By: Josefina Barrón
Surfing will debut as an Olympic sport at Tokyo 2020. The prime mover behind this achievement is Peruvian Eduardo Arena, who founded the International Surfing Federation and managed to bring different parties together to turn surfing into an accredited sport.
In 1964, Australia’s Manly Beach hosted a surfing championship sponsored by an oil company. At the time, there was no global body to regulate competitions or judge competitors. Each country organized international competitions according to its own rules, and since the only foreigners to compete were those who could pay their own expenses, they were not necessarily the best surfers. The contest was named the “World Surfing Championship.” During the event, a group of surfers expressed their desire to turn surfing into an accredited, competitive sport and establish a body that would regulate tournaments and bring together representatives from each country. Eduardo was one of the most active and enthusiastic participants in the discussions.
He had arrived in Australia with his good friend and fellow member of the Lima Waikiki Club, Héctor Velarde, who was invited to the tournament organized on Manly Beach by the Australian Surf Association (ASA). Once there, Eduardo, along with top-notch athletes like Nat Young, Fred Hemmings, and Greg Noll, lamented that this rapidly-popularizing sport lacked a regulatory body. Even then, thousands of people practiced the sport and tournaments were common and well attended. The competition in Australia welcomed competitors from Hawaii and other parts of the United States, as well as from France, South Africa, and Peru; and some 65,000 spectators. It was the largest audience ever for an international surf competition. Something big was happening.
Eduardo Arena continued to share ideas with his friends: “We need to establish one set of regulations so that tournaments are judged under the same rules. Let’s have real international surfing competitions, in other words, invite the champions from each country and not just those who can afford to come.” He met with representatives of all the countries in attendance to establish what would become the International Surfing Federation (ISF). The five founding members were Peru, Australia, United States (Hawaii and California), South Africa, and France. He was elected the first president of the ISF during the closing festivities. It was a giant step.
The recommendation to organize an official surfing competition the following year in Peru was quickly adopted by the other surfers and leaders. That contest would be the first ISF championship. After impulsively suggesting that the event be organized in his native country, Eduardo himself soon realized how big a challenge he had taken on. He would need to invite the two best surfers from each country and pay their expenses. In addition, the host country would need to invite a judge from each of the participating countries and form a panel worthy of a world championship. The host country would pay all the expenses for the representatives from each one of the participating countries and provide infrastructure and logistics. All that was left was to choose a beach. Eduardo set up the ISF office in his existing office space. This was the start of an extended and productive phase that would put Peru in the world spotlight.
The task Eduardo had undertaken was not easy, especially since time was already growing short. Before doing anything else, the organization had to agree on criteria for judging surfing competitions.
Beyond this, there was the matter of money. It took many meetings to establish the first scoring criteria, since it was not simply a matter of determining who the first to reach a finish line was. There was no finish line. And no fixed starting line. Surfing is the only sport in which participants depend on movements in nature: waves curl and break, the sea rises and falls, and currents change, sometimes at just the wrong time. Nature rules. Humans bow before it.
Snow skiing could perhaps be compared to surfing, but the snow does not move or approach like a wave. There are many more elements to take into account when riding a board than in any other sport. All waves are not alike nor do they break alike. Besides we are judging a person gliding across a moving wave.
The group enshrined universal judging criteria in the federation’s bylaws: “A surfer should receive the highest score for riding a wave with the utmost speed and performing the best maneuvers for the longest distance on the most dangerous part of the wave. When the surfer reaches the bottom of the wave, he or she must exit as fast as possible before the break, displaying the utmost control and style; not all waves form the famous “tube” where the surfer rides through the tunnel. If there is a tube, the surfer should enter and remain inside as long as possible while displaying the utmost style until finally exiting the tube.” The criteria decided upon for that first official championship continues in use today, with a few modifications that account for smaller and lighter modern boards. Furthermore, new tricks and maneuvers that were once unimaginable are now standard.
Eduardo plunged into a sea of work. He had to constantly communicate with the various representatives of the surfing associations being formed in each country on the back of this first global initiative. Communication was more complicated in those days. An international call had to be put through the Lima operator, who would contact New York, which would in turn connect to operators in other countries. It could take days if the call had not been scheduled in advance. He had to speak to people in countries as different and distant as France, New Zealand, the United States, South Africa, and Australia.
The time difference between federations ranged from 3 to 12 hours ahead or behind Lima, so Eduardo decided it would be easier to ask all the federations to call at the same time: eleven in the morning, Peruvian time. The calls were routed to his office, one after another. He had to be quick. A total of nine countries gave their surfers the official status of “sports representatives,” which was essential to developing surfing on a more official level. Now they could talk about national teams.
In a seemingly impossible feat, Eduardo managed to collect the funds necessary to hold the world championship. He had connections and could exercise a certain amount of influence, but he was still short of the full amount. An unexpected call from NBC made the difference. They asked Eduardo if he was really organizing a world surfing championship. When NBC confirmed that he was actually doing so, the U.S. television channel made up the shortfall. He does not know what he would have done without that phone call. In the United States, sports are broadcast from coast to coast on Sundays. The program NBC Sports in Action aired the World Surfing Championship. Television ushered in a new age for surfing. It advanced the sport, especially at a professional level. Generations of great surfers were able to surf professionally thanks to the influence of television.
As with other sports, from posh golf to the more proletarian soccer, television was a key factor in the development of surfing as a professional sport. If sports move the masses, it is partly because television brings sports to the masses.
The sports body established by “the Monster” now has more than 100 member countries on five continents. Fernando Aguerre, president of what is now the International Surfing Association (ISA), explains the roots of the word “surf,” in an unexpected revelation that is as poetic as the act of riding an ocean wave. “‘Surf’” he says, “was an English word that meant ‘waves’.” Surfing is therefore the act of riding the waves. Or, perhaps we might call it “waving.” We surf or “ride” the waves, with or without a board. The act of surfing brings to mind gliding on the waves, riding them to the rhythm of the tide. You become one with nature. You commune with it. Anyone who has ever been tempted to glide across a wave must have experienced this feeling.
This connection between humans and nature may be the sublime essence of surfing; it is what allows people of all social classes, colors, races, and languages to grab a board and exist in harmony on the waves. There is nothing more democratic than the sea.
Given this, it was only a matter of time before surfing knocked on the door of that temple of sports, the Olympics. Tokyo will write a new chapter under Fernando, a man who admires Eduardo and wants to continue his legacy.
“This new stage will make it easier for the public and private sectors to support competitors, to allow them to develop,” notes Fernando. He adds: “The greatest achievement of the Olympics is making sports truly universal; the participating athletes have earned their places through talent and effort.” Eduardo Arena wrote one of the first chapters. He was an interesting combination of a gentleman of the old school, an honorable man with Sicilian roots, and a Latin American squire. He was a patriarch who made decisions with military precision. That was the only way to corral so many people into order.