What Do Chiba, Kelly’s Pool and Russians Have In Common?
Notes from a night at the Friends of Olympic Surfing reception.
It’s a muggy Tuesday evening in La Jolla. Remnants of Hurricane Fabio have the air thick. Outside Fernando Aguerre’s expansive house fronting Big Rock is an older black man dressed in a black suit and tie with a stylish fedora, a silver cross dangles around his neck. He could have been plucked from the 1950s Chicago blues’ scene.
Postponing my entrance to the Friends of Olympic Surfing reception we strike up a conversation. Turns out he’s the father of three former Major League Baseball players. One son, Kevin Mitchell, was a famous outfielder for the San Francisco Giants during their World Series run back in 1989. One of his other sons is currently coaching with the Boston Red Sox.
“I just do special security assignments for the boss,” he says. “My boss, Dimitri, asked me to come over to Fernando’s house tonight and keep an eye on things, so that’s what I’m here to do.”
The man had stories. Good stories. But with the party already underway it was time to head down into Fernando’s world and see if there was anything new to be gleaned from the Olympic Surfing movement.
Over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, Fernando stood at a podium in his water-front backyard and broke it down.
Most of the mechanics have already been figured out in terms of how many surfers will compete, what the qualification process is and all that. And as far as comp sites, it’s pretty much a lock that it will take place at Shidashita Beach in Chiba.
During his talk, Fernando noted that, yes, a Kelly Slater wave pool project is in the works in Japan, but that it’s doubtful it will be ready by the time the Games roll around. He also pointed out that Japanese officials were fairly incessant the Olympics take place in real ocean waves. All that being said, Fernando did leave a crack open that if the pool was completed and tested in time, and the forecast looked absolutely dreadful, well, maybe there’s an outside chance something changes.
As it all stands right now, it’s on in Chiba.
How surfing and skateboarding entered the 2020 Games came down to a bit of horse training. With room for new sports in the Games, the Japanese Olympic delegation was insistent that baseball and karate be included because of their overwhelming popularity there. But the International Olympic Committee recognized they needed a way to attract more youthful viewership to the Games. A deal was struck that if surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing were included, the Japanese could have baseball and karate.
“We knew before the official votes were even cast,” said Fernando.
That begs the question, will surfing and skateboarding benefit from being in the Olympics, or will the Olympics benefit more from having surfing and skateboarding?
It’s no secret that there’s a lot of hand-wringing going on amongst surf industry power players hoping the Games can turn a bleak retail environment around. It’s all about selling boardshorts.
And with surfers like Tati Weston-Webb and Kanoa Igarashi now representing Brazil and Japan, respectively, the surfers obviously see the benefit to participating in the Games. A big performance in Chiba could take them from relative unknowns to the front of a Wheaties box.
While we’re still two years out, the Olympics are impending. By this time next year, we’ll have pretty good clarity on who will be competing, what countries will be represented and what the venue will roughly look like.
In a recent conversation with U.S.A. Surfing Head Coach Joey Buran, he pointed out that it’s all coming how rapidly the Olympics are approaching, and when it happens, it will be bigger than most realize.
“The IOC controls everything. It’s not like trying to sneak into the U.S. Open or something. You can just get an extra wristband from a bro,” he said. “From who’s traveling with the team, to where they’re staying, to the media, to coaches, all that stuff [At the Olympics] is tightly controlled by the IOC.”
The IOC is even debating whether a wetsuit should be considered a piece of “performance sports equipment” or a “uniform.” There are different rules defining the two categories, but basically, if a wetsuit is considered performance sports equipment the surfers will be free to wear whatever suit they want (conceivably a suit made by whoever their sponsor is). But if it’s considered a uniform all the surfers on a team will have to wear the same suit. That’s not a huge deal (unless you’re Hurley or Billabong or Quiksilver), but it does illustrate how different the Olympic experience is.
The night ended relatively early. On the way out I stopped for another chat with my security guard pal. Again, he noted that his Russian friend, Dimitri, had assigned him to run point on security at Fernando’s house.
Driving home to San Clemente all I could think of was who is Dimitri? What’s the connection to Fernando? And what does a Russian have to do with Olympic Surfing?
To be continued, I guess…
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