Surfing Finally Gatecrashes The Olympics

16 Aug 2016 0 Share

Jock Serong

Senior Writer

Illustration by Coolbin Nash

Illustration by Coolbin Nash


Barbarians In The Village

The Olympics Finally Gatecrashes The Olympics

Story by Jock Serong 

It appears likely now that International Surfing Association (ISA) president Fernando Aguerre has finally won his long battle to include surfing in the Olympics. One last hurdle remains – a final vote in August – before we see confirmation of surfing’s inclusion at Tokyo in 2020.

Aguerre’s lobbied patiently for this for nearly two decades. In 2002, the ISA was knocked back for inclusion in the 2008 Beijing Olympics because it hadn’t yet fulfilled the bureaucratic requirement of having 75 national governing bodies. You have to be steeped in the arcane machinery of sports administration to find this stuff normal, but within that world, it’s the way things are done. And before Aguerre, the approaches have stacked up all the way back to Duke Kahanamoku, who asked the IOC to include surfing in the Olympic Games in 1920. Back then – and for most of the intervening decades – surfing was seen as too unconventional, too disparate, to take a place alongside the noble arts of running, lifting heavy weights and piffing stuff.

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But Aguerre’s arguments have finally found traction: “Surfing is truly a global sport,” he argues, “More popular and more widely practiced than many current Olympic sports. Surfing is pursued in every corner of the world, in more than a hundred countries. There are now over 35 million surfers worldwide.” Aguerre is Argentinian, an unconventional guy – he once campaigned successfully to overturn a military ban on surfing in his home country. He seems to see the future a little clearer than most.

The two sports which have really paved the way for surfing’s inclusion have been snowboarding (almost singlehandedly driven by American star Shaun White) and BMX. The success of both new entries has heralded a willingness on the part of the IOC  to consider modern, youth-oriented sports. They still insist on calling these ‘extreme’ sports, though one-foot Chiba might lack some extremity.  But surfing’s inclusion will be more complicated than snowboarding and BMX’s – those sports are considered ‘other disciplines’ of two sports – snow skiing and cycling respectively – that are already in the Olympics. Surfing is entirely new to the Olympic movement. But then again so was golf. Christ, golf.

The Slob. Sits nicely along other Olympic sporting teams such as Clean & Jerk or Frisby Flob, no? Julian Wilson, Photo by LAWRENCE

The Slob. Sits nicely along other Olympic sporting teams such as Clean & Jerk or Frisby Flob, no? Julian Wilson, Photo by LAWRENCE

The Broadcast

The numbers around Olympic broadcasting are head-spinningly gigantic. We’re talking about a viewing audience of nearly four billion. In 2014, Philadelphia-based communications giant Comcast paid $4.4 billion for the broadcast rights across 2014-2020. Major sponsorship rights sell for $200 million per brand.

But does surfing fit with the televisual conventions of the Olympics? Would a viewer, sprawled on the couch with a can of Bud Light, be willing to wait around for eleven minutes while we all see whether a guy is going to pick up a barbell? Would she be okay with the 100m final not running if the wind was crook? Surfing is a sport (hang on, is surfing really a sport? Let’s not even go there…) with a unique level of vulnerability to the elements. It’s been the conundrum for generations of media impresarios trying to build an audience: surfing looks gorgeous in a still image or in an edited video, but it’s notoriously unreliable as live entertainment.

SEE ALSO: Mick Fanning, Mason Ho & The Frozen North

If you’re reading this, that observation probably doesn’t apply to you because chances are you’re a purist, happy to watch priority battles and willing to scale down the scoring for the fact that the wave faces have a complicating cross-chop on them. But you’re not the sample audience where an exercise on this scale is concerned. It’s inlanders. The IOC are going to demand that the experience be packaged in such a way that it will sell broadcast rights, and it will nail the punters to their couches. The current thinking on this for Tokyo is that the foreshore at Chiba will be presented as a “beach party” atmosphere, with yoga, art displays and food: a beach party with all the spontaneity of massive anti-terrorism measures.

