Is it a canoe or a surfboard? The Politics of Sup – Part I

Surf or Canoe Federation the politics of sup
The ISA and Canoe Federations have gone to arbitration to delineate who is in charge of the sport of stand up paddling
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Here at Standup Journal online, we want to give you the upfront, low down daily news about what’s going on within the industry. That includes updates on what’s happening in the rules and regulations sector as our sport continues to thrive and grow in leaps and bounds.

There’s a LOT happening in the stand up paddling world!  Safety regulations are being reviewed (and refuted!), certifications are at cross-purposes sometimes with each other and, in this article, the larger organizations that seek to govern stand up paddling overall, go to court to find out just WHO is REALLY in charge.

Welcome to Part I of our next series:  The Politics of Sup.

the politics of paddleboarding
Flat water races are plentiful and athletes propel themselves forward using a paddle. Does that make paddling like canoeing?

The Politics of Sup – Who’s In Charge?

As stand up paddling continues to grow across the globe, inland paddling expands into new adventures on lakes, rivers and streams and sup surfing takes the world by storm in various world tours, the sport is being eyeballed for the Olympics.

That being said, there is a new controversy that has arisen between different overriding organizations who seek to be ‘in control of sup’ if this new relatively new sport should be considered by the Olympic committee.

As of now, the two organizations competing to be in charge of the standardization of rules for paddling include the International Surfing Association (ISA) and the International Canoe Federation (ICF).   Both sides have held major stand up paddle events and both sides believe they are the rightful stewards of the sport going forward.

the politics of paddleboarding
But a paddler can ALSO take that long board into the SURF and ride it. Will the sport of sup be hosted by the ISA in the Olympic Games one day?

Is Stand Up Paddling More Like Canoeing or Surfing?

This case is currently headed to mediation in the Court for Arbitration for Sport.  The controversy surrounds whether stand up paddling is more like surfing (individuals stand on a board and ‘ride’ the water) or canoeing (individuals race one another by propelling themselves on the water using a paddle).  Races can be held in flat water, like standardized canoe racing, or in the waves, like surfing.

“Especially on flat water, propulsion using a paddle is basically canoeing,” said Simon Toulson, the Secretary General of the Canoeing Federation. “Standing up or sitting down is irrelevant.”

the politics of paddleboarding
It LOOKS like a canoe but you stand on it AND it can ride the SURF. Where will the Court of Arbitration of Sport take the future of stand up paddling?

Toulsen concedes that the Canoeing Federation is mainly interested in paddling on the flats. “We are mainly flat water,” he said. “Surfing at the beach is not our area.”

One would think that this differentiation between the two organizations would allow for some room for compromise. Perhaps the Canoeing Federation could supervise the flat water version of stand up paddling, and the ISA could rule over the surf events?

“So far the compromises have not been accepted”, Toulsen said. “They [the ISA] don’t want to concede control of the flat water areas.”

The ISA has been successful in running multiple top tier stand up paddle events for a decade.  Fernando Aguerre, ISA President, has released in a statement, “The ISA welcomes the opportunity to put forward our position as the historical rightful custodian of Stand Up Paddling that can continue to best ensure the development of the sport and work in the interest of all stand up paddle athletes worldwide.”

“Under the guidance of the ISA for many years, both stand up paddle surfing and racing disciplines have grown in popularity and professionalism,” he added.

The sport of canoeing has longstanding legitimacy within the Olympics Games having been an Olympic sport since 1936.  Traditional surfing has, for the first time in history, been added to the Games for 2020, but there is no guarantee that it will become a regular event.

Spectator participation and sponsorship will invariably play a role in that decision.

Weigh In:  Who’s in Charge, Canoeing or Surfing Federations?

So, dear reader, do you think stand up paddling is more like canoeing (say ‘Aye’!) or more likened to surfing (say ‘Aye’ 2x!).  Let’s weigh in on the controversy and hear what the PEOPLE of PADDLING have to SAY about the FUTURE of our SPORT!

You can reach me (always!) at

Aloha & happy paddling!


Evelyn O’Doherty
Standup Journal
Online Editor


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Evelyn O'Doherty, editor & publisher of the new Standup Journal 2.0 is a former school teacher gone rogue. She left her career as a teacher in order to spend more time near or on the water after learning to surf turned her life around (upsidedown?). She is a year-round surfer and paddler living on the eastern tip of Long Island in NY who is a certified SUP instructor, seasoned SUP racer and avid longboard surfer. Evelyn was hired as Online Editor to Standup Journal in 2016. Her passion for the project quickly led to her success and eventually taking over the mag herself in Oct. 2018. Today, as editor, publisher and chief bottle washer at Standup Journal, Evelyn keeps her toes wet writing, traveling, paddling, surfing, and learning to foil. You can find her most days paddling out on Gardiner's Bay or surfing Ditch Plains in Montauk, NY.