August 9, 2018
by Christopher Parker (@wheresbossman)

OPINION: The “ICF / ISA” Olympic saga has become a propaganda war, and the real loser is the sport.

We awoke this morning to news that the ICF’s upcoming championship event in Portugal has been canceled after a successful legal challenge from the ISA’s national affiliate in the country. It’s a disappointing outcome that has been met with a mix of disbelief and ambivalence from a SUP community that is now thoroughly sick and tired of the political saga being waged between these two Olympic federations.

The battle between the ICF (International Canoe Federation) and ISA (International Surfing Association) has been well publicised over the past 18 months ever since the canoe world launched a late bid to become the Olympic governing body of stand up paddleboarding. But while politics are a natural (though unfortunate) part of any sport, this saga is becoming utterly ridiculous.

What started out as a political dust-up between two organisations on the fringe of our sport has become an all-out propaganda war that risks engulfing the community. And the first casualty is going to be the sport itself.

The ICF and ISA are acting like selfish parents going through a messy divorce and arguing over custody of an adopted child. Nobody is asking what the child actually wants, and neither parent realises that their “child” moved out of home years ago anyway.

It’s classic paddletics, and enough is enough.

The Olympics are only one small part of one small part of the sport. SUP racing accounts for around 5% of the wider sport, at best, and for all the potential trickle-down benefits the Olympics could bring it will only ever be a couple of small races every four years anyway.

The sport of stand up paddling is and always has been self-governing. There are hundreds of fantastic independent events on the local, regional and international level that do far more for our sport than any Olympic federation ever has, while there are dozens of private organisations (whether it’s the EuroTour, Paddle Monster, the APP, the WPA, the WTT, The Paddle League, SUPAA, SUPIA, the passionate brands or simply just your local paddling club) that are dedicated to creating a better future for our sport.

The first Olympic federation that realises, accepts and embraces this fact will have the support of the core stand up paddling community. Until then, the community is starting to ask if we even need an international federation at all…

The Cold War of SUP

The cancellation of the ICF’s event in Portugal – where the national court of sport ruled, quite bizarrely, that only the national surfing federation has the right to organise a stand up paddle event – was initiated by the Portuguese Surfing Federation (PSF) but had the clear backing and public support of the ISA itself, which means this is simply yet another step in the whole ICF vs ISA war, even if this one battle was fought by proxy.

Classic “cold war.”

It’s quite understandable and logical for the ISA to fight back against the ICF any way it can – after all, the ISA was the first Olympic federation to help develop our sport, and for all their missteps they’ve actually done quite a lot for the SUP world since appearing on the scene in 2012 – but their backwards-looking, tone-deaf response to the ICF’s provocation has only served to further alienate them from a core SUP community that they never properly integrated themselves into in the first place.

Nobody questions that the ISA has done a hundred times more for our sport in the past – that’s not hard when the ICF has done virtually nothing – but that’s the past. We all need to focus on the future and how best to guide this great sport of ours forward.

Again and again, the ISA has shot itself in the foot. By trying to block any challenge to its thin authority through lawyers and politics rather than focusing on their supposed mission of helping develop the sport, the ISA has made yet another wrong move in an Olympic-sized game of chess; I get the feeling the ISA has won the battle in Portugal but it may end up costing them the war.

Or perhaps more accurately, it’s going to cost the sport, because the real loser today is not the ICF, it’s the paddling community.

The fact the ICF – which has virtually no history of contributing to our sport and is probably doing all of this for its own selfish political ambitions anyway – is getting genuine sympathy right now shows just how bad the ISA’s approval ratings have become.

The event in Portugal at the end of this month was actually shaping up to be a good one–it had received solid support from both elite and amateur paddlers who are either fed up with the inefficiencies of the ISA or simply just, you know, want to go paddling.

Despite being organised by a federation with little knowledge of our sport, the “ICF Worlds” actually offered many striking positives, from a real downwind race to cheap entry fees to open participation and masters’ divisions. Not to mention a logical event location and some serious prize money for athletes. The whole thing was also going to be completed in just four days, which contrasts starkly with the expensive ISA events that require paddlers to block almost two weeks out of their calendar and usually travel to some remote location without any concrete idea of what the racing format will even be.

