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Surfing faces an Olympic hurdle

  • With the Tokyo Games just over a year away, the Surfing Federation of India is still nowhere close to making the cut
  • The fledgling SFI is recognized by the International Surfing Association but not by the Union sports ministry or the Indian Olympic Association (IOA)

A 2017 photo of Tanvi Jagadish.
A 2017 photo of Tanvi Jagadish.

There was nothing the late Duke Kahanamoku couldn’t do. The Hawaiian swimmer won five Olympic medals with the US swimming team (between 1912-24), served for more than two decades, starting from the mid-1930s, as a sheriff in Honolulu, acted in a few films, and once saved the lives of eight fishermen from a capsized vessel in California using his surfboard. But perhaps his greatest achievement remains that he helped popularize surfing as a sport around the world, almost as if he rode a wave from Hawaii all the way to Australia and every other coast he visited in a remarkable life of heroism.

The only thing he couldn’t witness, though, was the inclusion of the sport in the Olympics. “It’s like endless paddling. You usually paddle between 8-10 to catch a wave, and our paddling for Olympic surfing has a history of at least 22 years," said International Surfing Association (ISA) president Fernando Aguerre on the day the Olympic committee was to vote on including the sport in its fold. In an emotional pre-vote speech on 3 August 2016, he promised to “mix both sands, from the place where surfing was accepted and from where it’s making its debut at the Olympic Games". Later that day, the vote in Rio de Janeiro confirmed surfing’s debut at the 2020 Olympics—finally fulfilling Kahanamoku’s dream.

Half-way across the world in India, a country with 7,517km of coastline, where surfing is largely seen as a lifestyle and culture sport, the decision meant that a bunch of youngsters started thinking of the sport as a viable career choice. But with 18 months to go for the next Games in Tokyo, the Surfing Federation of India (SFI) still seems some distance away from making the cut.

The fledgling SFI is recognized by the International Surfing Association but not by the Union sports ministry or the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), which is required for participation at the Games.

“We didn’t make IOA recognition a priority. When we started SFI, we wanted to focus more on grass-roots development and promoted surfing as a lifestyle sport. All of a sudden, it’s a serious thing to do now," says Rammohan Paranjape, one of the surfing pioneers in India, and SFI vice-president.

For the SFI, which started in 2011, the IOA’s 14-month suspension (December 2012-February 2014) for not adhering to the International Olympic committee’s Olympic charter had already put it at a disadvantage. Then there were multiple bureaucratic processes that didn’t help. Paranjape says this “inconsistency and lack of clarity" has been a setback.

The crux of this process to try and convince the sports ministry of the sport’s legitimacy is, in fact, quite unique. “We need 12 state associations to get recognition but India doesn’t even have those many coastal states. Where am I going to find the next half-a-dozen state associations then? We have still been figuring that out and trying to convince them to make an exception for us in a few different areas," he says.

It is the athletes who suffer most in this waiting game. “I still remember wanting to compete at an international tournament and the sponsor said they can’t support me because the sport is not recognized," says 18-year-old Tanvi Jagadish, who is a five-time stand-up paddling (SUP) national champion and finished in the top 16 at the SUP world championship in Fiji in 2016. Jagadish took to the waters when she was 10, and against the wishes of her parents.

“My mother said that the textbook is my life—but my grandfather encouraged me to take to the waves. A lot of such talent can be developed if the sport is recognized," she says.

Not every 10-year-old is as headstrong as Jagadish. And then there is the perennial problem of finding sponsors. But even on a shoestring budget, the SFI has managed to promote young talent through international competitions. India’s surfing talent, however, has benefited from two major fests—the Indian Open of Surfing in May and the Covelong Point Fest in August. Both have grown exponentially in the last few years, with backing from Karnataka Tourism and a benefactor in the chairman and managing director of the TT Group, Arun Vyas. The water sports fan invests around 50 lakh a year into the development of surfing and SUP.

He also sponsors athletes to prepare for international meets. Sekar Pachai is one such example. His life as a fisherman is now a thing of the past, thanks to the growth of the sport and his performances abroad. Pachai returned with a silver medal in SUP from the Swiss Open championships in June—his best return after a long season competing in Europe in 2018.

“There are so many athletes like me who don’t get sent abroad. More exposure will come only when we get recognition. But not many people understand the importance of the sport qualifying for the Olympics. Making it to 2020 seems almost impossible. But we have real hope if surfing stays for the 2024 Olympics," says Pachai.

India has nine states, two Union territories and two island territories in its coastal belt. For a sport to be recognized, it should have associations in two-thirds of the states. This number was brought down to 12 states for surfing, which is currently limited to the southern states.

The fact that Jagadish and Pachai have succeeded without government funding gives hope and a breakthrough could be around the corner.

Sekar Pachai (in front) preparing for the world SUP championships in Denmark. photographs by rammohan paranjape

The SFI, which works on an annual budget of 2-3 lakh, is currently working on kickstarting the state associations in surfing-friendly Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, hoping to meet and convince sports minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore to make certain exceptions for it. LawNK, the firm owned by sports lawyer Nandan Kamath, who believes in the need to restructure Indian sports federations, is helping SFI in the documentation process.

“Ultimately, it’s a subjective call that the sports ministry will make because the recognition rules in the sports code are framed as guidelines, not regulations. The SFI may not have a pan-India presence yet, but that doesn’t stop it from having associations in non-coastal states because the other discipline that the ISA governs is stand-up paddling, and which SFI co-opts in its activities as well," says Seshank Shekar, senior associate at LawNK.

And this is where the SFI could argue well—SUP is a sport which can be played on any water body, opening up the pan-India presence that the SFI needs to justify its IOA inclusion. The difference between surfing and SUP is simple: SUP has longer boards and requires the athlete to use a paddle to smoothly speed over water rather than ride a wave on the shorter surfing board using just body balance.

In just a few years, the SFI has gone from coughing up its own money to organize competitions, to getting former South African cricketer Jonty Rhodes as its ambassador now and creating a surfing festival culture that sees a regular influx of international surfers to India. Tokyo 2020 looks like a long shot but surfers will hope that the processes gather speed and that the IOA can catch the wave in time

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