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Prior to Olympic Selection Time, Surfing Stirring the Waters

23 Mar, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

When we last looked, surfing was one of the five sports being considered for inclusion in Tokyo in 2020. (A final decision will be made by the IOC ahead of the Rio Games this summer.) And surfing has many things in its favor: a youthful vibe, a reputation for being edgy and risky – and the fact that it represents a 180-degree change from many of the more traditional Olympic sports, something that could garner new viewers.

But one thing wasn’t in surfing’s favor: its attitude. There was a clear divisiveness within the sport that needed to be overcome. With some pros stating vehemently they did not want their sport tainted by commercialism, and others noting that “no two waves are the same, so competition could never be fair,” the sport was going to have to find a way to pull together and impress the IOC as a viable contender if it is to ride the wave of economic impact the Olympics could bring.

With the big decision now only months away, it is apparent that surfing has cast aside its reservations and stepped up its game, with a number of initiatives to show the sport presenting a more unified, user-friendly front.

(Wait – surfing is growing up? Say it ain’t so!)

The International Surfing Federation has been increasing efforts to certify instructors ahead of the Games. Two hundred courses across 40 countries are already underway or planned for 2016 with a target of certifying a further 2,000 instructors. Overall, more than 5,000 instructors have been certified by the International Surfing Association.

The ISA’s Coaching and Instructing Program aims to develop the skills, knowledge and abilities of individuals who wish to take a scientific approach to the coaching of surfing and stand-up paddle disciplines. Risk management, duty of care and water safety are major areas of focus in order to ensure a safer environment to learn the sport. (Interesting to note: among the priority hot spots where instructors are needed are Russia and China; the U.S. and Indonesia, meanwhile, are considered more traditional markets for surfing.)

The sport is also being marketed heavily to leisure travelers worldwide. According to an article in Travel Weekly, The Cape, a Thompson Hotel in Los Cabos, Mexico, is partnering with Mansa Vida, a new adventure-travel production company founded by pro surfers Rob Machado and Tim Curran, to host a retreat that will explore the sport, music and art of surf culture. Led by surfing veterans including Curran, Damien Hobgood and photographer Tom Servais, the three-night retreat will cover all aspects of surfing. It includes hands-on instruction (of course) as well as live music and more.

The overriding theory is, of course, one of welcome: Get off the sand and try a fun new sport.

The efforts to be more beginner-friendly are paying off. Surfing has also vaulted to the top spot on the list of spa pastimes. One of the reason for surfing’s increased popularity on the health and fitness circuit is its whole-body benefit, building arm, shoulder and back strength and engaging core and leg muscles.

On the industry side, surf companies have begun a flurry of hiring and sponsorship. Global Surf Indstries hired Jesse Faen (formerly of Quiksilver) as its marketing communications manager. Smith, the maker of eyewear, goggles and helmets, signed Leonardo Fioravanti to its global surf team. The Surf Expo, meanwhile, announced it had broadened its market, looking to bring in even more prospective surfers by offering the cross-disciplines of kayak, canoe and related gear and accessories.

The governing philosophy for the benefit of having surfing in the Games is the possibility that it would encourage more coastal resorts to offer even more lessons and intro clinics, as well as spa sessions, and could begin the growth of a microeconomy with board rentals and more in areas that don’t currently have much to offer there. More to the event organizers’ perspective, it could build business with competitions and pro tours around the U.S.

And travel, either to compete or attend at championship events, has been outstanding in the run-up to the announcement. Big-ticket events have shown positive economic impact, including the Vans US Open of Surfing, Southeast Regional Surfing Championship, Vans Triple Crown of Surfing, ASP World Tour-Pipeline Masters, Quiksilver Eddie Aikau Memorial, the East Coast Surfing Championships and the Mavericks Big Wave Surfing Competition. (In fact, more than 25,000 spectators crowded the beach in Oahu for ‘the Eddie,’ as the Quiksilver Eddie Aikau event is known.)

And now, there’s a precedent for surfing’s inclusion in the Games: it has been added to the program of sports for the 2017 Central American Games in Nicaragua. Inclusion at more multi-sports events is seen a major boost for the sport, which is already set to appear at the Pan American Games for the first time in Lima in 2019, as well as at the inaugural Association of National Olympic Committees World Beach Games in San Diego in 2017.

“This is another great moment for surfing as we continue our program of development and growth around the world," said ISA President Fernando Aguerre.

As the sport continues to try to shed its hardcore, counterculture image and to embrace the Olympic ideal (as much as it can, anyway, without losing the young vibe or the edge that makes it appealing as a potential new sport), it is evident that promoters are continuing to reinforce the image of a friendly sport that welcomes beginners.

"Surfing has incredible youth appeal with a unique and modern blend of sport performance, style, culture and dynamic energy - characteristics and values that make surfing perfect for a multi-sport environment,” added Aguerre.

As decision time moves closer (discussions will begin in June), other sports have not been as cohesive. Skateboarding, for example, has received a warning that it needs to get its proverbial act together (including stricter anti-doping measures) if it is to receive serious consideration.

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