Andrew Stark - The man who runs Surfing Australia.
From the latest SW.
Andrew Stark’s impact on Surfing Australia was immediate when he was appointed its CEO. As Rabbit Bartholomew, Surfing Australia’s patron, summed it up, “Andrew’s come into the office and started throwing furniture out the window. There were still people on some of the furniture he threw out.” Andrew likes big challenges, regularly surfing Waimea and Sunset, but his next challenge will be his biggest… he’s wants to convince you that surfing should be a mainstream sport.
SW: Okay, Surfing Australia; what is it, and what does it do?
AS: It’s the governing body of surfing in Australia. We’re chartered to provide a pathway between someone learning to surf all the way to them becoming world champion.
So you’re definitely on the sport side of the sport/lifestyle divide?
Every sport has got that divide. Some people just want to kick the footy in the park rather than play in the NRL. Surfing is no different. Surfing is aspirational and that attitude is driven by the champions and icons of the sport. What we do really well is produce champions from the ground up, Mick Fannings and Steph Gilmores. They’ve developed along a structured pathway. They start out in the boardriders clubs, Kirra and Snapper in their cases, which are part of the Surfing Australia network. They surf in state and regional contests, pro juniors, qualifying events, which are all part of the Surfing Australia network, and eventually down the track they become world champions. All of Australia’s champions are a product of that system. Other countries around the world look at Australia and go, “Wow, how do you keep winning world titles?” Well, there are 80 surf schools, over 200 events, 210 boardriding clubs with 20,000 members, 1500 coaches and a High Performance Centre. There’s this whole structure that no other country has.
How many Australians surf?
The Sweeney Report indicates there are two and a half million surfers in Australia; although I’d tend to think there are half a million to a million more. It’s approximately ten per cent of the population, which is a big number. But it’s more than just a big number; surfing is an iconic Australian sport that plays a huge part in Australian culture and the Australian identity.
Is three and a half million people in the water too many? I swear a million of them were out at Snapper this morning and it was a little unpleasant.
There are only a certain number of waves. You’re never going to be able to do anything about that, but what you can do is manage the people who get involved in the sport and ensure they’re aware of some basic rules and responsibilities. Certainly we need to educate surfers Australia-wide, as well as inbound tourism, that you shouldn’t just paddle straight out at a place like Snapper or the Pass. We have plenty of beaches to spread the crowds out. The ski fields do it better than anyone. When you go to the mountains you’ll almost always be directed to a ski school. You’ll learn to board or ski through a school, and you’ll be taught not to head down a double black diamond run in your first week. We lack that education process in our sport, and that’s got a lot to do with surfing itself; it’s always been about freedom and never been much about rules.
So how do you put rules into surfing?
I think what you need to do is teach the kids right from an early age. In the last five years you’ve started to see eight-year-old kids surfing confidently and competently. Some eight-year-olds are ripping. In a short amount of time we’ve had an explosion with this next generation getting involved in the sport, so we need to provide something for them. We’ve got parents saying, “We want our kids to go surfing, not play footy or cricket, but what do we do with them?” What we’ll be providing this year for the first time is a national junior surfing development program for kids five to 12 years old, similar to nippers. The concept is an eight-week program before and after Christmas on a Saturday morning, run through our surf schools. It’ll be like nippers for surfers. They’re not only learning about surfing but they learn about beach safety, the ocean, boards, and it’s done in a way that’s fun.
Where do you think surfing in Australia will be in five years?
I’d like to think that we’d be considered a mainstream sport. I think a lot of the growth will come from support from within the surf industry, but I think most of the growth will come from support from outside the surf industry, who are beginning to realise how important surfing is to Australia.
I’ll run across the beach and find you 50 people right now who don’t want it to be a mainstream sport.
It’s a balancing act. I’m a passionate surfer. I surf every day and I go to Hawaii every year, and I love nothing more than surfing with hardly a soul out, but the reality is that surfing globally is growing. It’s growing whether we like it or not, and the guys who sit at their homebreak and go, “I wish everyone would go back to what they were doing and let me surf by myself.” Well, turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper, surfing will never go back to what it was. Everything changes, but we can try and manage it so what made surfing special in the past is still considered important.
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