by Kirk Lee
The International Waterski and Wakeboard Federation is the international governing body for all things waterski, but what do they actually do? We're all invested in the future of waterskiing, so it's time we spoke up.
When leaders speak behind closed doors, those on the outside are left only to stare at the door and wonder. The Dalai Lama says, “A lack of transparency results in a distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.” While it is not fair to compare the IWWF to the Chinese Government, many in the waterski world are left with a feeling of deep insecurity over what actually happens within the IWWF, and where the money is going.
The International Waterski and Wakeboard Federation is recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the international governing body for towed watersports. Its Mission Statement is to “advance and service all Towed Watersports through education, promotion, and administrative support as part of the Olympic movement.” Its overall priority is “to increase public awareness of Towed Watersports through major events at sites in urban or highly populated areas and through sustained media exposure of those activities.” Basically, if it's a waterski tournament that has “World” in the title, it's sanctioned by the IWWF.
There are three main criticisms of the IWWF: Over-regulation, detachment from skiers, and financial mismanagement.
The IWWF is responsible for making the rules for international competition. Many people criticize the IWWF for what seems to be a bureacratic process to arbitrate a list of lengthy overregulations. This, however, is unfair. Any government, be it athletic or political, will eventually move towards more and more regulation. The IWWF has to respond to each issue and adopt policies to ensure that it is permanently resolved. Most athletes aren't affected by which front flip is legal or how much concavity is allowed on a jump ramp, but when there's money on the line, the IWWF has a duty to be thorough. World SkiFly record holder Freddy Krueger says “They're trying to make it fair for everybody globally,” so their rulings are well-intentioned but sometimes overzealous. His main request, “For the love of God, keep it simple.”
Many skiers feel detached from the IWWF. Krueger says that many skiers (not necessarily himself) perceive the IWWF officials as snobs and not skiers. “I think probably the biggest knock [against the IWWF] is that there seems to be a disassociation with a lot of the people that are on the committee making rules. Where they're not going to tournaments and even if they are going to a tournament they're at the tournament hobnobbing and drinking wine and eating cheese and not, you know, paying as much attention to what's really going on.” The biggest example of this is the 2015 Worlds' in Chapala Mexico, where they moved women's slalom semifinals to have a congress. This meant that Womens' finals in all three events happened on the same day. This decision clearly was not made with the skiers in mind.
Changing this is difficult because skiers aren't strongly represented on the board. Krueger said he was offered to be on the Athlete Advisory Committee, but declined when he found out the three athletes on the committee could only advise the chair of the AAC without being allowed their own vote.
The most unnerving allegation against the IWWF is gross financial mismanagement. The IWWF receives its funding from membership fees from its global federations, and fees from the Worlds' hosting sites. Hosting sites pay a $10,000 refundable bond to bid on hosting, and hosting fees can range from $18,000 to $100,000 depending on the event. For this fee, the IWWF only provides medals manufactured in Switzerland and physically carried to each tournament.
“You don't go in to putting on any type of worlds and think that you're going to make money,” says Lelani Travers. Travers, who has hosted multiple types of World Championships, says she uses entrance fees and sponsorships to try to break even. According to the 2015 meeting notes, the IWWF kept Italy's performance guarantee of $50,000 when it failed to host the worlds. This was used to recoup the IWWF's expenses for adapting to fit new sites. These expenses were for “New medals for Mexico, Kuno’s travel costs in finding a new organiser, and one airline ticket already booked to Milan for an IWWF official, a total of around US$8,000.” To be fair, the IWWF lowered its sanction fee for Mexico's “willingness to take on the Championships at short notice without the IWWF losing substantial income.” However, a net gain of $42,000 hardly constitutes “losing substantial income.”
Many skiers at these tournaments who see Kuno Ritschard, the President of the IWWF, flying first class to these tournaments, arriving in a limousine, and deliberating over which wine is served at the banquet feel the IWWF officials live too extravagantly at the skiers' expense. According to Steve Garcia, an outspoken critic of the IWWF, an accidental publication of Kuno's expenses totaled $70,000 annually. My attempts to see any budget forms or to seek comment from any IWWF official was denied because this information is restricted to IWWF member federations.
To be fair, financial complaints against international sport governing bodies is nothing new. Many heavily criticize FIFA, which forces World Cup host countries to foot the bill for extravagant stadium construction, while FIFA reaps the benefits of membership fees and sponsorships tax-free. And differing from FIFA, nearly every member of the IWWF is a volunteer.
