Last month, Prince William and Kate Middleton paddled dragon boats for fun during a visit to Canada's Prince Edward Island. • This weekend in Tampa, 2,000 athletes from 17 countries will compete for the sport's top title. • The World Dragon Boat Racing Championships opened Tuesday and continue through Sunday in downtown Tampa. Consider them Tampa's version of the Olympics. • "What's going to be so cool is to walk through Channelside and downtown and see people with jackets that say Russia on the back, (or) China,'' said Kevin Burns, co-founder of the Tampa Bay Dragon Boat Institute, the host committee. • The races cement Tampa's reputation as a premier spot for dragon boat racing, a sport that until recently was unknown to most locals. Tampa held its first dragon boat races in 2004 and two years later hosted the national championships. It won its bid for the world races in 2007, becoming just the second U.S. city to host the biennial races. • Here's a primer on the sport and what to expect at the races. Speak Chinese? That might come in handy. English and Chinese are the official languages of the International Dragon Boat Federation, the sport's governing authority.
Who's coming to Tampa's races?
An estimated 2,000 athletes from 17 countries are expected to participate. Not surprisingly, China is the defending champion. Other participating countries include Australia, Brazil, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Philippines, Singapore and Trinidad and Tobago.
How far do they race?
Paddlers will compete in 200-, 500-, 1,000- and 2,000-meter races in different classes. Points will be awarded to winners in each heat, with the premier class men's, women's and coed teams deciding the championship title. Teams will earn medals and trophies. The top country will get its name added to the gold-plated Nation's Cup.
Do teams bring their own boats?
Teams generally bring their own paddles but never their own boats. (Consider the logistical nightmare of getting the boats here and swapping them out for every race.) Local organizers bought 24 boats from Canada-based Champion Dragon Boats for about $6,500 apiece. They were made in China, shipped to the Port of Tampa and assembled at a warehouse in Drew Park. Club teams from across the United States and beyond have purchased the boats and will take them home after the races.
Who's on the U.S. team?
Team USA has about 300 members competing in the various race classes, by far the most of any country. For the first time, eight U.S. team members are local. Phil Barringer, Wayne Henriquez, Dan Harris and Kim Caruso paddle for the Tampa Electric Co. team, and Karol Batansky, Pam Korotky and Hildren Francis are members of the Tampa Bay Dragon Boat Club. Patsy Madrazo is with the Tampa Bay Paddling Club. The rest come from across the country, including six from Miami.
How did the sport get its start in Tampa?
Burns, co-owner of Associated Watch and Jewelry Buyers in Tampa, was in Toronto in 2000 and saw a dragon boat practice on Lake Ontario. Impressed, he wanted to bring it to Tampa. He took the idea to his friend Keith Graminger, a local architect and urban planner who lived in Hong Kong for a few years, and the two started spreading the word and forming teams. Neither knew much about dragon boat racing but thought it would be great for Tampa's waterfront. In 2004, they organized their first event, the Tampa Bay International Dragon Boat Races, which in April celebrated its eighth event. The sport really picked up in 2005 with the hiring of Christine Canevari as executive director of the Tampa Bay Dragon Boat Institute. With help from Tampa Bay & Company, it won a bid four years ago to host the 2011 world races. The last time the races were held in the United States was in 2001 in Philadelphia. Tehran won the bid to host the next world championships in 2013, but there is talk already of moving them to Budapest, Hungary, to ensure greater participation.
What's the local impact?
Between hotel, restaurant and other spending, organizers expect an economic boost of $4 million. That's far less than the $24.3 million cited when Tampa Bay & Company won the bid for the races, thanks mostly to poor economic times, but still significant for a summertime event. The races were funded through athlete fees, corporate sponsorships and grants from the Hillsborough County Tourist Development Council, the Florida Sports Foundation, the Downtown Tampa Partnership and other sources. The event costs about $500,000 to produce, some of which will be recouped by selling the boats afterward.
What else is going on?
• The Rock the Park concert at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, held the first Thursday of every month, becomes the Rock the World concert in honor of the visiting athletes. The free concert runs from 6:30 to 9 tonight with Auto!Automatic!!, Reality Band and John Gold.
• The Worldwide Paddle Sports Expo runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily and until 3 p.m. Sunday at the Tampa Convention Center, and will also have food and drinks. The expo will have vendors selling goods related to dragon boat racing and other paddling sports, including kayaking, canoeing and standup paddleboarding. Admission is free.
• The Athletes Village, where each country's team will hang out, also will be set up at the Tampa Convention Center. Free.
• Channelside Bay Plaza will have live music Friday and Saturday.