Michael Pavitt

Lima’s grey skies have lingered over the Pan American Games, with the Peruvian capital’s weather taking many athletes and officials by surprise. Grey and cold is not the first thought many have when they pack bags for South America.

The weather conditions are perhaps best highlighted by Fernando Aguerre, the President of the International Surfing Association.

His exuberant dress sense stands out in the Olympic world. A bow tie when in a formal setting, such as sitting at the top table of an IOC press conference in Lausanne last month, having effectively secured a second straight Olympic appearance at Paris 2024.

Typically, Aguerre is seen wearing a Hawaiian style shirt with an accompanying lei.

On this occasion, the Argentine is wearing a sport-style ISA jacket given the chill in Punta Rocas, located to the south of the capital. When asked for a photo by two journalists from his nation, the garment is removed, and the Hawaiian style attire is back.

The cold must have had an impact though, as I do not recall the word "stoked" being used once during our conversation at the Pan American Games. Nonetheless, it was clear Aguerre was enthused by the sport’s debut at the continental event.

“It is a world class venue anywhere in the world and it has world class waves,” he said, “You build the infrastructure, but you do not have to build the field of play, that is by nature.

“We are in the third world, where it is a lot more complicated than it is in London. It might be more difficult, but we are really happy.”

Removing the grey skies from consideration, it was clear why the ISA’s executive director Robert Fasulo had billed the venue as world class when I had spoken to him earlier in the week.

Large waves are constantly crashing into the shore, while stands and a big screen are set up on a small cliff face. It is not surprising the Punta Rocas previously hosted competition at the World Surfing Games.

Despite a day of no medal action and the gloomy weather conditions, stands were near enough full to watch longboard, shortboard and SUP events. Surfing is a popular sport in Peru, but it was still impressive to see.

ISA President Fernando Aguerre, left, welcomed Panam Sports President Neven Ilic to surfing competition at the Games ©Panam Sports
ISA President Fernando Aguerre, left, welcomed Panam Sports President Neven Ilic to surfing competition at the Games ©Panam Sports

Lima 2019 has provided the ISA with several significant milestones. Acceptance onto the programme in 2015 came ahead of the decision at Rio 2016 to include the sport four years later in Tokyo.

The Games has now acted as surfing’s debut appearance at a major continental event prior to the sport’s Olympic bow, with Tokyo 2020 places having been on the line in Lima.

“This was part of the plan, even if we were not part of the Olympic Games, because surfing is so popular in the Americas,” Aguerre said. “Of 41 countries in the Americas, two are not on the ocean, so surfing and water sport is natural.

“It was easier for us to get into the Pan American Games, there were softer rules and other non-Olympic sports.”

Long-term inclusion at the Pan American Games is clearly an aim for the ISA, with Panam Sports likely to conduct a shake-up of the sport programme after Lima 2019. While the 28 Olympic core sports have normally been fixtures at continental Games, it might not be the case going forward with Panam Sports eyeing events which are relevant to the region.

The programme is expected to shrink in size, seemingly as part of an effort to make the Games more manageable for host cities.

Aguerre is hopeful surfing could be part of the line-up after what the Argentine describes as “the shrinkage”. He insists the delivering fan engagement, youth values and environmentalism will help their cause.

While long-term inclusion at the Games is uncertain with Panam Sports set to shape their programme after Lima, Aguerre is optimistic of an appearance in four years’ time at Santiago 2023.

Surfing events have been well attended by Peruvians at Lima 2019 ©Getty Images
Surfing events have been well attended by Peruvians at Lima 2019 ©Getty Images

“I know they have not made the final decision on the line-up but I am very hopeful,” Aguerre said. “Chile has about half a dozen venues that could be used and have fantastic waves. Chile is a surf destination.”

“I think our chances are good and it helps we are approved by the IOC for Paris.”

A Paris 2024 selection process for the surfing venue is currently underway, following effectively the conclusion of the elongated process to confirm additional sports for the Games last month.

French Polynesia was the most eye catching of the proposed destinations for the competition. It would make the distance between the ANOC World Beach Games in Doha and the surfing event in San Diego seem like a drop in the ocean should organisers opt for the South Pacific.

The smart money is on Biarritz, after it hosted the World Surfing Games in 2017, while the Community of municipalities of Le Pays Bigouden Sud (La Torche), Hossegor, Capbreton and Seignosse in the department of Les Landes and Lacanau – Bordeaux Metropole are the others formally bidding.

Aguerre was reluctant to name a preferred destination. “If I opt for meat the sushi restaurant owner will be mad with me,” he says.

The Paris 2024 panel, he says, are will consider aspects from tides, waves and distances before ultimately making their decision. The fact the venues are already being assessed and a scouting mission to French Polynesia in the works shows only a disastrous debut at Tokyo stands in the way of consecutive Olympic appearances for surfing.

It is impossible not to think even further afield to Los Angeles, where surfing seems even more suited than Tokyo and Paris.

“Los Angeles is ground zero of modern surfing,” Aguerre says. “The Government of California last year called surfing the sport of California, it is not baseball it is surfing.

“It is good to look at the positive signs but we have to remain humble, I do not take anything for granted.

“It is like a wave, you paddle and paddle, you only stop paddling when you are going down the wave.”

CAS will rule later this year on whether stand-up paddle is governed by the ISA or the ICF ©Getty Images
CAS will rule later this year on whether stand-up paddle is governed by the ISA or the ICF ©Getty Images

Surfing certainly seems to be approaching the crest of a wave, which will come at Tokyo in a year’s time.

But the sport still faces challenges. One, clearly, will be the level of understanding from the non-surfing community about the sport as Games draws closer. Educating the masses will be an important task before and during Tokyo 2020, you feel.

The ISA can promote the sport’s playing field as being natural, but its downside has been apparent in the fact surfing could not be moved to Doha as part of the ANOC World Beach Games due to a lack of waves. While it is an issue not of their making, it seems bizarre an event surfing should be front and centre of will instead be held months and miles apart from the rest of the sports.

Aguerre suggested in the future surfing could potentially feature at the Games regardless of whether waves are present at the host city. He opined that stand-up paddle events could potentially be held where there are no waves, depending on the decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the coming months on who owns the discipline, the ISA or the International Canoe Federation.

Regardless of the challenges and the ongoing stand-up paddle dispute, the ISA are heading into an important 12 months, as the countdown to Tokyo 2020 and its Olympic debut draws near.

“I was dreaming and I woke up and the reality was the dream,” Aguerre said.

“For many years I woke up and thought it might not happen, it was too difficult, and Olympism was so closed, so tight. Now we are in the challenge is to give a great first impression, you never get a second chance at a first impression.

“We have to do things right and as I told President Bach after the vote, I am not here just for Tokyo but we are here to stay.”