An integral part of Aguerre’s proselytising for Olympic surfing was the inclusion of wave pools – the ISA’s website makes this clear. Aguerre doesn’t see it so much as a technical requirement, as a cultural one. Wave pools, he argues, “Will provide opportunities for the integration of diverse socioeconomic, ethnic, religious, and age groups long after the Games have moved on. I don't believe that the soul of surfing requires it to be an elite sport for the lucky few who live near the ocean's waves." And he goes further: “Places with surfing wave parks will become part of a new, better world.” And further… “These wave parks could further serve as educational centres for the Earth’s threatened ocean environment; they will be ‘lighthouses’ for better understanding of life in the oceans…”

Dave Rastovich makes an interesting point about that last line: “It’s exactly the line aquatic theme parks use to justify the holding of live animals in pens. The absurdity of that! It reveals where the thinking is coming from: it’s about money, and it’s negligent about wild places.”

As it turns out, everyone’s assumption about Olympic wave pools was off the mark. The much-vaunted deal between the WSL and Kelly Slater Wave Pools might instead produce a specialty QS or WT event. The Japanese organising committee for 2020 have made their position clear – surfing will be held in the ocean at Chiba: twenty men and twenty women. The two best bids for the following (2024) Olympics are Paris and LA – both with iconic beaches nearby. If Tokyo works out, there’s no immediate pressure to run it in a pool. Mind you, a successful bid by one of the Emirates, or mainland China, could change all that.

The Olympics presents the very real opportunity for adaptive surfing to experience the glare of global spotlight. "To compete for my country on a world stage would truly be a dream come true. The Olympic Games are a celebration of discipline, patriotism, hard work and grit. I am positive adaptive surfing will capture the hearts of a global audience." Mike Coots (Selfie)

The Olympics presents the very real opportunity for adaptive surfing to experience the glare of global spotlight. "To compete for my country on a world stage would truly be a dream come true. The Olympic Games are a celebration of discipline, patriotism, hard work and grit. I am positive adaptive surfing will capture the hearts of a global audience." Mike Coots (Selfie)

The Athletes

But what would inclusion mean for the surfers themselves? One consideration here is that lifetime athletes might deserve to have that opportunity – to stand on a dais in their country’s colours and receive a medal. It might be valid to say that surfing has no team dimension to it at all, and is one of the most selfish and thoroughly professionalised sports on earth. But so is tennis, and they got a shot.

Professional surfers are very frequently gifted at other disciplines, and absolute junkies for televised sport of any kind. Mick Fanning’s an example: “Yep, I’m one of those people who turn on the telly to watch absolutely any sport. Cricket, footy, whatever I can find. I was a runner as a kid – the Olympics has always been a dream of mine.” Same goes for Steph: “As a young kid I wanted to go to the Olympics for running / aths. I loved watching Cathy Freeman, and I was big into little aths. That’s faded away since I got on the tour.” And perhaps the only pro surfer who can already call herself an Olympian is Sally Fitzgibbons: “I idolised so many Olympians – they’ve taught me so much.  I did cross-country as a kid, then shortened my distances in my mid-teens. My niche was the 800m and 1500m. I finished my athletics career with the Youth Olympics at 17 years old, in Sydney. I won two gold medals. Then I kinda sailed off… so Tokyo feels like coming full circle. For the Olympic opportunity to come around mid-career would be wonderful.”

SEE ALSO: When You Put The Best Surfers In The Same Place, This Happens

Expectations differ among surfers where the Olympic experience is concerned. “They’re a totally different realm for surfing,” says Mick. “If you view it as a traditionalist, it’s been all about who could run fastest, throw furthest, and so on. But skateboarding, surfing, they’re not races. They require different thinking.”

Steph admits to being “a little hesitant at first” about the notion of Olympic surfing. “I imagined, for example, boxing – so many different categories and classes – there could be world champions in there but if you weren’t paying attention, the gold medallist outshone everyone else, the WSL and all it’s achievements. On tour, you need to win ten events in 10 different locations and different kinds of waves.” She’s also curious to know how they’d go about it. “What judges will they use – a whole new panel, or just use the current WSL ones? And what about style? When I think of Olympic sports, they’re ones that are judged, like gymnastics. Viewers are naturally drawn to beautiful things.”

For MR, the most decorated surfer we’ve ever produced, there’s nothing but upside. “I don’t have any thoughts on the format,” he told SW, “But I believe it’d be really good for the sport to see our athletes given a platform to show their skills in the mainstream arena. It’s still frustrating to me that one of our tennis players can have a dummy spit or make it through the 1st or 2nd round of a tournament and the media makes it front page news! One of our surfers wins a world tour tournament, sometimes in life-threatening conditions, and it barely rates a mention.”

