Richard Branson promoting kitesurfing

Originally Published: June 8, 2011
By Patrick Cain | Special to Page 2

NECKER ISLAND, British Virgin Islands -- Kiteboarding is a fledgling sport seeking to gain a foothold in the athletic world, but Sir Richard Branson thinks he can change that.

The sport is akin to windsurfing, but with far more of a vertical element due to the fact that the board and rider are powered by a large kite instead of a sail. With recent safety improvements, growing appeal and big-air tricks -- the world record is a 75-foot vertical jump -- kiteboarding has earned inclusion in the 2016 Olympics as an evaluation sport.

Kiteboarding, or kitesurfing, is a passion for Branson, the owner of most things Virgin (think Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, etc). The sport started in the early 1980s, but the idea of using a kite to pull objects across water dates to 19th-century England, with practitioners partly trying to avoid the "horse tax" levied on pony-drawn freight.

Dieter Strasilla, a German pioneer of extreme sports, figured if a kite can pull a boat, then surely one could pull a person. He is thought to have developed kitesailing -- basically kitesurfing without the board -- in the 1970s. Andrea Kuhn, a friend of Strasilla, eventually added a board to the mix, essentially inventing a new sport in the process. Ultimately, tricks got bigger, speeds got faster and the sport got safer.

Three years ago, Branson and watersports pros Charlie Smith and Scotty Wilson hatched an idea over lunch: assemble the world's best kiteboarders for a spirited competition in the British Virgin Islands, a Caribbean destination blessed with dependable trade winds.

They came up with Kite Jam, a weeklong event for amateurs and professionals to compete in freestyle and speed events held on Branson's privately owned Necker Island and showcasing the BVI's reliable 20-knot winds and bankable 81-degree temperature.

Kite Jam is just the beginning of Branson's hopes for the sport. Although the bid to make kiteboarding an official Olympic sport for 2016 failed, Branson isn't likely to give up after one rejection.

"We'll keep trying, because there could be no better Olympic sport," Branson said. "It looks great. It's man against the elements. It's highly competitive. It's the perfect Olympic sport. It's what the Olympics were originally conceived for."

Kiteboarding remains a niche sport, appealing primarily to wealthy, coastal athletes. Equipment alone costs upwards of $2,000 -- and that's just for the bare essentials. You also need wind and a body of water. Still, other niche sports, such as curling and biathlon, are Olympic staples.

Niche sport or not, kiters defy stereotyping. They range from ordinary surfers to tech entrepreneurs such as Branson and Google's Larry Page, who once was nearly stranded in the ocean with Branson on a kiteboarding adventure.

"There's a lot of ... well, nerds," said pro kiteboarder Susi Mai. "I think the attraction to kitesurfing must be from that they're too young for golf and they all liked the aeronautics that go into flying the kites."

At this year's second annual BVI Kite Jam, winds cooperated nicely. Athletes ranged from vacationing amateurs to Youri Zoon, the No. 3 freestyle kitesurfer in the world.

"All of the pros were friendly, approachable and more than happy to work with you," said amateur rider Jeff Bartkowski. "It's a unique opportunity. Epic."

Patrick Cain is a Los Angeles-based writer who contributes to Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.

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