When Olympians go to war

Is it surfing with a paddle or canoeing on a board? A feud in international sport on stand-up paddling brings up the question of who owns a sport in a world of monopoly sports federations.

When Olympians go to war
Foto: Dansk Surf & Rafting Forbund

On 3 August 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that surfing will be on the Olympic programme for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
This was a major achievement for a minor sports federation such as the International Surfing Association (ISA).
To join the Olympics is essential and crucial for many sports especially the smaller ones. The Olympic generate exposure. The Olympic broadcasting presents them to spectators and sponsors. And finally; the Olympics generate money and funding from the IOC.
The ISA has been lobbying for years to get surfing and stand-up paddling (SUP) to the Olympics; both the Youth Olympics and the ‘real’ Olympics. Surfing succeeded. SUP did not.
According to the ISA, the International Canoe Federation (ICF) blocked the entry of SUP at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and at the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympics. Both parties claim that SUP belongs to their federation. The dispute concerns the discussion of whether SUP is considered surfing with a paddle or canoeing on a board, standing up.

A hostile takeover

“Those actions (the ICF blocking the entrance of SUP to the Olympic programme, ed.) basically amount to an attempted hostile takeover of a discipline that has always been fully governed by the ISA,” Fernando Aguerre, president of ISA, says to Play the Game.
According to Play the Game’s sources in ISA, the blocking by ICF, was done through pressure and good relations to decision makers in the IOC. However, Simon Toulson, secretary general of ICF, states that the discussion between the two parties “is about principles and statutes – not financial or power issues”.
“We have actually only really been talking about this issue since November last year,” Fernando Aguerre says.
“Prior to then, there was never any question for anyone as to which IF was governing SUP internationally and that was the ISA. We have the historical facts, including organising SUP World Championships since 2012 to back our status. The ICF seems to have only taken an interest in SUP from the time we became an Olympic sport for surfing, since in reality there has been very little or no ICF activity at all on their part until now,” Fernando Aguerre continues.
This is not the case, Simon Toulson answers:
“Stand-up paddling is used in the majority of our national federation activities and it has been like this for several years. The ICF has SUP as a category event in most of its sports disciplines. Our national federations are affiliated to national Olympic committees around the world with SUP and have held various national and international competitions,” Simon Toulson answers in an e-mail.
He further refers to an internal survey, which he does not wish to share with Play the Game:
“It was a very simple spreadsheet – not a questionnaire in its normal sense. Basically, it asked which national federation had SUP activities and so on,” he explains.
‘But you won’t hand it over?’
“I don’t have it. I have only been told of the conclusion of its content.”
However, according to Simon Toulson, the ICF Statutes are clear on what kinds of activities belong to canoeing, and SUP is one of them.

We are the governing body

Stand-up paddling lived a quiet life from the beginning of the 1990s. The sport was created by surfers on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, as a past time activity in between waves suitable for the training of traditional surfing. But in 2009, the ISA started organising SUP and in 2012 the ISA created the World Championships in the discipline. However, SUP has also existed in some of the national federations of the ICF, and, at the congress in November 2016, the ICF decided to offer world championships in SUP disciplines.
Numerous emails and meetings between the two organisations about which federation SUP belongs to, and even one meeting in January 2017 hosted by IOC president Thomas Bach, have not solved the problem.
“It is a difficult situation with both sides strongly believing they are right. The ICF has proposed several different compromises to the ISA but none have been accepted so far,” Simon Toulson says.
A point of view not shared by Fernando Aguerre and ISA:
“We have the structure, independence and IOC recognition to operate fully autonomously. We are the world governing body for surfing, SUP racing, bodysurfing and all other wave riding activities on any type of waves, and on flat water using wave riding equipment. SUP was born out of surfing and all the top SUP racers and surfers in the world identify themselves with the surfing culture and the ISA,” Aguerre says and continues:
“In any case, we have always expressed an openness to ICF to find reasonable solutions as long we can effectively serve the needs of SUP athletes. But there is no reason, nor need for the ISA to join under the ICF. Our position as the sole governing body authority of SUP has been clear for many years.”
That is precisely the point of controversy, whether there are waves or not. According to ICF’s President José Perurena Lopez “SUP is a paddling activity especially in flat water environment and we will defend our interests as far as we need to should you (Fernando Aguerre, ed.) not respect this definition,” as he writes in an e-mail of 17 November 2016.

IOC standing on the side line

The correspondence shows how firm both parties stand in the struggle for the control over the world’s fastest growing water sport. Even the IOC seems to have thrown the towel in the water. Today the IOC says to Play the Game:
“We are aware of the discussions between the ICF and ISA in regard to the ongoing development of stand-up paddling. We trust the two bodies will work constructively to reach an agreement which allows clarity for the further development of the sport and with a focus on its athletes,” the IOC media relations team states.
So, the struggle for power, money and monopoly continues in the world of sports. This battle might have to go all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.