Which brings us to the topic of patriotism. Is that what would drive these surfers if they pulled on an Australian tracky? “I’d be more than stoked to see an Australian male or female surfer with a gold medal around their neck and the national anthem playing,” says MR. Mick is someone who’s had patriotism projected onto him, as one of a vanguard of elite Australians who’ve kept American and Brazilian world title contenders at bay. “Sure, I’m patriotic,” he says. “Whenever we win, we grab an Australian flag. The Aussie boys on tour always stick together – if one of us wins, we all have a beer.” The closeness of the Australians was there for all to see in the poignant moments after Taj’s third round exit in Fiji: in the midst of a global contest, the gathering around of Australian friends.

Sal is in no doubt about the motivating power of the flag. “It’s beyond the financial opportunity – it’s really about the big stage and the patriotism. I’d lose it at the opening ceremony, the emotion of all that. I think it would be amazing.”

Steph, on the other hand, takes a more global view. “We all feel like global representatives,” she says. “There’s a sense of being residents of the world because we travel so much. There are Brazilians who live in California, Aussies living in Hawaii, and so on. We represent where we’re born, but ultimately I feel we represent surfing. I just want to represent the best version of me.”

Fortunately, there’s no way to train specifically, or to lobby, for Olympic inclusion as a surfer. “Surfing’s pretty lucky,” Steph explains. “We compete all the time. It’s a continual competitive experience so there’s no need for specialised training.”

Byron supergrom Kyuss King approaches the whole thing with the uncomplicated stoke you’d expect of a 17-year-old. “Yeah I’m keen to do it,” he hoots down the phone, like the question is among the dumber things he’s ever heard. “Yes, definitely. It’d be an honour.” Weighing into the discussion about whether it’s surfing that needs the Olympics or the other way round, he doesn’t think the Olympics have lost any of their prestige for kids his age. “We relate to it. They try to incorporate a lot of new sports. But I love the running - those classic events never go out of date. The four-year distance between them is a bit weird. It’s definitely massive.”

Kyuss’s demographic will expect to consume Olympic media more like a grazing plate than a three-course meal. “Yeah, a bit of everything,” he thinks. “On the couch watching telly, the phone, webcasts. And obviously the sports I’m into: swimming, running. All the aths events are in the same environments, but a beachbreak shifts: it’s changing all the time. That’s different to what the Olympics are used to – can they get their head around it?” 

Kyuss doesn’t necessarily think it would boost his regard for a surfer, if they achieved an Olympic medal. “It wouldn’t carry as much weight as being WSL world champ,” he says. “They grind it out all year. At the Olympics, you could go out there and have a shocker on the day.”

Could winning an Olympic gold medal ever surpass the feeling of taking out an event like Bells? Or like tennis, would it be a curious novelty for an athlete to hang on a door knob at home? Photo by COREY WILSON

Could winning an Olympic gold medal ever surpass the feeling of taking out an event like Bells? Or like tennis, would it be a curious novelty for an athlete to hang on a door knob at home? Photo by COREY WILSON

The Counter-Culture

It’s got to be said that there’s plenty of surfers who are either apathetic about surfing’s big leap, or actively hostile towards it. Surf historian Matt Warshaw was quoted recently as saying: “I thought I was old enough…to not much care. But the thought of surfing in the Olympics brings a familiar dab of bile to my throat. Can we just all agree to pretend, for a little while longer, that surfing is a unique thing to do?”

Some of the opposition is just reactionary thinking: I don’t quite understand this, so I’ll troll it. But there are articulate voices like Warshaw’s asking: ‘Why do we want to do this?’ And one of them, you mightn’t be surprised to hear, belongs to Dave Rastovich – a man with a long history of asking the awkward question.

“This would be hyper-competitive, commodified surfing,” he says. “It seems the logical endpoint of Bugs walking down the street in Coolangatta, wanting to get some respect for being a pro surfer. If that’s a kid’s dream, who am I to knock it?”

If surfing brought Dave to a better understanding of the natural world, wouldn’t he want more people experiencing that same awareness? He tries again to find a balance. “Perhaps the Olympics is a basis for introducing a landlocked kid to the natural world… but really, it’s just a large-scale, mainstream big ol' TV show. More and more people surfing is obviously the desire of the industry, to expand the bottom line… but how do we escape the consequences? If there were no ecological impacts of more of us surfing, then wonderful. But everything we use to access surfing is harmful to the environment.

He can’t help himself though: “Maybe if the AOC made us wear budgie smugglers…?”