So while the ISA will no doubt be celebrating today’s decision, it does nothing to help the sport or the athletes they claim to be helping. Curiously, today’s decision mirrors selfish action taken by the ICF almost two years ago that blocked the ISA from getting stand up paddling into the 2018 Youth Olympics, something that was also hugely unhelpful to the sport and which the ISA repeatedly brings up in its criticism of the canoe federation.

The fact the ICF has taken ultimate responsibility for a mess someone else brought upon it – they admirably emailed competitors this morning offering either a full refund of travel costs or to host an all expenses paid SUP holiday in Portugal on the same weekend – also contrasts with the ISA, which recently moved its event from Brazil halfway around the world to China with very little warning.

In fairness, that Brazil/China move wasn’t the ISA’s fault – a Brazilian mayor on the brink of impeachment was the core problem – but it was still the ISA’s ultimate responsibility. And while my hat goes off to the ISA executive team for pulling together a replacement event in such a short period of time (no small task given how expensive the ISA Worlds are–the previous host country had to raise close to a million dollars), the way it was handled – most competitors found out via a brief Instagram post – simply underscores just how out of touch the ISA has become with the core community it continually preaches about being responsible for.

Tone-deaf response

After years of actively supporting the ISA through SUP Racer (since day one of their involvement in the sport), I initially offered genuine sympathy (and strong public backing) to the surfing federation last year because I felt the ICF was acting on a baseless, selfish and very political level that wasn’t helpful to our sport. But the ISA’s own response has been so self-sabotaging and unhelpful to our sport that I find it very difficult to support either federation right now.

Myself and the majority of the core SUP community hoped the ICF’s attack would be a much-needed kick-up-the-ass to the ISA, one that would encourage them to get their act together and iron out the countless wrinkles and inefficiencies–from illogical event formats to out-of-date national affiliates to a complete lack of proactive leadership on key issues facing the sport (edit: not to mention the fact the ISA has no permanent staff with paddling experience–a similar issue facing the ICF). Instead, the ISA has responded by backing themselves into a corner where they’re now jumping at shadows and punching at ghosts.

The ISA executive team complains, constantly, that the SUP community is “giving oxygen to the ICF” and making the their job more difficult; no doubt that will be their response to this very article. But nobody has given more “oxygen” to the ICF than the ISA itself, because every second the ISA chooses to focus on playing politics instead of actively engaging with the core community and helping develop our sport simply leaves the door open for the ICF to come in and do a better job.

It’s like outdated taxi companies trying to block Uber through the courts rather than focusing on improving their own service (though fortunately for the ISA, the ICF hasn’t exactly shown itself to be particularly innovative – just ask any surfski or dragon boat paddler about their experiences – and now it won’t even get that chance until at least 2019).

To use another metaphor: It’s as if the ISA was slowly driving down the highway when the ICF came speeding along in a shiny new car. Instead of focusing on where they were supposed to be going (i.e. helping develop our sport), the ISA suddenly got distracted and started looking sideways at the ICF. And if you look sideways while you’re driving down a highway, pretty soon you’re going to crash.

But while I continue to scratch my head at the face-palming decisions of the ISA, this is not to say I support the ICF, either: I stand with the majority of the paddling community in saying “Enough is enough.”

If I was CAS (the Court of Arbitration for Sport) or the IOC (International Olympic Committee), I’d tell both federations to go sort their mess out and come back in four years when they’ve got their acts together.

That probably won’t happen though, so it’s time we as a community took the lead in sorting this mess out, because in the end it’s the healthy future of our sport that’s on the line. We don’t need this sorted out via expensive lawyers and closed-door courts in Switzerland (the case is set to be “decided” at CAS early next year) but through open dialogue between the federations and the SUP community.

The first federation that steps up and starts acting like they actually want to help our sport instead of just playing Olympic-level paddletics will have my support.

The first federation that admits they don’t “own” the sport, the first federation that admits the Olympics is only one small part of one small part of the sport, and the first federation that engages with and acts like it wants to work alongside the self-governing SUP community rather than acting like a selfish parent going through a messy divorce–that’s the federation that will have my support.

And from talking with hundreds of frustrated paddlers about this issue over the past few months, I can confidently say I speak for the majority of the SUP community.

Because at the end of the day, paddlers just want to get on the water and go paddling…

The ICF has been invited to respond to this article. The ISA declined a recent invitation for general comment, but they’ve been invited to respond directly to this article. I’ll update this post if either federation chooses to engage more directly with the community.

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