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A New Wave

Elisha Chauhan looks at how an innovative wave machine has significantly lowered the barriers to entry for cities looking to host major surfing events.

From the French Alps to the deserts of the Middle East, surfing events can now be held all over the world in places that would have been considered farcical until very recently.

All that’s needed is a manmade expanse of water, like a lake, then companies such as Wavegarden – which designs and manufactures wave generation systems that create conditions suitable for the highest levels of performance surfing – do the rest.

These artificial surf waterparks can reach the size of three football pitches; a pier runs down the middle of the manmade pool and has underwater panels made out of foil attached either side of it like wings, which are mechanised to run down the pier. This creates two waves that are equivalent to the very best Hawaii or the Gold Coast of Australia can offer.

The latest of these innovations by Spanish-headquartered Wavegarden produces wave heights of up to six feet and is due to open in Snowdonia, Wales, in spring next year. Snowdonia is a region known throughout most of the UK for its national park and highlands.

“People don’t think of Wales as a surfing destination, but with the construction of this wave system, Wales will become an important European – and eventually world – destination for surfing,” ISA (the International Surfing Association) president Fernando Aguerre told SportBusiness International.

Aguerre was born and raised on the Argentinean coast and co-founded Reef, the sandal and surfwear company he sold to VF Corporation for more than $100 million in September 2005. He has served as president of ISA since 1994 and has a vision that one day surfing could get onto the programme of sports at the Olympic Games.

In addition to lifting the location limitations for where surfing events – and surfers in general – can go, wave generation technology also eliminates competitors’ dependence on luck when it comes to catching a good wave;
the artificial waves are consistent in quality and quantity, meaning all surfers are on a level playing field. Surfing performances will also improve as athletes can practise at all times of the day.

“If surfers are practising for competitions, they could be out in the open water for an hour and would be lucky to catch six or seven waves. Each of these waves is also only 10 seconds long at the most. Now, surfers can have perfect waves every minute of the day,” Aguerre says.

Broadening Horizons

Wavegarden is one of a number of companies that has developed cutting-edge wave systems over the last two decades, but ISA is yet to confirm which manufacturer it will partner with to create new stops in its championship calendar using the system.

ISA sanctions a variety of world championships every year, with China, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Chile all hosting events this year, in addition to Peru, the location for ISA’s 50th Anniversary World Surfing Games.

We are already in talks with wave makers to plan world championships
using the technology.

Taking major surfing events to new markets around the world – which Aguerre believes will occur in the next six to 12 months – is also timely for ISA in light of IOC (International Olympic Committee) president Thomas Bach’s Agenda 2020.

Bach’s initiative aims to overhaul the decision-making processes of the IOC, including the number of sports in the Olympic fold and how they are selected – a proposal that surfing is looking to capitalise on, particularly given IOC regulations have previously restricted ISA’s ability to bid for surfing to become an Olympic sport (see The Olympic Wave below).

“We are already in talks with wave makers to plan world championships using the technology. There will be a mix of manmade waves for the tournament, in terms of the surfers facing both the left and right-hand sides of the waves,” says Aguerre.

“The ISA doesn’t have a process right now to select one particular wave generation firm [for its competitions], but I know what criteria the waves should have as I have been working with thousands of surfers for years and the IOC for some time now.

“Affordability has a lot to do with selection but, for example, the canoe and kayaking venue for the 2012 London Olympics [at Lee Valley White Water Centre] cost around €37 million. That’s very expensive to build and operate, but the Wavegarden in Wales will only cost €12 million, inclusive of all facilities and even lodging for its annual projected 75,000 visitors.”

New wave technology will also see surfing integrated into more multi-sport events outside of the Olympics, with ISA already pushing bids for inclusion in the Pan American Games from the 2019 edition in Lima, Peru, as well as ESPN’s X Games in the near future.

“Surfing is the original extreme sport, and the X Games tried to run surfing a couple of times. One year they had really good waves and it was amazing, but the second year they didn’t have good waves and it was boring. So I think as soon as the wave technology is proven and easily reproduced, the X Games is going to jump on it,” Aguerre says.

With around 35 million people surfing worldwide today, Aguerre expects that new technology, events and multi-sport platforms for the sport will see the number to rise to 50 million by 2020.

“There is a huge market for surfing; it’s a global industry. Surfing is not just about the surfboard, it’s also a big power in fashion. When you go to the beach you will see people wearing brands that were originally for surfers such as Oakley or Quiksilver. They are now part of the mainstream,” he says.

“Wave generation technology is comparable to the change ski lifts brought to ski resorts. Before they were created, a person from a non-snow area wouldn’t climb a mountain to ski down. Thanks to ski lift technology, thousands of people every day go to the top of the mountain to ski, and it has allowed the masses to enjoy a sport that was formerly enjoyed by a very small minority.”

The Olympic Wave

In October 2009, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) invited all sports leaders, and even members of the public, to submit proposals to improve the Olympics and the governing body at its Congress in Copenhagen.

Out of seven sports, members voted for rugby sevens and golf to go on the Olympic programme from the 2016 Games. Surfing, however, wasn’t one of the seven. This was simply because given the unpredictable nature of oceans, ISA would not have been able to guarantee appropriate conditions for surfing at every summer Olympics.

Neverthless, Aguerre presented an informal bid at the Congress, explaining what he believes the IOC should do to keep the Olympics relevant to the youth of today.

“All the forward-thinking IOC members [at the Congress] thought surfing was a really good sport, just like snowboarding. However, we had the big problem of not being able to produce waves where there were no waves,” he says.

“For example, the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will take place in summer, but the only good time for surfing in Japan is from September to November. We envisage the new wave-generating technology to be a necessary tool for entering the Olympic fold.”

The IOC is also actively trying to bring the average age of a summer Games viewer down from 50 years old, and Aguerre believes that surfing is the key to this. He cites the example of snowboarding, which helped attract a younger fan demographic when it was brought into the winter Olympics from the 1998 Nagano Games.

“If you take action sports out of the winter Olympics – such as snowboarding and all the elements of skiing that are really copies of snowboarding disciplines – then what youth-oriented sports are you left with? Curling and ice skating?

“What fun – maybe our granddads will be watching. Surfing could do for the summer Games what snowboarding has done for the winter Olympics.”

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