Surfing just took one step closer to becoming an official Olympic sport yesterday morning when the IOC’s Executive Board voted to approve it as one of five sports to be included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As we’ve discovered, nothing moves quickly when it comes to Olympic decisions, and one more hurdle remains: a final vote in August. No matter how you feel about it, the train is moving, and momentum tends to favor the train. There has been a lot of conjecture about how this contest will actually take place. The short of it: It won’t be in a wave pool. Forty athletes will compete (20 men and 20 women). And a diversity of nations will be represented. We caught up with ISA President Fernando Aguerre, the conductor of said train, to get the skinny.
Fernando, we just got word that reports seem positive that surfing will be included in the 2020 Olympics. Can you provide any insight into that development?
What I can confirm is that it is official today, (June 1, 2016) that the Executive Board of the IOC, the supreme body, which is 15 members including the president, voted unanimously to approve the five sports requested by Tokyo. This includes surfing, to be included in the Tokyo 2020 games.
The only thing that is missing now, is on the 2nd or 3rd of August, in Rio, during the IOC session, they will vote yes or no to bring the five sports. The word out there is that it looks very good for a yes. But of course, I count my chickens when I see them walking off the egg.
We have done all our homework, making a great presentation, a great video. We got a call today from the IOC saying that they were pleased with the presentation. They like it. Surfing and the other four sports that were voted and approved. Basically now, if the committee approves our recommendation, it goes to a vote to the full senate. So right now, I am paddling on what looks like an Olympic surfing wave. I am just paddling hard, like when you know you’re going to get it, but you just need those few more strokes to know you are down, going comfortably. We continue to do what we’ve been doing: make good presentations, promote the sport. So that’s about it.
That’s big news.
You ask me if I am happy? Yes, I am happy. If you follow me on Instagram or Twitter you saw a message from me today. I got the message from Switzerland early this morning, and I grabbed my wife and my son. We were getting on our wetsuits. We finished putting on our wetsuits then we went inside to take a photo. We went surfing to celebrate this big step forward.
Sounds like a fitting celebration. Congrats on getting to the next step. I guess things remain cautiously optimistic for the final vote.
That’s all I can tell you.
I have also read reports that if it does go through, that the competition will take place on an artificial wave. Is that true?
No, no that is a misconception. I don’t know who’s saying that, but the IOC and Tokyo 2020 have both agreed they want it on the ocean.
The reason why is that no [large scale] competition has been held on any man made wave. Of course, that means that there is a possibility in the future that a wave pool could be used. The reason is that the IOC is very careful not to ask the host nations to invest in technologies that potentially have no use after the games. That is a whole section of the IOC called legacy and sustainability. Unless there is proven viable use for the construction after, it won’t be pursued.
Until May of last year, it was still a discussion. But they have decided they want it to be on the ocean waves, natural waves. There are several places in Tokyo, and we already have a history of winds and swells and different information of the surf spots. I am not at freedom to disclose the name of these locations. But I can tell you that where surfing is going to happen, at least in our conversations with the IOC, has been about not just having a competition but a surf festival that will last for the duration of the games (two weeks). It will create a good place, a good hangout for people who enjoy surfing. The events might have things like yoga, open to the public. The Olympic competition will all be short board, but the activities might have opportunities for longboarders, bodysurfers, body boarders to hang out…We surfers are a diverse bunch. We will have all types of different food: vegetarian all things like that. Of course, there is a big music component in the culture. Also painters and sculptures. There is an interest to host not just the competitive sport of surfing, but many aspects of the surf culture. Which are the things that appeal to a large culture of people. Not everyone loves the competition, but they may love the surf culture. This is not official, but it has been discussed in informal discussions.
Very cool. I know that the Surffilm Festibal in Europe has taken strong opposition towards the Tokyo Olympics. They have information that a new sailing course will be constructed that will ultimately destroy three of Japan’s best waves. Do you know about this?
No, I haven’t heard about it.
You haven’t heard anything to that effect?
No I haven’t heard anything. Maybe we will hear soon.
Yeah, they were understandably bummed about that prospect, and I didn’t know if you were aware of that possibility.
No, no I don’t know anything about it.
So it sounds like the competition will not be in a Kelly Slater wave pool?
