 and Rob Douglas to the 2017 International Kiteboarding Association (IKA) Speed World Championship crown, knows what he is talking about.
On the sidelines of the IKA KiteFoil GoldCup series’ opening round in Boryeong’s Daecheon Beach in Korea—where a stubborn absence of wind on day three again allowed no racing—Gebhardt was confident of new and even brighter horizons. Kiteboarding is to be considered as a “showcase” event—short of full medal status—by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in the coming months after World Sailing’s (WS) Council put the sport forward for inclusion.
If the IOC agrees the WS proposal—kiting operates under the auspices of WS through the IKA—it is likely that some form of “short-track” kitefoil racing for men and women would grace the XXXII summer Olympiad.
Gebhardt, who was instrumental in ensuring kiteboarding momentarily won an Olympic medal slot back in 2012, witnessed first hand the effect even that dashed gambit had with a dramatic upsurge in interest and participation.
Competitors in action during day four of the IKA Kiteboard Race World Championship 2013 on November 23, 2013 at King Bay Qionghai, China. Photo by Alexandru Baranescu / KTA
At the course-board Formula Kite World Championships in Gizzeria, southern Italy, in 2012, the numbers of entrants “maxed out” at a staggering 180 competitors, many of them kiting novices who switched from windsurfing in pursuit of the Olympic dream.
“Sport is driven by money,” he said. “When it becomes Olympic, kiting will become huge. The brands and the manufacturers will invest heavily. As soon as it’s Olympic, it’s no longer a fringe sport.
“The Olympics are like a peaceful war. The ideal is benevolent, but it ends up with resources being thrown at it. That’s a really positive impact. Kiting’s healthy, inexpensive and accessible. That will be great in allowing all smaller, less rich nations to buy into it. And now we also have the crazy high-performance of foils.”
Gebhardt, aside from his role on the IKA executive committee, has seen the Olympic effect up close and personal. He represented the US in windsurfing in each games from 1984 to 2000 and is back in Korea, where won his first Olympic bronze medal in 1988.
A key player in helping the IOC select the original RS:X class for windsurfing after 2002, he coached Israel’s Gal Fridman to Olympic gold in windsurfing at the centennial Athens Games in 2004.
“Windsurfing at Olympic level was quite some juggernaut; that’s what kiting will get,” said Gebhardt, 51, now living in the kiting mecca of Cabarete, Dominican Republic. “There is a huge amount of money and the industry will get really involved.”
In his windsurfing pro-tour days in Maui, Gebhardt competed against many familiar names who became kiting luminaries: Robbie Naish, Pete Cabrinha and Roberto Ricci among them. But in 2003 he converted to kitesurfing completely, the appeal of the smaller, lighter equipment that takes less toll on the body the big draw.
These days he is coaching, focusing on his young riders like Tiger Tyson, 15, with whom he travelled from Antigua to compete in the Kiteboard Tour Asia (KTA) Twin-Tip Race Open being staged simultaneously to the IKA KiteFoilGoldCup, hosted and sponsored by the Korea Windsurfing Kitesurfing Association.
The goal is qualification for the Youth Olympic Games in Argentina next year, where the format will be TT:R slalom racing. But even in the KiteFoil GoldCup he has noticed more riders showing up with coaches, a bellwether that changes are afoot in kiting’s new potential Olympic era.
“That’s a change for the better,” he said. “It’s a clear sign that the infrastructure is changing ahead of the Olympics and that more money is available.”