Surf’s up at SportAccord: An interview with Fernando Aguerre

The International Surfing Association’s outspoken president on the paddle boarding controversy, surfing at the Olympic Games and how to keep the sport ‘cool’

Surf’s up at SportAccord: An interview with Fernando Aguerre

Following its acceptance into the Olympic programme for the Tokyo 2020 Games, the International Surfing Association (ISA) was yesterday inaugurated into the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (Asoif) at the body’s general assembly, part of the SportAccord Convention in Aarhus, Denmark.

ISA’s president Fernando Aguerre, a lifelong surfer and longstanding campaigner to have surfing appear at the Olympics, described the moment as “very emotional”, saying he expected at best to get surfing on the programme for 2024 but never dreamt of it happening as soon as 2020. Lately, he has also been getting emotional about perceived incursions into ISA’s territory, with the International Canoeing Federation (ICF) making claims that the discipline of standup paddle boarding (SUP), currently governed by ISA, should instead fall under its jurisdiction. Aguerre took to social networking website Instagram to voice his displeasure, claiming in a post that “another federation” was seeking to claim a sport that, in his words, was invented by surfers.

SportsPro sat down with Aguerre at a media briefing at SportAccord Convention to discuss the paddle boarding controversy and what being an Olympic sport means for surfing.

What is the current state of affairs regarding the ICF and the apparent feeling that SUP should be governed by them?

FA: We’re in good communication, I think it’s a cordial relationship. There has been an exchange of views, and we have had two important meetings in the last couple of months with their leadership. The ISA started running SUP as a separate sport sometime in 2009, it’s a new discipline of surfing. It was invented by surfers in Hawaii in the north shore, where in the winter they get big waves but in the summer it’s flat, so in order to train during the summer months they grab a surf board and a paddle and start training. Then when the waves came back, they thought, “We can surf like this!” That’s how the modern sport of SUP was created, and a very famous athlete, Laird Hamilton, was at the centre of this. 

All SUP racers deem themselves to be surfers, so it was natural for us. We started planning in 2010 for the world championships and we ran the first one in 2012, and every year since we have run them. Last year it was in Fiji, an amazing location, we have run them in Mexico, Nicaragua, and this year it is here in Denmark for the first time. 

We felt that until last year there was no interest in SUP from the ICF. Obviously it shows that the sport is really popular, and we applied for it to be at the Olympics in Tokyo alongside shore board surfing. Surfing got approve, SUP didn’t, but the ISA has already taken the sport to different Olympic movement events – the South American Games, we are in the programme for the PanAm Games for 2018 – so we have a track record of doing this and we understand that at the ICF there is an interest in seeing how they can be part of the popularity of the sport.

The reality is that we become an Olympic federation and we have a plan for Bueno Aires, with the ICF running part of the SUP racing and us running part, that plan looked like it was going to be activated but then the IOC decided that that’s not how they deal, they want one federation, one sport. It’s an issue, it’s being discussed in a friendly way – yesterday we spent 45 minutes with the president of the ICF, we are colleagues, there is nothing nasty about it, it’s just competition for a similar interest. 

Have you noticed the popularity of the sporting side of surfing rise since the Olympic decision?

Well we are up to 100 member federations now. To give an example of how wide it is, one of our youngest federations is in Iran,  and that’s recognised by the Iranian government and the Iranian Olympic Committee, including both surfing and SUP. We’re supporting them with some of our development funds. 

We’re in five continents, and it’s a very gender-equal sport as well. Surfing has traditionally been very male-dominated for many years, but this year for the first time the ISA will run its first world championship with equal genders in Denmark. This is a very important moment in the history of our sport. 

Has becoming part of the Olympic movement been good for the wider surfing community? 

I think surfing is more popular now than it has ever been. And this has been an ongoing thing – it’s just cool that people like it, and we see a lot of mainstream brands and companies using surfing as a vehicle, in telecommunications, car companies, all kinds of companies getting involved with the sport. I think it’s positive for everybody. One of the areas that excites me the most is that two or three years ago there was a lot of really good surfers in the world, but they didn’t have an Olympic path to become an Olympian. Now they can still be surfers, and all these 14, 15, 16-year-olds can now be thinking that a dream of being Olympians doesn’t mean they have to embrace another sport, but they can stay in the sport they love. 

