Last-minute surprise: The ISA Worlds are actually happening this year (in… El Salvador?)

 

In a surprise announcement that will create mild chaos for its national federations, the International Surfing Association (ISA) has just confirmed the 2019 SUP & Paddleboard World Championship is actually happening after all. The event will be hosted by the Central American nation of El Salvador (yes, El Salvador) from 23 November – 1 December.

No, they’re not announcing the 2020 Worlds, the ISA is today announcing the 2019 Worlds. In October.

Even by ISA standards, this is last-minute.

The announcement is both bold and risky, and you can’t help but think it’s all a rather desperate attempt to fight off the International Canoe Federation (ICF), which will host its inaugural SUP World Championship in Qingdao, China later this month (an event announced more than six months ago) and against whom the ISA has been fighting an ongoing legal battle for Olympic “control” of paddleboarding.

Of course, there could be worse places for an event than El Salvador: Central America’s smallest nation is actually home to some beautiful beaches and incredible waves, which will surely make the SUP surfers happy (at least those who still have time to book a ticket). But the country has never even been on the radar as a SUP racing destination and almost all details surrounding the event (schedules, etc) remain a mystery.

All we really know is that “El Sunzal” (a relatively well-known surfing area) is listed as the host venue.

The event is backed by the El Salvadorian government and will tie-in with its major ‘Surf City’ tourism campaign, so hopefully it won’t be run on too much of a shoe-string budget despite the incredibly late announcement. But seriously: El Salvador? I’m all for pushing the sport into new frontiers, however this just reminds me of the bizarro event in Nicaragua that was the 2014 ISA Worlds (and at least teams actually had time to prepare for that logistical nightmare).

The 2017 Worlds in Denmark were a huge success with 42 nations competing; El Salvador won’t be so lucky (credit: @benreedphoto)

While the ISA does deserve some major credit for pulling a rabbit out of the hat at the very last minute (nobody expected the event to happen at all this year), this might not be the best-looking rabbit… This is actually a very big risk for the ISA.

I think it would have been wiser (for both the ISA and athletes) for President Fernando Aguerre to put his ego aside for a moment, admit 2019 was a failure and put all of his organisation’s SUP-related energy towards a marquee championship in 2020. But now the Surfing Association risks running a last-minute, hastily-organised, poorly-attended world championships less than a month after the Canoe Federation holds what’s already shaping up to be a well-attended event in China.

Not only that, but the International Canoe Federation is most likely going to announce the dates and location of its 2020 ICF Worlds (Germany in June is the word) before the ISA has even hosted its own 2019 championship let alone figured out where next year’s event will be. Instead of hitting reset and focusing on the future, the ISA now looks like it’s chasing its tail (or the tail of the ICF, to be precise).

About the only thing in the ISA’s favour is the fact El Salvador is probably seen as a far hipper and more tropical destination than Qingdao among most paddlers. But that raises just as many questions about logistics and travel, which will only be compounded by the last-minute nature of the event.

I’m sure a few big names will be in El Salvadaor – it’s an easy direct flight for Team USA, for example – but every top athlete I spoke with this evening said they were either committed to the ICF Worlds in China and wouldn’t be doing two championships or would be taking a break from competition and wouldn’t be doing either.

One of the first elite paddlers I shared the news with simply replied: “Who the f#@k do they think they are?” while a shocked team manager said they “Can’t believe the ISA has done this.”

Update: Annabel Anderson perhaps summed it up best: “(ISA President) Fernando, for once in your life please put your ego aside.”

Initial reaction from the athletes has been “skeptical” at best

While we’ll just have to give the local organising committee the benefit of the doubt on being able to pull off a major event at such short notice (I’ve heard El Salvador wasn’t even a serious contender until a month ago), many national surfing federations will be left scrambling to put together not only a team but also a travel and logistics plan.

Plus the federations (or most likely, the athletes) will need to figure out how to get assistance for taking race boards halfway round the world, something that was entirely absent from the ISA’s announcement despite the ICF investing heavily in this area.

It’s a shame because El Salvador probably would have been a great event with six months’ notice. But six weeks… c’mon. It’s ridiculous. If the ISA was smart they would have given El Salvador the hosting rights in 2020 and given teams and athletes reasonable time to prepare, but it looks like egos and political agendas got in the way of logic.

Oddly, the ISA did use today’s announcement to remind everyone how good their 2017 event in Denmark was–where a record 42 nations competed. That’s another bold move considering El Salvador 2019 will probably only attract half as many teams. (Come to think of it, the entire ISA press release sounds like one big propaganda cannon aimed directly at the ICF. Has the ISA thought about the athletes at all?)

Another face-palming fact about today’s news is that, in standard ISA fashion, their championship in El Salvador clashes with South America’s biggest paddling event, the famous Aloha Spirit Festival in Brazil on November 23 & 24 (which many top international athletes have already committed to). The ISA was well aware this major event was happening but chose to run on the same dates anyway, which is quite disappointing coming from the self-proclaimed “leadership” of the sport.

El Salvador is also clashing with West Oz Downwind Week, which traditionally attracts most of the top Australian athletes who comprise the team that’s won six out of the seven ISA titles. And the icing on top, it clashes with a third international event: The new ’11 Islands’ race in Thailand (a spin-off from the SUP11-City Tour event) which again quite a few international athletes have already committed to. Update: The race also clashes with Ironmana in Tahiti, which at least one reigning ISA gold medalist is committed to. So that’s four clashes. Bravo, ISA, bravo 👏👏

All of this makes President Fernando Aguerre’s comments in today’s media pitch sound a little foreboding:

“I am looking forward to watching the world’s best compete for Gold on the beautiful, tropical coast of El Salvador. The perfect waves and beautiful scenery will make for an edition to remember.”

I’m sure it’ll be one to remember. Whether or not it’s remembered for the right reasons remains to be seen…

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