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Surfing in the Olympics: My Point of View

09:10 7th September 2008 by
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Words by: Fernando Aguerre

The IOC and contemporary sports

In the past few years the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has dramatically evolved in its view of the so-called extreme or contemporary sports and their place in the Olympic Movement.

The very positive effect of the inclusion of snowboarding in the Winter Games has also been a great wake up call for many. Another example of this positive evolution is the inclusion of BMX in the Beijing Games.

Presently diverse stakeholders around the world are friendly to the possibility of surfing’s inclusion in the Summer Games. This is in part because surfing has a well functioning and structured IOC-Recognized International Federation (the ISA) and National Federations, but most importantly it has to do with the realization that without “pruning the Olympic Games tree” by adding relevant new sports, and excluding no longer relevant sports, the tree itself will become less relevant and vital.

What are the hurdles for inclusion in the IOC GAMES?

The biggest obstacles facing new sports hoping to be included in the Olympic Games Program are the strict requirements for inclusion and the length of time the process requires. A new sport should start its campaign at least nine years before a particular Olympic Games, because the final line-up of sports is decided by the IOC seven years before any given Olympic Games.

Surfing’s chance for inclusion will most likely involve the development of wave parks with suitable manmade waves. Several such parks have been in operation for years, but recent technological improvements have raised the bar, and we now have an unprecedented ability for producing high-quality performance waves. At least five companies have made significant wave making progress, as can be seen in this video example of Japan’s Ocean Dome with high quality and very contestable waves…

Consistent with current IOC rules, the decision on the Sports Program for the 2016 Games will be made in 2009 in Copenhagen. The IOC will also announce the host for those Games (finalists are Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago). The selection for the following Summer Games (2020) will be made in 2013.

Note: The inclusion of Snowboard and BMX in the Games was not as complicated as the inclusion of surfing would be, since both sports were considered “disciplines” of existing sports (snow skiing and cycling respectively), and not “new sports”. The inclusion of a totally new sport (like surfing), as opposed to a “new discipline” of a currently included sport, is a much more complicated and involved process.

Additionally, the process for inclusion of new sports will always encounter a huge hurdle. Since the Games have an IOC imposed ceiling on the amount of sports and amount of total athletes, the inclusion of new sports necessarily implies that a currently included sport will most likely be removed from the Games, or trimmed the amount of athletes in such sport.

At the end of the day, the process comes down to a vote by all IOC members, some of which are presidents of federations of sports currently in the Games. Hence the vote for inclusion could end up resulting in the exclusion of the sports of the person casting the “inclusion” vote for a new sport…

In other words there is a full potential for a big conflict of interest: What might be great for the health of the IOC and the Games (bringing new, contemporary youth or extreme sports that will result in better ratings and sponsors interest), might be the worst for some currently included sports (such as aging, obsolete, or no longer relevant sports) that will be “kicked out” of the Games as a consequence.

Asking those “endangered Olympic Sports” for a vote approving the inclusion of new, younger sports, when that could result in the termination of the Olympic status of their sport, would be like asking the happy patrons of a club, to “vote” themselves out of the club, while they are having the best time of their lives… Not a very likely outcome.

Enter the Youth Summer Olympic Games

In a smart decision, which speaks to the vital importance of younger athletes and audiences for the future of the Olympics, the IOC announced the 2010 Youth Summer Games (Singapore, 2010).

Unfortunately, the IOC decided that only sports from the “regular” Summer Games would be included in Singapore. Some of the world’s most popular youth sports, including surfing and skateboarding are not slated for inclusion.

This is unfortunate, as surfing is one of the most visible and inspirational extreme sports, practiced in all continents, and loved by countless millions of fans. After all, surfing has been the “mother sport” of skateboarding, snowboarding, windsurfing, kiteboarding, wakeboarding, and other great modern “board sports.”

The 2009 Olympic Congress: An opportunity for positive changes

For the first time in history, the IOC has created a Virtual Olympic Congress. In preparation for the 2009 Olympic Congress (a kind of constitutional assembly that is held from time to time), the IOC has invited all sports leaders, and even members of the public, to submit proposals for improving the Games and the IOC. This welcome move is fresh air for the whole Olympic Movement.

The ISA Sands of the World ceremony, a strong symbol of peace and unity in the world through surfing.

Learning from the success of others

The phenomenal success of ESPN’s X-Games, which focuses on action sports, youth sports, and an embracing of youth culture, has certainly been noticed by the Olympic Movement.

The X-Games have a fast decision-making process on inclusion of new sports or exclusions of others. They also have shorter times between X-Games (one each summer and winter), and a precise focus on viewership needs, that has turned the X-Games into a very powerful example of how to make things happen in today’s sports-and-media world.

The short list of “new” sports for the 2016 Games

The five sports on the “short list” for inclusion in the 2016 Games are rugby, karate, roller sports, racquetball, and golf. Currently there is only room for two additional sports for those Games. The IOC could also decide not to include any new sport at all for 2016.

While very respectable, and certainly credible, none of those five sports could be considered a contemporary youth sport. Some might not even attract large numbers of additional young sports enthusiasts to the Games’ audience. Most likely many of those young viewers will continue to flock to the ever growing X-Games audience, following the stars in what they consider relevant sports. Young fans want to watch “cool” sports, sports that inspire them, and that are related to their lifestyles…

Why surfing in the Olympics now?