Many, however, are very happy with the IWWF. Lelani Travers says they were incredibly helpful in resolving issues she had leading up to the worlds' and even implemented some of her suggestions to make hosting worlds' easier in the future. “Obviously we've done three of them, so it can't be that bad,” she says.
Ben Groen, an athlete representative for the World Barefoot Council, says the IWWF has been very responsive. Barefooting, long treated as “Waterskiing's ugly step-brother,” is finally making its way back onto the world stage. He says the IWWF, namely Paul Fong, have responded well when he voices skiers' concerns. After ten years of beating his head against the wall, he's feeling positive about the future of barefooting.
The IWWF has recently favored cable wakeboarding. The increased popularity of wakeboarding amongst recreational lake-goers, coupled with the standardization of the course and the lower cost to skiers, have made cable wakeboarding seem the most likely candidate for mainstream watersport competition. Since it involves no combustion engine, and is more or less standardized for all competitiors, cable wakeboarding has the best chance of entering the olympics. It has, however, not yet achieved this.
Perhaps the winds are shifting, and three-event waterskiing is no longer at the forefront of towed watersports. While this leaves us in the three-event waterski community frustrated, this change isn't necessarily a bad thing. Most young recreational skiers wakeboard, so professional wakeboarding has more spectator potential. Promoting wakeboarding seems the most logical path for the IWWF.
Promoting wakeboarding doesn't have to be detrimental to waterskiing, but that depends on us. Everytime skiers fight with wakeboarders over access to prime water access, or ban wakeboard boats from their lake, they are pushing people out. Creating an atmosphere of “wakeboarding or waterskiing,” rather than “wakeboarding AND waterskiing” creates a schism between a sport most people have heard of, and a sport most don't know exist. Instead of screaming at your neighbors for wrecking your shoreline with their wakesurfing wakes, bring over a slalom ski and offer to take them for a set. Every skier is an ambassador for the sport, and every person at the lake a potential recruit.
The physical differences between skiing and wakeboarding are negligible. Erika Lang is a decorated three-event waterskier who took up wakeboarding as an adult. It took her little time to become one of wakeboarding's premiere athletes. Conversely, many former wakeboarders, like Parker Staver and Tyler Yaeger, crossed over from the dark side to excel in professional slalom. The fates of waterskiing and wakeboarding are intertwined. More wakeboarders mean more potential three-event waterskiers. Many cable parks are on or near waterski lakes, and the crossover from cable wakeboarding, to boat wakeboarding, to three event skiing is easy. If more three-event skiers branch out into other disciplines, it might create a merge between the sports that means more participants for all.
However, if three-event skiers decide the IWWF's scales are tipped too far towards other towed disciplines, they are left with two options: break away from the IWWF or change it. I suggest the latter. The aforementioned complaints against the IWWF are exactly that –complaints. I sincerely believe that Kuno Ritschard and others in the IWWF are doing what they feel is best for the sport. We might not agree with their methods, but that doesn't mean we can't change it.
As long as professional ski tournaments exist, something like the IWWF has to exist. When money is on the line, athletes need an organization to standardize the rules and arbitrate on controversies that inevitably arise. Tearing down the IWWF does no good for anyone, but changing how it operates does. Athletes from all disciplines need to call on the IWWF for more transparency. We have a right to see what happens behind the closed doors, and to see where the money goes. If we believe three-event skiing deserves more attention, let's convey that to the IWWF. If we feel the IWWF isn't spending the money wisely, let's convey that to them. Write letters to the federation, talk to officials at tournaments. Do something beyond complaining. If skiers unite to demand transparency, the IWWF might listen.
Glen Williams, a member of the IWWF Tournament Committee, says it best:
We chose to change from within rather than criticize from the outside.
Following initial publication of this article, Kuno Ritschard personally sent me the IWWF's income statements for 2016. His travel expenses for 2016 were $46,934,94. Since he started the waterski and wakeboard world cup tour in 2004, the IWWF has paid out nearly $6 million to competitors. He has also said that when he took the presidency in 2004, the IWWF was $200,000 in debt following a costly Olympic promotional campaign. He now says it has a surplus of $500,000. In reviewing these documents, I have found no evidence of financial mismanagement, and I invite all readers to view the documents.
Kirk Lee is a lifelong three-event skier. He currently works as the waterskier in the WaterWorld Show at Universal Studios Hollywood. He enjoys writing, waterskiing, and writing about waterskiing.