What can you tell us about your preparations for Tokyo?

The location is set – it’s in the Shida peninsula, which is the centre of Japanese surfing. It’s around an hour by either car or train from Tokyo and it’s a place where many international competitions and national competitions have been held in the past.

The IOC’s vision is to have an Olympic surfing beach festival format, so instead of just being a competition that you sit, watch and go, it will be a place for surfers and fans just to hang out. There will hopefully be yoga, and surf initiation, and music which will last the duration of the Games. 

Surfing competition is scheduled for the front end of the Games so if the waves don’t happen we can move it back. The science of wave forecasting is very accurate now, between three and ten days ahead you can know exactly how the waves are going to be, how consistent, how long, so that allows us to work with the Olympic Channel and OBS to be sure that they are there at the right time for the waves. 

Surfing at the Olympics is currently a one-off event, for Tokyo. Would surfing struggle to gain inclusion on the programme for a second consecutive time if Paris were to win the race for 2024 rather than LA?

I have personally been surfing many times in southwestern France, where they have really good waves. That’s a possibility. Biarritz for example, where we have an event later this year, is called ‘the California of Europe’ because of the waves and the surf culture there. We have also talked to the bidding group and they also have interest in building a wave machine in Paris. The technology there has changed a lot in the past two or three years and will change more before 2024. 

I think each place for us is the same – I’ve been coached by some of the wisest men in our moment, don’t line up with any of the bids now, wait for the decision!

If Paris does win the bid and surfing does remain on the programme, would you have a preference for going further afield in France or using a wave machine in Paris?

It depends on how good the wave machines are in 2024. They have evolved in just last year, there was just one and now there are two that are really good. Wave Garden in Spain is just about to release one that makes 1,000 waves an hour, it’s like one every ten seconds, of sizeable, quality waves. And Kelly Slater, the most famous surfer, is partial owner of another wave company which is of amazing quality. Any of those waves could be in Paris and could be an amazing experience for everyone. I’m not sure how that fits in their venue map, because it’s not part of the plans today because we’re not an Olympic sport for 2024 today. 

We saw several sports, notably golf, struggle to attract its biggest names to compete in Rio. Do you have any assurance that the most popular surfers want to go to Tokyo?

The World Surfing League is a new one in surfing, and the owner has gone on the record in a presentation made to the IOC stating his commitment, and we have put out a joint press release with them about our commitment to have the best stars. That’s from the institution, but the athletes, all of them, have expressed an interest to be at the Games. There is no discussion in the surfing world about the value of the Games for surfers or for the league. The league feels that they were a league of a very cool sport, and now they’re the league of a very cool Olympic sport, so for them it’s a win-win.

After skateboarding was confirmed for the programme in 2020, we saw something of a backlash from the skating community who felt that skating’s counter-culture was being compromised by being part of the Olympics. Have you sensed anything similar within surfing?

No. I think that although skateboarding was created by surfers in the late 50s and early 60s in California and they were joined at birth, skateboarding has it’s own very peculiar culture and there are some people in the culture that have some reservations about the Olympics. But Tony Hawk, the most famous skateboarder in history, is fully supportive, and I think that in some quarters there is resistance but we haven't had it in surfing. The father of modern surfing was a very famous Olympian, a three-times swimming gold medalist, and he has said that surfing should be an Olympic sport – somebody asked me, after that, why has it taken 100 years to show up?! Maybe we were too busy surfing. By now it is quite clear that the surfing population sees this as a step forward. And surfing includes quite a large population that doesn’t compete, it’s just recreational. Surfing is a sport that you don’t need to compete in. It’s hard to be a tennis player if you don’t compete against someone, or a boxer if you don’t box against somebody, but you can be a surfer all your life and never compete.