As of now, nobody knows the cost. I don’t know. Maybe they know. But they haven’t released the cost. As of now I can say no man-made waves will be used.
That is a pretty definitive new piece of information.
We are fine with it. We can present our sport to three or four billion people. The format could be something like a US Open of Surfing on an international scale.
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. The other thing I wanted to tell you is that in 1992 I was longboarding for Argentina in the ISA World Games in France. Two years later in Rio was the World Championship, or World Games as we call it now. I went there to help. It was an important event. There were Argentinean teams, American teams, Hawaiian teams. During the ISA meeting in 1994 in Rio, I got elected president. There were 28 members then. There are almost 100 now. I would have never thought, in 1994, that I would go back to Rio to meet the IOC to vote for surfing’s inclusion in the Olympics.
It is going to be impossible to hold back the tears when I hear the vote and see what happens. It is a special place for the ISA, for me, for all the surf community.
Definitely come a long way. I’ve just got a few more questions for you. I read forty competitors would be selected.
Yes, 20 men and 20 women. It is completely equal gender in Olympic sports.
How would those athletes be selected?
We haven’t decided on the qualifications. It is very important to know that the Olympics want the best athletes in the world and universal geographical inclusion. You will see Asian surfers, African surfers, Latin American surfers, Korean surfers, American surfers, and European surfers. Some might perceive that all the best surfers in the world are in the WSL top 34. You and I know this is not the case. Some of the best guys might not be there. Maybe they don’t have the money to chase the QS tour or whatever the reasons might be. So, there will be both a way for top pros to compete and for the best surfers of the different continents of the world. Which is a wonderful thing we already do at the ISA. Every team has the same number of members. The American, Argentinean and Fijian teams all have four members. So, at the ISA events, you don’t get more team members because you have a more relevant surfing country.
So you don’t think there might be more surfers represented from the US, Australia or Brazil than from other countries in the upcoming Olympics?
There might be slightly more. But the IOC already has caps for the amount of individual athletes per country to participate. That opens the door for countries that may not have many good guys, maybe only one. This is the true universality of the Olympic Games. But that will be decided after the vote, towards the end of this year or in 2017. There is no rush, qualifications won’t start until 2018 or 2019.
Snowboarding is probably the closest analog to surfing as an Olympic sport. How do you think the Olympics have affected snowboard culture and what could the essential impact to surfing be based on what we’ve seen in snowboarding?
I cannot say because I am not a snowboarder myself. But I do believe that snowboarders want to be in the Olympics and win the gold medal. I think this is the case with surfers. This is the case with all sports. It is not about money. It is about a medal and your country. To be an Olympian is something you are for the rest of your life. Regardless if you win or finish last. You were in the first round of the competition.
It is clear to the whole sports world, that when snowboarding entered the games in 1998 there were some leading snowboarders who weren’t going for it. But it really changed the Olympic Games and the presence of snowboarding in the world. At the time, in many resorts, only skiing was allowed, but now, it’s whoever wants to snowboard, snowboards. The Olympics give leading athletes a much larger platform. It will very likely attract new brands and sponsors. It will raise interests in surfing.
I am not doing this for ISA or Fernando, but for the sport of surfing. The WSL will probably benefit the most. They are launching a group of elite athletes to the best waves in the world. They now have the wave pool technology from Kelly Slater. This is quite a phenomenon. That is probably why they have been so supportive of the ISA and Olympic surfing. The WSL says they will do what they have to do to ensure the participation of top stars and to see the sport in the Olympic games. This will be welcome news to surf brands. The ISA and each of the federations will become part of the Olympic Games with a way to participate. Many countries will have a high performance center to train surfers. Public funding will help from governments and national Olympic committees and sponsors as well.
Olympic surfing will inspire young kids in Asia, Africa, Latin America to go to the waves. That wonderful free playground. One that doesn’t need to be built by anybody, it’s already there.
There will be an increase in the amount of people going to have fun in the waves. Of course, there might be some people who dislike this. But the stoke of surfing, of course, includes sharing it with other people. That is my motivation.
Kids in Africa or Latin America or the South Pacific. Sharing the stoke makes me happy, you know? The nature of surfing is sharing the luck. It is very special. It’s a game changer.