Stab Magazine | The Big Winners And Losers Of Surfing’s Successful Bid For The Olympics

The Big Winners And Losers Of Surfing’s Successful Bid For The Olympics

A look at the hidden agendas and motivations behind surfing’s inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

news // Aug 28, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 3 minutes

In a nutshell, the big winners from surfing’s inclusion in the Olympics are those hoping to grow the sport. The losers are anyone who thought the past 40 to 50 years of exponential growth was enough. 

“Inclusion in the Olympic programme is a fast-track to popularity with increased participation, television exposure, more sponsors and increased income,” writes Leigh Robinson, The Dean of the Faculty of Sport at the University of Stirling.

“In terms of value added to the Olympic movement, the IOC is increasingly emphasising the importance of sports with youth appeal, leading to the inclusion of a number of “youth sports” in the Tokyo 2020 programme.”

Surfing will be used as a pawn for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to get its numbers up in the youth market. But what does surfing get out of it? Regardless of the Olympics, surfing is already on a path of exponential growth. Since the shortboard revolution of the early seventies, surfing has grown to accommodate countless brands, a full-fledged circuit in the World Surf League, numerous professional surfers, surf tourism operators, surf media, board and hardware manufacturers. As it is, there are countless detractors among the surfing community who claim the sport is blown out, over-grown and over-exposed. Who hasn’t benefited from surfing’s big bloom over the last half century?

The International Surfing Association (ISA), could easily be argued as one. The obscure latin-American-based governing body has long struggled for relevance in surfing, finding themselves significantly outmuscled by the ASP and later WSL in the competition for big names, big money and big media exposure. It is the ISA who engineered surfing’s successful bid for the Olympics, their Argentinian President Fernando Aguerre first meeting with IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch in Lausanne, Switzerland back in 1995, “Where he made it clear that the inclusion of Surfing in the Olympic Games would be a strategic priority for the ISA,” writes the ISA website. As it happens, 1995 was also the same year the ASP launched its Dream Tour concept – aimed at taking the world’s best surfers to the world’s best waves – with their inaugural Quicksilver G-Land Pro held in what was then mind-boggling eight-foot tubes in East Java. 

It was a model the ISA could never compete with and over the next 20 years, they would nearly completely fade from view in the mainstream surfing community. Their last surfing contest, what the ISA dubbed the “World Games” was held in mushy beach break conditions in Costa Rica earlier this month and featured not a single surfer from the Top 35. The men’s division was won by Argentinian Leandro Usuna, ranked 81st on the World Qualifying Series. The women’s was won by the USA’s Tia Blanco ranked 33rd on the WQS while the overall winners of the event, Peru, have not had a surf on the World Tour since Sofia Mulanovich who retired at the end of 2013.

Where the ASP, under the guise of Rabbit Bartholomew, set about creating the ultimate environment for surfers and surfing to show its otherworldly wares, the ISA went the other way. They took surfing to a host of obscure and neglected surfing minnows in a bid to portray the sport as truly global. Since that meeting with the IOC back in 1995, they’ve boasted of proudly growing their member base from 32 to 100, including such obscure surfing nations as Iran, Sierra Leone and Russia. A quick glance at their website today reveals announcements about an upcoming ISA-backed Afghan Surf Championship in France and the ISA’s World Standup Paddle and Paddle Board Championship to be held in Denmark. Hardly the pinnacle of surfing performance, culture or interest. 

They might be largely irrelevant in the eyes of the surfing community, but when it comes to the IOC, the ISA is GOD.  

“The International Surfing Association (ISA), founded in 1964, is recognised by the International Olympic Committee as the World Governing Authority for Surfing, StandUp Paddle (SUP) Racing and Surfing, Bodysurfing, Wakesurfing, and all other wave riding activities on any type of waves, and on flat water using wave riding equipment,” it boasts on its website.  

Their goal of “spreading the joy of Surfing to all corners of the world,” has the bonus of being a pure labour of love for ISA President Fernando Aguerre. He works for free, so he told American website, The Inertia, following the announcement of the ISA’s successful bid to have surfing included in the Olympics.  

“Our culture, our sport is so international. And the ISA represents a lot of that. That’s why I love it; that’s why I work for free. Sometimes I feel like it is my main job. But I don’t get paid. I have been president for almost 22 years,” he said.


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