And the winner is … surfing?
When you take a COVID situation, a compatible time slot, Typhoon super-junk, and a heady dose of gold fever it seems you get an Olympic event that Australian surf fans love to watch. There was certainly skepticism about surfing’s Olympic leap as we headed into Tokyo, but overall it seems surfers have embraced the five-ringed show. As for the non-surfing landlubbers, without a ratings sheet, it’s hard to tell if they were switching sports on the dizzying seven app when their screens were covered in Shidashita. I guess we’ll know if there is a sudden influx of Olympic hopefuls into the lineups in the coming weeks/months/years.
Now, I’m not necessarily a numbers man, but there are various other means by which one might gauge the sentimental response to the Olympic action. At my local beach, there are two salty, middle-aged surfers who love nothing more than to loiter in the car park pre and post-surf and pass commentary on everything that transpires in the lineup. I imagine most beaches have similar characters, the kinds who take their cues from Heckle and Jeckle, the ‘Two Crows from Tacos’ of Looney Tunes fame. I knew the Olympics was a hit when I had to spend five minutes consoling Heckle over Steph Gilmore’s elimination from the Olympics by the heavy-hitting Bianca Buitendag. As poor Heckle slumped over the bonnet of his Ute and fought off the tears, it was obvious his passion for the Olympics was real, and I felt certain there were many more like him.
The other radar that serves as a gauge for Olympic success is the ubiquitous chat app. Like many COVID-jaded Australians, I now find myself as a member of multiple groups, which in turn seem to splinter into sub-groups like some kind of perverse conversation pyramid scheme. When the surfing was on, my phone adopted the phonics of a pinball machine, dinging every few seconds with enthusiastic couch banter. The mysterious commentators, the isometric nuances of typhoons and the design of Olympic rashies were all up for debate, along with the regular chat about scoring and surfboard selection. One mate even became the leading member of the Johhny Ryan fan club. When it came to surfing commentary Johnny was more clueless than the Dutch women’s road cyclist, Annemiek Van Vleuten's, who was convinced she’d won gold, only to be informed the winner had crossed the line a couple of minutes earlier. Despite his apparent lack of surfing knowledge, Johnny worked hard to get up to speed throughout the event and finished with a flourish, doing his best to steal the spotlight from ‘Our Barton’ by ramping up the volume and the hyperbole as Italo claimed the first-ever men’s Olympic gold.
Italo’s victory certainly reaffirmed the status of the Brazilians as the number one nation in men’s surfing. Italo is now the Olympic and world champion and on track to complete a unique double – Olympic gold and a world title in the same calendar year. It’s one record Kelly Slater will never get a shot at. Kanoa Igarashi almost pulled off the best nationality switch in sporting history (USA to Japan). His silver medal will taste a little bittersweet, but his overall performance – particularly the comeback win over Medina in the semis – was genuinely inspiring. Likewise, it would have been fabulous to see Amuro Tsuzuki claim gold for Japan at home, however, Carissa Moore remains women’s surfing's most well-rounded competitor and thoroughly deserved the gold. Sally ‘shakas’ Fitzgibbons and Owen Wright gave Oz fans plenty of hope throughout the event and arguably exceeded expectations in their on-paper match-ups, but surfing has the feel of one of those Olympic sports where anything less than gold is somehow disappointing for Australian fans. Again, the competition highlighted the fact Australia does not have a male surfer who can match the likes of Italo, Medina, and even Kanoa in the air. Whether you believe airs are overscored or not, Oz surfers are not attempting to match the best aerial competitors above the lip. Instead, they hedge their bets on the likes of Medina and Italo failing to complete their more high-risk maneuvers – in which case Medina and Italo can presently still drop back to second gear and win without going to the air if they have to.
The team spirit on display by the Australians was endearing just don’t ask the commentators to say Irukandjis five times in a row.
On a competitive level, the Olympics also made it clear that John John is not yet back to his best and Julian Wilson has to shift something in his act to reignite the form that made him a world title contender a couple of years ago.
While I too was won over by the gold fever, for mine, the waves in Tokyo never quite passed the pub test or the surf test as it was. Any other elite sport strives to ensure the world's best compete on the best playing fields. Surfing should be the same. There were times when I abandoned the Shidashita action to paddle out in my own sub-par waves. Maybe I would have kept watching if the waves were better.
At least the immediate Olympic forecast looks promising. Paris/Teahupo’o in 2024 (should allow tow-in if it’s ten-foot-plus), Los Angeles in 2028 (hopefully that means Trestles not Huntington with the Ranch as a back-up if it goes flat), and Brisbane (Superbank?) in 2032.
Perhaps the purists are still vehemently opposed to surfing’s belief in the Olympic dream, but it seems likely that the sport has won over enough fans in Tokyo to ensure it will be a highly anticipated feature of the 2028 games. The road to Teahupo’o begins.