Riccardo Fraccari

Dude, like, IOC walks the surf, skate, climb walk


International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach has said in implementing his would-be 40-point reform plan, dubbed Agenda 2020, that talking the talk simply won’t do. To make the plan real, he has stressed, the entire Olympic movement must walk the walk.

The IOC, indeed the Olympic movement worldwide, tends to be conservative, traditional, cautious. This is the obvious problem with urging sports officials, even the most well-meaning, to make bold change in line with much-needed reforms.

Thus the news Monday from Tokyo arrived like a lightning strike.

The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee announced it is proposing five sports, with a combined 18 events, for those Games: baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing.

Credit now where it is due: in picking those five, Tokyo organizers seriously walked the walk.

Most of the instant-reaction headlines worldwide centered on baseball/softball and on karate. At first blush, you can understand: baseball and karate are both important in Japan.

That’s not the story, though.

In skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing, the IOC gets a three-way edgy bang — urban sports, beach scene, hard-core gym rat with heavy outdoor vibe — in its reach-out to the demographic, teens and 20-somethings, with whom it is assiduously trying to connect.

The scene at a surfing U.S. Open in recent years in Huntington Beach, California // photo U.S. Open of Surfing

In Costa Rica, at the World Surfing Games // photo ISA

The IOC is now very much in the business of asserting that it is not just relevant but the Games are, in a word, cool. In recent years, with the Summer Games program stagnant, that has been a much-harder sell for the Olympic brand.

In sum: this three-way makes for Agenda 2020 in action.

Compare the rock-n-roll driven, bodacious bikini and hard-body board-shorts scene at surfing with — oh, archery. Or even -- golf.

You're 22. Or 19. Where's the party? The DJ? On the 16th fairway, where you can't even talk loudly?

Beach volleyball is going to be the big ticket at the Rio Games. Why? Because it's a party -- combining sport, music and scene.

Same for surf, skate, climb.

Sport climbing, for those who have never seen it, is huge in Europe. As for skateboarding and surfing — assuming approval, they will soon be to the Olympics what beach volleyball is now, and w-a-y more.

“Comparing it to what skateboarding is, and if done correctly,” said Gary Ream, the Pennsylvania-based president of the International Skateboarding Federation, “seriously, I do believe that we can make a huge positive impact on youth globally.

“It’s crazy. I do believe it. Truthfully, it’s something the IOC has never seen before that could happen.”

The announcement Monday marked both an end and a beginning.

The Agenda 2020 rules, approved by the full IOC last December, allow host cities to propose one or more additional sports for their Games; the additions would be on top of the 28 sports already on the program; changes could not add more than 500 athletes, total.

In June, the list of potential add-ons was cut from 26 to eight.

On Monday, in selecting five, organizers cut squash, bowling and wushu, a Chinese martial art.

The full IOC, meeting next summer at the Rio Olympics, will make a final decision — yea or nay — on each of the five that got picked Monday. The five sports, with those 18 events, would add 474 athletes — 26 under that 500 limit.

“It was quite a difficult task,” the vice governor of Tokyo and a member of the review panel, Toshiyuki Akiyama, said. “Baseball/softball and karate were proposed and supported by the Tokyo metropolitan assembly. As for skateboarding, sports climbing, surfing, the key word is ‘youth.’ ”

Let’s be honest: baseball might be the driver, because it’s Japan, but the real winner here would be softball, which never should have been booted off the program in the first instance, and only was because it was perceived by far too many IOC members as a) too American and b) "baseball for girls."

Both baseball and softball were kicked out after the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Let’s be honest about this, too: baseball/softball can hardly be considered a lock to win full IOC approval. The participation of MLB players is still in doubt, and baseball — not softball — can be perceived within the IOC to have a considerable doping problem.

The president of the World Baseball Softball Confederation, Italy’s Riccardo Fraccari, had proposed an eight-team baseball tournament, with two groups of four teams each playing over five days.

Tokyo 2020 came back with six teams and 144 players; the women’s softball competition would feature six teams and 90 players.

Karate would have eight men's and women's events and a total of 80 athletes; skateboarding, two street and two park events, 80 athletes; sport climbing, two events in bouldering, lead and speed combined for 40 athletes; surfing, two events, shortboard only, 40 athletes.

“We’ve reached second base,” Fraccari said, according to Associated Press. “Now we’ve got to wait until Rio to get home.”

Ream also cautioned, “It’s not all done yet,” in part because the ISF is still working on being the federation the IOC would recognize as the sport’s official Olympic body.

