When the International Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) handed down a ruling in August 2020, standup paddleboard racers worldwide expected it to be a turning point. For nearly five years, two governing bodies had been squabbling over who should control the sport at the international level—the Switzerland-based International Canoe Federation (ICF) or the America-based International Surf Association (ISA). Each organization believed it could do the best job of governing SUP and creating an international framework to expand paddling’s fastest growing sport.
“My initial take on it was, ‘It’s finally over. We have a decision,’” said Tamás Buday Jr., a former sprint canoe Olympian for Team Canada who now races SUP and won a master’s world championship in 2019. “Going back and forth between the two major organizations was just harmful to the sport.”
Both the ISA and ICF have a long history of governing their respective disciplines. The infighting over whether paddleboarding is a surf-based sport or a canoe and kayak-based sport has only led to confusion. Both organizations run events dubbed world championships, which makes for a boxing-style system without a unified world champion. Both federations also have ideas about what standard race lengths and rules should be, which has created the Wild West of racing.
While a SUP Olympic program might not matter much to the average recreational paddleboarder, its inclusion would mean press, prestige and higher pay for athletes, which could raise the profile of the sport and make it more competitive.
Some paddlers believe the tug-of-war over who has authority delayed SUP’s inclusion as a new sport in the next Olympic Games. Its inclusion was floated as a possible addition alongside sport climbing, skateboarding and surfing—all of which will debut at the rescheduled 2020 Olympics. However, without an official governing body, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had no one to work with.
Many racers hope the CAS’s August ruling will end the discord so they can focus on paddling, not politics. “The CAS Panel has decided the ISA shall be the International Federation governing and administrating the sport of SUP at Olympic level, but has dismissed ISA’s request to be recognized as the sole governing body of SUP at the world level,” the decision read. “The ICF remains entitled to conduct all types of SUP activities outside of the Olympic movement.” So, both the ISA and ICF can hold standup paddling events worldwide, but the ISA is to govern at the Olympic level.
“At the end of this long and difficult paddle, we are both relieved and gratified by this important decision by CAS,” said ISA President Fernando Aguerre in an online statement. “The global SUP community can now look forward with clarity in continuing the building of an exciting future for SUP and its athletes.”
Aguerre began discussions with the IOC to feature SUP at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games after the CAS decision was made. Ultimately, the December deadline for inclusion was too tight. The next possibility is the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.
ICF President José Perurena also declared the CAS verdict as a win stating: “We are pleased and feel vindicated that the Court of Arbitration for Sport has recognized the important role the International Canoe Federation has played in the development of standup paddling and that it is free to continue this role worldwide.”
With the 2021 racing season quickly approaching, the ICF will hold its next SUP World Championships in Balatonfüred in Hungary in June 2021. With a verdict on Olympic governance declared, racers hope the ICF and ISA will move past the conflict to collaborate on a pathway to the ultimate podium.
“Regarding the longterm future, we are working with athletes, event organizers and national federations to put together an events calendar convenient to everyone involved, including the ISA,” says ICF communications manager Ross Solly. “We are hopeful that as two members of the Olympic family, we will be able to have fruitful discussions which will help SUP continue to grow as a sport.”
Let the games begin. | Photo: Lech Dolecki