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.”

IOC short-lists three sports


ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- The ballroom here at the Lenexpo Convention Center here was jammed. TV crews and photographers assumed their positions, cameras trained on wrestling supporters in the front row of audience seats, immediately behind the ladies and gentlemen of the press. The tension was thick. Up on the dais, Mark Adams, the International Olympic Committee's spokesman, started to explain that the IOC's policy-making executive board had Wednesday afternoon decided to short-list just three sports for review this September by the all-members assembly in Buenos Aires. Everyone did quick math. Three sports in. That meant five were out. Which three?

Adams started to read off the first of the three: "Wrestling," he said, and in the instant before the place erupted someone in the wresting group summed it all with just one word that echoed across the hall: "Yeah!"

It took several long moments before order was restored, and Adams could then read off the other two: "Baseball and softball," he said, and then, "With apologies to the others, squash."

Jubilant wrestling officials meet the press after Wednesday's IOC executive board vote

With that, the IOC sought to turn the page in one of the most convoluted procedural and substantive fixes it has ever produced. Time, and only time, will tell whether it got this just right -- or profoundly wrong.

Cut were sport climbing, karate, roller sports, wakeboarding and the Chinese martial art of wushu.

In a statement, IOC president Jacques Rogge noted that "it was never going to be an easy decision" but this was a "good decision."

Thomas Bach, an IOC vice president and leading candidate to succeed Rogge in voting for the IOC presidency, said, "This is a good mixture between team sports, individual sports and martial arts."

The executive board voting Wednesday -- which followed 30-minute presentations by each of the eight sports -- proved complex. A sport made it through with a majority vote of the 14-member board; Rogge, a 15th potential ballot, did not vote.

The first round did not portend what was to come: wrestling made it through in just one ballot, with a majority of 8. The second round then took seven ballots before the combined baseball/softball bid defeated karate, 9-5. Squash got through in three rounds in the third with a majority of 8.

The IOC will pick one of the three -- or, perhaps, none -- in voting Sept. 8.

If the full membership selects wrestling for the sole vacant spot on the program, then the review process will have resulted in, essentially, no change -- at a time when the IOC is keen to be seen to be more vibrant in reaching out to a younger audience.

At the same time, the IOC has always sought to balance its traditions.

Therein lies the considerable tension.

A quick review of how the IOC got to Wednesday's action:

After every Games, the IOC reviews the line-up on the Games program.

By rule, the IOC sets these caps: 28 sports on the program and 10,500 athletes.

In 2009, the IOC decided to add rugby sevens and golf for the 2016 and 2020 Games.

For 2020, the review meant there would be 25 "core" sports plus golf and rugby. That meant -- and still means -- there would be one, and only one, open spot on the 2020 program.

In February, to considerable surprise, after its program commission -- chaired by Italy's Franco Carraro -- put every sport through a survey of 39 criteria, the executive board dropped wrestling from the core.

Wrestling's governing body, which goes by the acronym FILA, never saw it coming.

After all, wrestling had been on the ancient Games program. It had been on the program of every program in the modern Olympics.

In response, the federation got rid of its president, the Swiss Raphael Martinetti, and elected a new one, Serbian Nenad Lalovic. It enacted a series of rules changes aimed at making the sport more attractive.

"Wrestling needed to make the rules changes they did, and once they did, it gave the executive board an avenue to put wrestling on the short-list because it was a different wrestling than they saw in February," said Jim Scherr, the former U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive who is now a member of the FILA bureau.

Malaysia's seven-time squash world champion, Nicol David, said, "This is a great day for squash as it takes us one step closer to realizing our long-held ambition to join the Olympic Games. I said to the executive board that the one big regret in my career is that I have never had the chance to compete in the Olympic Games, but I would happily trade all my seven world titles for the chance of Olympic gold."

Baseball and softball formed a single international federation, the World Baseball Softball Confederation. They also laid out a plan to shorten their tournament and and play at one venue. Also, Major League Baseball and its players' association sent the IOC a letter confirming "our continuing support and confidence in finding the best possible … solution" for the "participation of professional players."

IOC sports director Christophe Dubi noted, "…They gave important assurance from the leagues that solutions will be found and this was presented today."

Both baseball and softball were kicked out of the Games in 2005, effective in 2008. Baseball had become part of the Olympics in 1992, softball in 1996. Don Porter, the longtime head of the softball effort, was visibly moved.

He said, "I have been through this a long, long time. I have been disappointed before. I just hoped we had done enough.

"This is like the seventh inning. Now we are heading to the ninth. We have runners on base and are going to work hard to bring those runners home."

Lalovic, the new wrestling president, used a different metaphor:

"The match is not finished," he said, adding a moment later, "We have to stay in the Olympics. This is our goal."