At the same time, he said, “Skateboarding is so different,” adding a moment later, “It’s just — it’s going to be so refreshing to see first-hand how neat the kids are, and this spirit.”

At the 2014 Nanjing Youth Games, skateboarding was shown off as part of what the IOC called a “Sports Lab.” It drew big, enthusiastic crowds.

The American Tony Hawk, one of the sport’s icons, said in a statement, “It is exciting that skateboarding could possibly be included in the Olympics. This is not only a great opportunity for our sport and the skaters, but also for the Games.”

Tony Hawk doing his thing // photo courtesy Tony Hawk Inc.

Added Amelia Brodka, a pro skateboarder from Poland, “If managed by the right people,” a clear reference to ISF, “this could be a lifetime opportunity to expose women’s skateboarding to a global audience and to get many more girls involved into our sport.”

The reaction was much the same in surf circles.

Mick Fanning, a three-time world champion, said in a story published by the Australian Olympic Committee, “It would be amazing for surfers to have the opportunity to go and surf at the Olympics.”

Fanning made world news this summer by beating off a shark attack at a contest in South Africa. Who wouldn't want a dude around its event -- thinking now of the IOC -- who has proven himself tougher than a shark? (Digression: insert IOC politics joke here.)

Fanning also said of the Games, “It is probably the most-watched sporting event in the world. It would be a huge honor to go and represent your country at such a prestigious competition.”

Even the premier of New South Wales, one of Australia’s states, said he was stoked about the possibility of surfing making the 2020 Games.

“My love of the ocean and surfing is well known,” premier Mike Baird said, “and I’m absolutely thrilled to hear the sport is now getting close to being included in the Olympic line-up.”

Surfing doesn’t have to worry about which acronym is in charge for Olympic purposes. That’s the ISA, the International Surfing Assn., led by Fernando Aguerre, based in La Jolla, California.

Surfing’s issue is where to surf. Like, maybe in the ocean. Obviously, dude. But maybe -- what about a structure to be built in Tokyo itself featuring the new wave-pool technology?

Cities worldwide now have skateparks, right? If the IOC opts for wave technology, expect an explosion in such water parks; it would offer the vehicle to grow surfing everywhere, to take it to places hundreds if not thousands of miles from the ocean. On every continent.

That’s a decision for down the road.

On Monday, Aguerre — on a telephone call after his own daily surf session in the Pacific, the day after the conclusion of a hugely successful adaptive surf contest — said, “My first words are words of gratitude: gratitude to the IOC, gratitude to Agenda 2020. This is Agenda 2020 in action: renewing, modifying, updating the program.

“There’s a lot of excitement, I imagine in the skateboarding and sport climbing worlds. There is a lot of excitement in surfing. I am myself excited about it, and I am very, very happy about it.”

What would Jackie Robinson say?


International Olympic Committee news releases are written in distinctive code. In an otherwise anodyne six-paragraph release issued a few days ago on autonomy and good governance, the IOC dropped a bombshell. For years, Iran as well as a number of Arabic countries have taken sly steps aimed at denying appropriate recognition to Israeli officials or athletes; further, athletes from these countries have mysteriously feigned ailments or been ordered not to compete with Israelis. The new IOC president, Thomas Bach, is seemingly now keen to send a strong signal that on his watch this sort of thing is not likely to be tolerated.

To be clear, the release itself hardly makes any grandiose pronouncements.

But the signal would seem strong.

An overview of the WBSC congress in Tunisia // photo courtesy WBSC

It’s spelled out in the fourth paragraph, the IOC noting that at the instruction of the president himself, a task force has begun an investigation into an “incident” that “may represent discrimination” against the Israeli baseball/softball federation at the World Baseball Softball Confederation general assembly last month in Hammamet, Tunisia, a resort about an hour south of Tunis.

This marks the first time in recent memory the IOC has pointedly taken such official note of such an “incident” involving potential “discrimination” waged against the Israelis.

The details of the “incident,” moreover, make it abundantly clear the president of the Israeli baseball federation, Peter Kurz, absolutely was singled out and made the target of discrimination.

Not only that: though he was not harmed, he was left throughout the congress feeling unsafe and vulnerable. Given that security -- as the IOC is always given to say, is paramount issue No.1 -- that can never be tenable, particularly given the lessons of the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The question now: what is to be done?

Tunisia is among those nations that have inappropriately mixed politics with sports when it comes to Israel. Last fall, for instance, Tunisia’s tennis federation ordered its top player, Malek Jaziri, ranked 169th in the world, not to play Israel’s Amir Weintraub in the quarterfinals of a lower-tier ATP event in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

The WBSC congress, its first after the merger of the international baseball and softball federations, took place May 10-11.