The Games Themselves

If you want to be glass half-full about it, the Olympics represent many of the traits we would like to associate with surfing. Pierre de Coubertin’s vision sounds a bit like the Eddie: an apolitical world in which people come together in a spirit of friendship, leaving aside their grudges to compete in a giant carnival that gives precedence to participation.  Citius altius fortius - Faster (Fanning), higher (Medina), stronger (Bourez).

But the Olympics are about excellence, and money, in equal measure. And the two aspirations frequently intersect. The Russian athletics program is in tatters after revelations of industrial-scale doping and bribery. In March this year French police announced they were widening an existing investigation into Olympic bid rigging, to include Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020. If that sounds familiar, it might be because it mirrors the agonies of soccer’s governing body, FIFA. Qatar, the deeply compromised host of the 2022 soccer world cup, was also a bidder for the 2016 Olympics. The former president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), Lamine Diack, has been arrested amid allegations of mysterious “parcels” being handed out to IOC officials during the bid process for 2016. Diack is also said to have dropped his support for Istanbul and switched to Tokyo because a Japanese sponsor signed a deal with the IAAF. Once you take global participation sports - practised and watched by tens of millions of people - and you place a handful of suits in charge of that global audience, you’ve got inevitable opportunities for corruption.

Is surfing a wide-eyed neophyte in a nest of vipers? Do we want to play these games?

Fernando Aguerre is where you go for the antidote. His positivity about surfing’s future as an Olympic sport is compelling. “You will see Asian surfers, African surfers, Latin American surfers, Korean surfers, American surfers, and European surfers. Some might perceive that all the best surfers in the world are in the WSL top 34. You and I know this is not the case.”

In an interview for SW, Aguerre expanded on that comment. “Surfing is hugely popular in Japan and the country has hosted many national and international contests in a number of great surf spots. In fact, we are seeing a very strong interest from a number of surf communities in Japan in hosting our ISA World Surfing Games. When I began as President, the ISA had 32 Member Federations, we now have 99 members (including) Haiti, Sierra Leone and Bangladesh, where there is very little surfing infrastructure and equipment, but the Olympic status could very much open up whole new opportunities for them. We have seen some exceptional performances from non-traditional Surfing nations at recent ISA World Surfing Championships such as Costa Rica, Peru and Italy and the list continues to grow.”

If Olympic status causes the breakdown of the old dominance of Australia, America and Brazil, that’s got to be a good thing, doesn’t it? It depends who you ask. For Rasta, “Socially, we need to be honest with ourselves. In a lot of places, it’s been bad for communities. It’s hedonistic in the end. Crime, prostitution, development, Westernisation…” On the other hand, there’s Steph: “I could imagine countries like China creating surf machines and armies of new surfers. It wouldn’t be an easy crossover for them into ocean surfing. You have to be open to this stuff…it’ll be interesting.”

Many aspects of Olympic involvement remain unresolved at this stage. Assuming surfing gets the Olympic nod in August, where does this leave the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018, which doesn’t have surfing on the roster? Will there be a Paralympic version of surfing in 2020? The ISA would be behind such a move: they last year started the first ever Adaptive World Titles, where competitors such as Australian representative Jade Wheatley assert, “It could really push worldwide funding and development for adaptive surfing in other nations.”

How will surf brands handle the incredibly restrictive rules around visibility of logos? Most surf companies have no experience of Olympic sponsorship rules (some, Like Oakley, have long experience), and are not financially in a position to buy sponsorship. Maybe the answer to the branding angst is to return to the ancient Greek model of the Olympics and surf nude. Someone would eventually tattoo the logos on their arse and call it self-expression.

And what about drugs? Surfing is as susceptible as any other sport to the influence of performance enhancing drugs, and of course has had an unfortunate association with illicit recreational drugs. But we’re not as loose as you might think. The WSL has a comprehensive Anti-Doping Policy, lurking like a parked Doberman on their website, barking in three languages. It incorporates WADA’s “Prohibited List” – in other words, if you can’t use it in other sports, you can’t use it in surfing. The athletes are randomly tested – in and out of competition. A mere joint, nowhere near a contest site, could see you kicked off the tour.

From Slater all the way down the years to Kyuss, and for everyone in between, the long cycle of an Olympiad throws attention on the passing of time. People peak, people retire, in the four long years between Games. In 2020, Kelly will be forty-eight and a half - elder statesman or competitor? And don’t rule Mick out. “What would my role be?” He muses. “Probably coach!” Then he laughs. “Maybe I’ll surf for Ireland.”

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