Fernando Aguerre, the president of the International Surfing Association, tells Phoebe Street about the recent World Surfing Games and the sport’s imminent appearance at the Olympics.
With the sport set to make its Olympic Games debut in Tokyo at the delayed 2020 Olympic games, this is the biggest year in the history of international surfing.
While the waves and the climate play an important role in the success of events, the International Surfing Association has sought to make the sport more inclusive by taking it to new markets and attracting more viewers and participants.
The International Surfing Association, which dates back to 1964 and has 109 members on five continents, sees its vision being to spread the “lifelong culture” and values of surfing in areas including integrity, passion, innovation and respect.
Increasingly surfing events are being held not just as a platform for professional surfers to compete and for the enjoyment of fans but to draw attention to and promote the host countries.
This will have been the case for the 2021 ISA World Surfing Games, which took place at Surf City in El Salvador from 29 May to 6 June, and acted as a qualifying event for the Olympics.
The Central American country was chosen by the ISA as part of its mission to expand surfing, and aligned with the nation’s policy, introduced two years ago, to relaunch itself as a surfing destination, with a focus on the waves of La Bocana and El Sunzal.
Fernando Aguerre, the president of ISA, tells GlobalData Sport: “El Salvador is a small country and it does not have commodities or a lot of natural resources. Their big resource is the ocean, which comes with amazing waves and that was shown to the world in a very powerful way throughout the competition.”
“I think it’s going to be a [case of] before and after for El Salvador.”
The success of the event is reflected by the fact that it was announced last week that the World Surfing Games will be returning to El Salvador in 2023, and serve as a qualifying event for the 2024 Olympics.
In addition, the country will host the ISA World Junior Surfing Championships next year.
As has been the case for all sports events over the last year, various measures had to be taken in light of the coronavirus pandemic, and ensure the World Surfing Games went ahead, with the safety of athletes, officials and spectators considered paramount.
Aguerre says he was “very satisfied” with the way the event was organised in respect of Covid-19, with “complete control over the situation” as all athletes were tested three times, and only two were positive.
In addition, the games sought to align with the Olympic Movement’s commitment to greater universality and gender equality, with the event involving more than 250 athletes from 51 countries and a male-female ratio of 52:48.
There was also extensive media coverage via the ISA’s website and social media pages, and through broadcasters such as sports specialist ESPN in Latin America and commercial giant Globo in Brazil.
Programming and commentary was available in both English and Spanish.
The presentation was enhanced by the use of air, water and land cameras, enabling coverage from all angles.
In addition, there was comprehensive analysis from the beach and interviews with athletes as they exited the water.
The quality of the waves is a major factor in the awarding of events, but this cannot be relied upon, with Aguerre saying: “We deal with a field of play that is completely variable.”
In light of this, other elements have come into play, including the accessibility of the host venue, including an airport with good connections to all continents, cooperation from local sports and government authorities, and spectator numbers.
Surfing was one of the five additional sports chosen by the Tokyo 2020 organising committee to be included on the programme for the Olympics.
As a result of the pandemic, it has had to wait a year to make its debut in the games, and, like all sports, will be subject to countermeasures, including limits on fan attendance.
However, Aguerre is confident that the events at the Tsurisgasaki Surfing Beach will be a suitable showcase for the sport.
“Let’s not forget that while it is exciting to have the public, and the screaming and the applause… most of the world sees the games through television, social media and electronic media.”
Subject to wave conditions, the Olympic surfing events will take place over four days across a week between 25 July and 1 August, with up to eight hours of competition per day.
On top of the live coverage from broadcasters around the world, the sport will benefit from daily highlights and summaries, and a one-hour show at the end of each competition.
Aguerre says that the addition of surfing to the Olympic programme “has raised the level of attention for the sport, not just at ISA level, but national level.”
Some 20 men and 20 women from 17 nations have qualified for this year’s games, with developing surfing nations such as Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica and Germany among those represented.
Aguerre says that the presence of top athletes and wide geographical representation are “both key goals on the Olympic compass.”
As one of the additional sports, surfing is not entitled to a share of the funding distributed by the International Olympic Committee to the 28 core sports in the Olympics.
The ISA will therefore be seeking to attract commercial support off the back of the games.
On top of the apparel and equipment brands traditionally associated with the sport, surfing has attracted partners such as car makers, electronics firms and perfume brands, but big corporate sponsors have been largely elusive.
“Everybody wants to surf, everybody loves to be in the ocean, everybody wants to ride the wave of popularity in the sport, but capturing those sponsors and turning them into ISA sponsors is still a challenge,” says Aguerre.
However, surfing has already been selected as one of the additional sports for the Paris 2024 Olympics, and will receive a share of funding.
Aguerre says this is “essential” for the sport and other newly-added disciplines which are bringing extra value to the games.