Don’t blink! Summer Olympics’ fastest sport, kitesurfing, will debut at Paris Games

The fastest sport at the Paris Games has such wild speeds that the athletes say the waves and the wind become muted.

Welcome to the Olympic debut of kitesurfing.

“What’s cool is it’s so silent, flying across not hitting the water,” Daniela Moroz said.

Moroz has won six consecutive world championships in the sport that entails riding a surfboard that’s harnessed to a parachute-like sail above and perched on a skinny hydrofoil below.

When that foil starts whistling, you know you’re going fast, said Moroz, a 23-year-old Californian who is aiming to put the U.S. sailing team on top of the Olympic podium for the first time since 2008.

But when the foil starts humming, she adds, then you’re really going; kiters clock speeds of up to 80 kilometers (nearly 50 miles) per hour, eclipsing even the sprints of track cyclists.

That means the typical twin strengths of Olympic sailors — athletic prowess and tactical thinking — get compressed into less than 15 minutes of gut-driven racing in Formula Kite.

“The strategy, it gets madly close to instinct — you don’t have one or two seconds to waste in reflecting,” said Lauriane Nolot, 25.

Nolot just won this year’s world championship, and she is aiming for gold when the Games visit her home water off Marseille in southern France in late July. The historic port city is known for its fierce Mistral wind, which whips up the Mediterranean Sea into what Nolot calls “a war zone.”

Control of the foil is crucial because it allows for gliding above the water surface. Reigning men’s world champion Max Maeder of Singapore compares it to adding a steering wheel to a car that before only had pedals.

“Suddenly you can turn the wheel, that sort of opening of possibilities. It’s that freeing, it captures you,” said Maeder, 17, who is widely expected to lead the men’s Formula Kite competition for Singapore’s first sailing medal at the Olympics.

With that freedom, however, comes danger, and Maeder is no longer “impatient” with the required mounds of protective gear as he was at 6, when his father introduced him to kiteboarding.

“Above 60 kilometers (37 miles) per hour, water doesn’t feel so liquid,” he says.

Professional kiters have to wear helmets, goggles, reinforced wetsuits and impact vests. They are trained to angle to avoid “tangles” and accidents that might be just 10 meters (yards) ahead of them — or about one second away, said Mirco Babini, the president of the International Kiteboarding Association.

A former professional windsurfer, he started “toying” with kitesurfing 25 years ago when the sport was in its infancy. It spread fast as a relatively inexpensive form of sailing that only required a board, a backpack, and a “spirit of recklessness.”

Today, there are about 3.5 million kiters globally, and the 2024 Games will put the top 40 of the tiny number of professionals on sports’ most visible platform. They’ll be flying off the Med in some four races a day, with a target time of 11 minutes for a course of about 10 kilometers (just over 6 miles), Babini said.

Using only the power of their own two legs to harness the wind through the cables and push that force into the board for propulsion, they’ll achieve speeds equaled or barely surpassed by some of the most sophisticated multimillion-dollar boats sailed by multiple crews in America’s Cup or SailGP races.

“You go so fast, you have to pay attention to every gust of wind and bump in the water,” Moroz said.

For her, as for Nolot and Maeder, bringing this sport to the Olympic stage also carries a personal thrill because of their family histories — whether growing up in a small village an hour away from the Olympic marina, like for Nolot, or stemming from more globetrotting backgrounds.

Maeder was raised mostly on an Indonesian diving resort by his Swiss father and Singaporean mother, while Moroz’s parents, who had both escaped communist Czechoslovakia, met while windsurfing in Northern California.

They all plan on being among the cheering fans in Marseille.

“I go around water really fast on this little thing and people smile. You feel on a very deep level fulfilled,” Maeder said.

The pioneers of the sport hope this debut will also draw more youth to kitesurfing — just like when windsurfing first appeared at the 1984 Los Angeles Games and Babini was hooked.

“I can’t wait for this to happen after August 8 in Marseille. The whole world will have seen a truly different form of sailing,” he said.


AP Summer Olympics:

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