In a May 12 letter to newly elected WBSC president Riccardo Fraccari, Kurz wrote that despite the history between the two nations he had been assured he and Israel would be appropriately “recognized and honored” per usual Olympic-style protocol at the assembly. But “unfortunately, the night before the Congress, I was asked to sit without my national flag and country sign, for ‘my own well being’ and for the sake of the host country.”

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Kurz said, “I went there with assurance the Israeli flag would be shown,” adding a moment later, referring to Tunisian authorities, “They told me that for my own benefit it was probably better if I didn’t sit with the flag. I agreed, for my own safety. Afterward, when I left, I sent them,” meaning the WBSC, a “letter of protest.”

Israel was the only nation so singled out at the conference. The merged confederation represents more than 100 nations; softball alone is played in more than 140.

Bach has made autonomy and governance issues — which typically do not receive much, if any, press — one of the mainstays of his “Agenda 2020” IOC review and potential reform process, now working its way toward an all-members session in Monaco in December.

In governance, the president has sought to underscore the obvious: without consistency, everything can get very shaky, and very fast.

"The health and viability of the Olympic movement start and end with issues of ethics and governance," said Atlanta-based Terrence Burns, a noted Olympic strategist. "These principles are embedded in the Olympic charter and have guided the movement since 1896."

Bach has also, since his election as IOC president in Buenos Aires last September, sought to highlight the import of fair play and respect, both on and off the field of play.

He has cited Nelson Mandela: “Sport can change the world.”

In a late April speech at the United Nations, he reiterated the words he used in closing the Sochi Games, when he urged “the political leaders of the world to respect the Olympic message of good will, of tolerance, of excellence and of peace” and appealed to “everybody implicated in confrontation, oppression or violence: act on this Olympic message of dialogue and peace … have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful, direct political dialogue.”

If the IOC in prior years might have been perhaps more inclined to be more passive about what happened in Tunisia, it’s clear a different sort of reckoning now awaits.

Uncertain, though, is the full scope and nature.

For its part, the WBSC has also launched its own inquiry. It will “fully cooperate” with the IOC to determine “warranted sanctions” and “any other course of action,” Fraccari said in an email sent early Wednesday from Tokyo.

Tangled up in all this — albeit as a side issue, though one that has sparked some concern within the WBSC — is the federation’s positioning going forward as it seeks to get baseball and softball back onto the Olympic program, perhaps as soon as the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games.

Fraccari said, “Good governance, autonomy and upholding the Olympic values are absolutely paramount to the WBSC, and the IOC’s involvement in this highly important matter is very much valued -- and any guidance that is provided will be strictly followed.”

He also said, “I am deeply, deeply disappointed with this incident; the flag of Israel should have been proudly on display alongside the other flags.”

He  said, “On behalf of the WBSC – and in my own name – I personally apologized to President Kurz and the Israel Association of Baseball following the incident, and I have given IAB every assurance that the newly elected WBSC executive board will handle this case in a swift, just and decisive manner, so that no such occurrence -- or such a scenario – is ever repeated.”

Kurz said the apology came in a telephone call last Friday: “He said it shouldn’t have happened.”

Fraccari also said this: “This regretful, isolated incident in no way reflects what baseball and softball represent — baseball and softball have a long and proud tradition of promoting racial diversity and multiculturalism, and have helped challenge racism, stereotypes and have helped to tear down both social and gender barriers."

In that spirit, Bach has, and with ample reason, pointed to Nelson Mandela. The Olympic movement has long venerated, again with sound reason, the U.S. track star, Jesse Owens.

In this instance, perhaps the time has come to look to another American icon, the baseball player Jackie Robinson. He literally changed the face of professional sports in the United States. Throughout his life, he proved an exemplar of peaceful tolerance. Each year, on April 15, in a celebration of his life and achievements, is Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball; all the players, coaches, managers on both teams, even the umpires, wear Robinson's No. 42.

The irony of the "incident" in Tunisia is that the other candidate to have hosted the WBSC assembly was Los Angeles; of course, that's where the team that Robinson played for, the Dodgers, moved to from Brooklyn, and that's where he grew up, in nearby Pasadena, California, and went to college, at UCLA.

The federation opted to have the congress in Tunisia on the theory that staging it in Africa would be a part of promoting a growth strategy for their games; after all, in January, Uganda opened central Africa's first-ever national baseball and softball stadium.

It was left to Kurz, in his letter, to point out the obvious: "Future Congresses should not be held in countries that do not respect or recognize the rights of other countries, and you had over 145 countries to choose from."