“Tokyo 2020 gave us the best facility in the history of surfing - and there’s going to be waves! I can’t believe it”: ISA’s president Aguerre, sleepless in Japan

The sport is a religion in California, Australia, South Africa and Brazil, but has reached the Olympic Games thanks to an Argentinean

Fernando Aguerre, ISA President, during the opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020.
Fernando Aguerre, ISA President, during the opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020.

TOKYO - There can be no doubt: this Sunday, when surfing debuts as an Olympic sport, Fernando Aguerre will stand on the beach wearing a bow tie. And without sleeping.

“This bow tie is a cabal: I wore it in 1996, when I organized the first World Surfing Championship, also in July 2015, when Odepa (Panam Sports) admitted surfing to the Pan American Games. And I wear it today, the day surfing becomes Olympic,” Aguerre explained in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

How could he not wear it then when the boards attack the waves at Tsurigasaki Beach in Ichinomiya, an hour and a half from Tokyo.

“We are living an emotionally charged time,” said the Argentinean in dialogue with Around the Rings. “The facility is wonderful, the best facility in the history of surfing, never seen anything like this. It has everything it takes from every point of view, everything is incredible and wonderful.”

“We are very proud at the ISA, very grateful to the IOC and Tokyo 2020 for the work they have done,” he added.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Surfing Training - Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach, Tokyo, Japan - July 24, 2021 Kolohe Andino of the United States during training REUTERS/Lisi Niesner/File photo SEARCH "OLYMPICS DAY 2" FOR TOKYO 2020 OLYMPICS EDITOR'S CHOICE, SEARCH "REUTERS OLYMPICS TOPIX" FOR ALL EDITOR'S CHOICE PICTURES.
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Surfing Training - Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach, Tokyo, Japan - July 24, 2021 Kolohe Andino of the United States during training REUTERS/Lisi Niesner/File photo SEARCH "OLYMPICS DAY 2" FOR TOKYO 2020 OLYMPICS EDITOR'S CHOICE, SEARCH "REUTERS OLYMPICS TOPIX" FOR ALL EDITOR'S CHOICE PICTURES.

Unlike most sports, surfing is very dependent on the weather. Without good waves there can be no good surfing, or even no surfing at all. When it became known that the sport of surfing would be an Olympic sport, it was thought that it could be played in an artificial wave facility, but in the end it was decided to go natural.

“The weather conditions may not be the best at typhoon level, but the waves are going to be very good. This Sunday we are going to try to do the first two rounds.”

“The plan is to do tomorrow, Monday, Tuesday and finish on Wednesday at mid-morning so that at 12 noon we will have handed out the medals. That’s the plan,” explained the ISA president.

Fernando Aguerre, when he finds time for surfing
Fernando Aguerre, when he finds time for surfing

That a sport that is a religion in California, Australia, South Africa and Brazil has reached the Olympic Games thanks to an Argentinean is a striking story, although with an explanation. For years, surfing was almost non-existent in Argentina, although in recent times it has been gaining momentum. Again, thanks to what Aguerre sowed at the time.

Hyperactive and always smiling, Aguerre’s love for surfing got him in trouble in his younger years in Mar del Plata, Argentina’s main tourist city, 400 kilometers south of Buenos Aires and on a cold sea and waves. In those years, Argentina was under a military dictatorship.

“The mayor of Mar del Plata during the dictatorship was Captain Menozzi. Between 1977 and 1978 the inspectors were ordered to take us out of the water. We told them that we were surfing on beaches with rocks, that no one was going there. There was no case. It’s forbidden to surf,’” they said.

Once Menozzi left the scene, the surfing ban was relaxed. “I set up the Mar del Plata Surfing Association, then the Argentine Surfing Association. And suddenly everyone wanted to surf. It was the first big promotional wave.”

Years later, in 1984, Aguerre moved to California, one of the meccas of surfing worldwide. Settling in San Diego, he created Reef, a company he would sell 21 years later. In between, in 1994, he became president of the International Surfing Association (ISA). As soon as he got to the chair he saw the big opportunity.

“It was 1994 and there was a certain idea in surfing of the need to move closer to Olympic sport. And from then on it didn’t stop.”

He tried with Jacques Rogge as IOC president, but the Belgian was cautious and conservative, although the Youth Games was his idea. Aguerre had to wait for the triumph of the German Thomas Bach, elected president in September 2013 in Buenos Aires. Bach came to office with an idea as concise as it was clear: “Either you change or they change you”.

So he began a discreet but determined negotiation: Tokyo wanted to host a Games with baseball/softball and karate. The IOC wanted surfing, climbing and skateboarding. In the end, everyone got what they wanted, including Aguerre, who in 2016 in Rio was congratulated by Brazil’s Gabriel Medina, one of the best surfers in the world.

“We wouldn’t have made it without Fernando’s work,” said the Brazilian, who saw Aguerre cry moments after the success was confirmed.

Kiyohisa Uzawa, local city councilman of Ichinomiya and former competitive surfer poses for a photograph at a workshop called WAVE LAB, in Isumi, southeast of Tokyo, Japan, June 30, 2021. Picture taken June 30, 2021.  REUTERS/Androniki Christodoulou
Kiyohisa Uzawa, local city councilman of Ichinomiya and former competitive surfer poses for a photograph at a workshop called WAVE LAB, in Isumi, southeast of Tokyo, Japan, June 30, 2021. Picture taken June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Androniki Christodoulou

Aguerre no longer cries with emotion, he just laughs. He laments the lack of the public in the “wonderful” facilities in Japan, but senses that surfing will be a hit: “Everyone wants to be in surfing, I think we will be one of the stars of the Games.”

“Surfing represents a gigantic change of direction in the Olympic program. Many years ago they entered triathlon or beach volleyball, which were already existing sports in the program, in a way. Surfing is totally different, it’s like skateboarding, and this masterstroke by President Bach represented the entry of three youth sports. One that is beach and ocean, one that is urban, like skateboarding, and one that is outdoors, sport climbing.”

“The confirmation that it was the right decision is that for Paris 2024 the program again includes surfing, sport climbing and skateboarding, but also break dance or free style. The sports that the Japanese had requested, which are baseball, softball and karate, are no longer on the program for Paris,” adds the Argentine leader, who, when he looks at the horizon, sees far beyond the first wave.

“This opens a path for surfing in the Olympic world, because surfing was going to be only in Tokyo, and now it is already confirmed for Paris and in an incredible place like Teahupo’o, in Tahiti, which is part of France. One of the best waves in the world. And in 2028 the Games are in Los Angeles, the surfing capital of the world. Everyone knows that California is a symbol of surfing. And the 2032 Games are going to Brisbane, we will be in another surfing capital. We go out to paddle one wave and meet four.”

But today is Tokyo, today is the Olympic debut of surfing. And Aguerre’s voice cracked: “I can’t believe it, this is a dream, we are going to have waves. I can’t believe it. Planning two years in advance the dates and having waves is absolutely crazy. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to sleep more than the two hours I slept today.”

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