paddleboarderStand-up paddleboarding (“SUP”), once categorised by the popular media as a celebrity fad, has emerged as an unlikely battleground between the sports of canoeing and surfing, with the international federations for both of these well-established watersports seeking to lay claim to discipline at Olympic level, each asserting that SUP is an offshoot from their sport.  On the one hand, the International Surfing Association (“ISA”) has been organising competitions, including the national SUP championships, for several years.  On the other hand, the International Canoeing Federation (“ICF”) claims that the use of a paddle makes it part of their group of disciplines.

SUP has been around far longer than the relatively recent celebrity trend and associate hype might suggest.  The discipline, which involves standing on a large board and using a long paddle to propel the board through the water, may in fact have been around in one form or another for centuries.  Some accounts trace it to ancient African or South American cultures which used boards, canoes and other floating vessels propelled with a long stick or oar, or to Captain James Cook’s account of sailing into Hawaii in 1778 to witness the Hawaiian people surfing and using paddles to propel the larger surfboards out onto the waves.  Others attribute its origins to the five foot wide ‘Hassakeh’ boards used by lifeguards in Tel Aviv during the early part of the 20th Century.  However, the majority of accounts agree that, for all intents and purposes, modern SUP originated when surfers began using paddles to propel themselves onto the waves or as a training exercise when the surf was flat, perhaps as early as the 1940s in Hawaii; a far cry from the realms of Olympic competition.

The battle for control over modern-day competitive SUP relates to control at Olympic level. The dispute between the ISA and ICF has arisen following the IOC’s announcement last year of the addition of five new sports (including surfing) within the Olympic Games from 2020.  Following this, the ISA applied to the organising committee of the 2018 Youth Games in Buenos Aires for the inclusion of SUP in the Games, only to be met by opposition from the ICF, which subsequently submitted a complaint to the IOC.

Outside of the Olympic movement, the governance of sport effectively operates on the basis of self-conferred jurisdiction. In theory, any sporting body can effectively declare itself an organiser of a sport or discipline and impose a set of rules and regulations on its participants in respect of that sport or discipline. However, as the ultimate governing body of the Olympic Movement, the IOC has the power to recognise the relevant international federations for sports in relation to the Olympic Movement, in accordance with the Olympic Charter, which provides that “In order to develop and promote the Olympic Movement, the IOC may recognise as [International Federations (IFs] international non-governmental organisations administering one or several sports at world level and encompassing organisations administering such sports at national level” (Chapter 3, Rule 25).

At the time of writing, the dispute remains unresolved following a meeting between the ICF, IOC and ISA in January. At present it is unclear precisely how the dispute will progress but, absent a resolution, or in the event that the IOC determines the matter and its decision is appealed by either federation, the dispute may be referred to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. It is likely, in any event, that the dispute will be decided having regard to factors such as track record in development of the sport to date, technical considerations (for example, is the vessel a board or a canoe?), and ability to govern and develop the sport in the future.

  • Track record: As to the question of track record, whilst a number of the ICF’s national federations have some history in organising SUP events, it is the ISA which has the most notable track record in competitive SUP (both nationally and internationally), such as the ISA World SUP and Paddleboard Championship, to be hosted in Denmark in September this year. The ICF appears to have had comparatively much less engagement with competitive SUP (a search of the ICF’s past and present official calendar at the date of writing elicited only one SUP event).
  • Technical: The ICF is reported to argue that the use of a paddle brings the discipline more naturally within the canoeing group of sports. A point of dispute also exists in relation to the nature of the board, particularly as a small proportion of boards are manufactured with a concave scoop, arguably more akin to a canoe.    
  • Future potential: There can be no doubt that the ICF is the more well-established governing body within the Olympic movement and therefore benefits from extensive experience of developing sports within the movement. On the other hand, its lack of track record in events to date raises the question of the ease with which it would be able to engage with the SUP community and develop the sport.

Whatever the outcome of the dispute, both the ICF and ISA have emphasised their commitment to the development of SUP and its inclusion within the Olympic Games. In the long term, this is positive news for the sport.  Yet, in the short term, uncertainty stemming from the dispute is likely to cause missed opportunities, both in respect of the distribution of public funding and the lost opportunity of inclusion in events such as the 2018 Youth Games.