Until recently, the Olympic Movement gave not much consideration to surfing as a potential new sport in the Olympic Games. However, many stakeholders are now considering the viability and desirability of including surfing. New wave-making technologies have played a part in this re-evaluation of the possibilities. But perhaps the most important factor has been the realization within the IOC, that by passing over some of the most vital contemporary youth sports, the organization might have done a disservice to itself, maybe even weakening the Games popularity and relevance for the younger demographics.

This prior direction appears to have changed, with the inclusion of BMX.

The case for Olympic Surfing

Surfing is truly a global sport, more popular and more widely practiced than many current Olympic sports. Surfing is pursued in every corner of the world, in more than a hundred countries. There are now over 25 million surfers worldwide! Because of its enormous popularity and cachet, surfing is used as a marketing tool by banks, fashion brands, cars, watches, and countless other entities, not to mention the multibillion-dollar industry of surfing’s own lifestyle brands.

Surfers are a strong and positive influence on young people around the world. They are a very relevant part of our youth’s culture and serve as inspirational figures, naturally representing the Olympic values.

If surfing is included as an Olympic sport, it will be great for surfing, of course. More importantly, however, it will be a great contribution to excellence and relevance of the IOC’s Summer Games and the Youth Summer Games.

Recent experience has shown the IOC that the inclusion of a core youth sport has been a great boost to the health of the Winter Games. The incorporation of snowboarding as an Olympic sport immediately made the Games cooler for teenagers. It was a win/win situation for all stakeholders.

The incorporation of surfing will be an additional great step in that direction.

What will be the impact on society of Olympic surfing Wave Parks?

The wave parks created for the Games would remain in the host city, and continue to provide further opportunities for the integration of diverse socioeconomic, ethnic, religious, and age groups long after the Games have moved on. This is what surfing has already done on ocean shores around the world. Places with wave parks will become part of a new, better world. Everything will change radically when surfing becomes a reality, regardless of where the surfers live, by the coast or away from it.

Opportunity for public and private sectors

Governments that fund the building of sport centres, stadiums, courts, and swimming pools will realize that Wave Parks are also good ways to provide a better future for their citizens. When wave parks are integrated into the recreational facilities of most cities (as tennis courts; tracks and soccer fields are now), surfing will no longer be an “elite” sport reserved only for people who live near the beach or have the ability to travel to exotic places. Like football and tennis, surfing will be embraced by a larger number of individuals, who will be physically and psychologically healthier thanks to surfing.

The private sector will thrive on this opportunity. From the entertainment industry to the venue operators to the lifestyle industry, all will have expansion opportunities. Students of all ages and social groups will be able to enjoy waves and familiarize themselves with the ocean’s motions at the wave parks. These wave parks could further serve as educational centers for the Earth’s threatened ocean environment; they will be “lighthouses” for better understanding of life in the oceans, and for the benefit of new generations of more environmentally-friendly citizens.

Ocean Waves, Wave Parks and the soul of surfing

Wave parks will not replace ocean waves. They will be complementary. Millions of people live far away from the ocean, in places where surfing can’t be practiced. Wave Parks would allow many of those individuals to surf.

On the competition side, the ISA believes that Olympic surfing will, of necessity, incorporate manmade waves. By standardizing the waves for surfing competition, the luck factor of getting a certain wave in the ocean will cease to become a sometimes important factor in determining the winner or loser of a surfing competition.

So what now?

As President of the ISA, one of my challenges is to rationally show the Olympic Movement the convincing case on how much good to Olympism and to the Games, Olympic surfing will be. Things are a bit easier nowadays, since the Olympic leadership is very aware of the challenges it faces, and is increasingly sensitive to opportunities to expand the Games audience and role in today’s world.

One of the ISA’s jobs is to continue the path begun by Hawaiian surfer and multiple swimming gold medal winner Duke Kahanamoku, who in 1920 asked the IOC to include surfing in the Olympic Games.

Final words

A long time ago, I realized that surfing was the best thing that ever happened to me. I want to share that happiness with the rest of the world. Some so-called “purists” might say, “You’re betraying surfing’s soul by bringing Wave Parks into surfing.” I don’t think so. I don’t believe that the soul of surfing requires it to be an elite sport for the lucky few who live near the ocean’s waves. My vision is of surfing as a democratic sport – one that, while teaching respect for the ocean, allows for a better integration of mankind, through a common love of wave-riding and the oceans.

Surfing is a sport that has grown up and continues to mature and evolve, as other sports do. Just like football (called soccer in the USA), playing on the street or on a perfect field is not exactly the same, but wherever you play it, the football passion is the same. Today, the sport of football is not the same as it was at the first FIFA World Cup in Uruguay in 1930. Compared to the footwear they wore, the balls they played with, the fields they played on, today’s football is another sport. Still, no one thinks that the sport of soccer has lost its soul. The young boy or girl, alone in his or her backyard or kicking a ball against a wall in a poor neighbourhood, are enjoying soccer with the same passion, the same happiness as footballer Leo Messi does.

My hope is to change surfing’s paradigm. The pleasure of riding a wave is not going to change regardless of surfing inclusion in the Olympic Games or the building of many more wave parks around the world. The ISA’s goal is to add a new surfing experience, to make what already exists for the 25 million surfers of the world, available to the many – opening the surfing experience to many more millions of new surfers through the building to wave pools around the world.

Inclusion of surfing in the Olympic Games is an important part of the job.

Eight times professional surfing world champion wrote to me a few weeks ago: “I am sure wave parks are our way into the Olympic Games, if that’s one of our directions, which it very well should be.”

I agree.


Fernando Aguerre is a surfer and the President of the International Surfing Association.