Nick Carroll On: the Silent War Between the WSL and the ISA

19 Jan 2018 32 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Photo: ISA/Ben Reed

Photo: ISA/Ben Reed

Part One of the Things We Missed over Christmas Break

Ahh, the somatic weeks of mid-summer!

Tell me you went to work and busted a gut between Christmas and, say, now. You didn’t, did you?

You lolled around, probably drinking! Went surfing more than usual, even though the waves were crap. And busted a gut in ways that had zero to do with work.

Well, you know what? So did I. And it meant some awesome stuff from surfing’s front lines went unreported—not just in other surf media, but here.

For instance, on December 21, a small opening shot was fired in what is silently shaping up to be organised surfing’s defining mega-rivalry. And we don’t mean JJF and Gabriel either.

The shot came in the form of a press release. It was sent out by the World Surf League, but it was datelined from the headquarters of surfing’s other ruling organisation, the International Surfing Association.

And it was all about who could surf in the 2020 Olympic Games.

Forty surfers from 20 nations will compete in the Games. The ISA holds the keys to who they’ll be. The press release told us the two organisations have agreed to guarantee a minimum of 18 of the 40 places to WSL pros.

This was not a win for the WSL. CW’s sources tell us they wanted a guaranteed majority of surfers, 22 or more, and direct invites into the national teams. Instead the WSL pros who want in will have to compete for inclusion, through the ISA World Surfing Games events in 2019 and 2020.

The organisations are playing nice on the surface. “Great!” said ISA president Fernando Aguerre. “Fantastic opportunity!” said WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt. (Yeah we’re paraphrasing.)

But the fact is that a power shift has occurred. A big one.

The ISA used to be the only game in town. This was back in the 1960s, when it was called the International Surfing Federation. The ISF used to direct those big, foundational World Contests that Midget, Nat, Fred Hemmings and co won. Cue legend clips from Manly, Puerto Rico etc.

But the ISF’s set-up around those world contests sucked. The host country had to fork out a fortune to accommodate all the teams, half the event was run by volunteers, and the surfers made nothing. Well, Nat won a car.

It all fell to bits in California in 1972, and pro surfing, wing and a prayer though it was in those days, quickly put the ISF in a corner. By the late 80s the ISF was so irrelevant that Kelly Slater didn’t even make the US team. Look how that worked out.

But that all changed in 1994 when Fernando Aguerre, the supercharged Argentinian surfer/businessman, decided he’d play a hand.

Fernando was a founder of Reef Brazil. He has serious fuck-you money. It was he who organised the name change to the ISA, the enlisting of 100-something nations worldwide, and the Don Quixote style tilt at the Olympic windmill, which mostly because of Fernando’s mad energy and ruthless savvy, turned out not to be a windmill at all.

Now we’re two and a half years out from the Olympics, and can I tell you, behind the scenes, hands are beginning to flap. Everyone wants a piece of it.

The WSL wants a piece of it so bad, in fact, they are working quite hard behind the scenes to get a KSWC pool built on a site in Japan, in the hope they can somehow get the International Olympic Committee to shift the Games’s surfing event into the pool. (This again according to CW’s sources, one of whom had this confirmed in a conversation with a very highly placed League person.)

You’d have to think if your pool was used in the first ever surfing Olympics, it would be some kind of boost to that pool’s fortunes.

But this is Fernando’s game, not the WSL’s. As the athlete thing shows us, they’re gonna have to play by his rules. The last thing he’s gonna let happen is have somebody else jumping in at the last minute trying to sell the IOC on radical changes to his surfing Games.

One can see this playing out in quite a different manner, actually. While the WSL has been spending a vast fortune on trying to reset professional surfing, with limited success, the ISA has been building an entirely different kind of house.

Not only do they have the Olympics and all those member nations, they run contests for every kind of surfer you can imagine. There’s the World Surfing Games, the Junior Surfing Games, the Pan American Surfing Games, the Adaptive Surfing Games, the longboarding, the paddleboarding and racing, the bodyboarding, the kneeboarding, the masters. Their broader affiliated membership across all the involved nations, from Australia to Afghanistan? Man! It must run up close to 40,000.

Now the WSL is bracing itself for a reduced CT in 2019, and despite ongoing near-denials, we’re still hearing talk of a reduction in CT surfer numbers—if not in 2019, then not too far beyond.

And the ISA holds the keys to the Olympics in 2020 and beyond.

This one’s gonna run and run.

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