In October 1974, the world turned its attention to the little-known city of Kinshasa, Zaire. It was here that the over-hyped, Don King-promoted bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman would take place for the heavyweight championship of the world. It was the “Rumble In The Jungle.
Ali was entering the ring at a low point in his career, having lost his last two big fights, and now faced a younger — and possibly hungrier — opponent. The world held its breath to see if Ali could still, indeed, float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
Michael Gerard, executive director of Surfing America, hasn’t really slept in two days. And as he slides into the backseat of the limo that will take him to LAX, he wears the awkward mantle of a young George Foreman. In two days, in Salinas, Ecuador, he’ll enter the ring at the most important business meeting of his life. Months of work will be on the line, and the future direction of U.S. amateur surfing could be decided.
In two days Gerard will explain to the Biennial General Meeting of the International Surfing Federation (ISA) how Surfing America has united the various tribes of U.S. amateur surfing under its plan. The ISA members could then vote to significantly change the direction of its organization by replacing the USSF with Surfing America as the National Governing Body (NGB) for the United States. In the process it would likely relegate one of its long-time partners, The United States Surfing Federation, to the ashcan of history.
It’s a full agenda to be sure. The Saturday sky is still an inky predawn black as the limo slides onto the freeway. Gerard sits back and tries to relax, but he says the result of the upcoming meeting is hardly a foregone conclusion.
Like Foreman, Gerard faces a veteran opponent who’s been battered, but still might have a few tricks up his sleeve. Paul West runs the USSF, the current U.S. NGB. Over the past few months he’s stood on the firing line as Surfing America gathered the support of the three biggest amateur organizations — The NSSA, the ESA, and HASA. He knows this showdown was coming and interested onlookers wondered what his strategy would be heading into the Salinas meeting.
For some — too many perhaps — it’s a tempest in a teacup. After all, right now having the NGB seems like no big whoop. Who knows and who cares how the U.S. national team is selected or what it ultimately contributes to the health and advancement of the surf industry? How many people know what the NGB does? So the NGB organization picks the U.S. National Team. So what? Just look at all the major surf-related Web sites (including this one) and magazines and try to find one mention of the U.S. roster or even a whit of interest about the process. You’ll come up mostly empty handed.
And that, ultimately, is one of Gerard’s major points. In other countries, countries that routinely kick the ass of the U.S. in world contests, being on the team is a symbol of pride. Surfers in those countries passionately battle for a slot on their national teams and usually have a clearly defined path to follow to get on it. Competing on this world stage hones their talent as they are forced to surf unknown waves against mostly little-known surfers. It gives them important experience on what to expect on the world WQS tour. In a nutshell, it matters. It bears a degree of importance that hasn’t been seen in the U.S. in years.
Whether this disinterest is the result of gross mismanagement by the USSF, shameful neglect from the surf industry, or an overall apathy of U.S. amateur surfers over the whole process is a matter of heated debate. But it all comes down to the fact that Surfing America now thinks it has the tools to do a better job of reigniting interest in the U.S. National Team. It wants the NGB and is flying 3,500 miles to the Equator to make its case.
Gerard has some powerful allies in his corner. The NSSA, ESA, and HASA agree with his plan. Traveling soutth with him are SIMA and Op President Dick Baker and Surfing America President Peter Townend — two rational thinkers and wily political operative to boot.
Of course, West has his own resources to draw upon — namely a long history of involvement with the ISA and deep relationships with the other NGBs. No one is sure what his plans or strategies are. He hasn’t answered phone calls inquiring about what his plans are now.
The desert hills of West Texas are in bloom as American Airlines flight 898 soars east; green hills with yellow flowers. Life is returning to a barren landscape. Gerard is up near the cockpit in business class. He says it’s his first time at the front of the plane — one of the many firsts he’ll likely experience over the next few days. He misses the view, though. He’s finally found a peaceful moment and the sleep that has eluded him.
In Kinshasa, Ali played possum, doing the ol’ rope-a-dope until Foreman pooped out. Then he struck. Will history repeat? Can it? We’ll soon know. But regardless of the outcome, the general disinterest in the U.S. National Team will likely continue. After years of slow decline it will take a unified front, a ton of hard work, and most like years of positive incremental results to significantly change perceptions.
In the larger fight, we still have a long ways to go.