Hawaiian’s absence will forever taint the 2019 race.
John’s John’s latest injury means who ever claims the 2019 World Title will forever have an asterisk assigned to his achievement. Since 1961 the little star symbol has been used to indicate that a record is somehow tainted by circumstances.
It was introduced in sporting terms in 1961 when Roger Maris of the New York Yankees broke Babe Ruth's 34-year-old single-season home run record. However because Ruth had amassed 60 home runs in a season with only 154 games, compared to Maris's 61 over 162 games, the baseball commissioner Ford Frick (yep, a real name) announced that Maris' accomplishment would be recorded in the record books with an explanation. That explanation was often referred to as "an asterisk" in the retelling and has been used ever since in sports records.
In surfing terms an asterisk has been a regular occurrence for World Titles. The first ever professional World Title, won by Peter Townend in 1976, had no small amount of controversy. The tour then was chaotic, nascent and ill defined and the points system was devised, and collated, by PT himself. “I don’t really think I knew for sure there was going to be a World Title that year,” Mark Richards has said, “until PT was announced as champion.”
Surfing World Titles remained relatively asterisk free until 1998 when Kelly Slater, who had just won a record fifth consecutive World Title, took a few years off from the tour. Slater was only 26 and hadn’t even reached the peak of his powers. He wasn’t just the best surfer at the time, he was the best surfer of all time.
His absence over the next three years was always going to put a dubious claim over whoever won the World Titles. Occy’s win in 1999, while still the greatest comeback story in surfing, must be seen in the context of the massive Kelly-shaped hole. The same could be said for Sunny Garcia in 2000. It wasn’t undeserved, but it’s hard to imagine Garcia’s powerful, but one dimensional, surfing overcoming Slater over a whole year.
Mind you those two have nothing on the taint that still hovers around 2001 World Champion CJ Hobgood. The Floridian was handed the World Title after the tour was cancelled following the September 11 terrorist attacks when he was leading the ratings after five events. “If I won a World Title and people want to talk about it with an asterisk, that’s great,” CJ once said, unconvincingly. “At least they are talking about it.”
That might have been the last asterisk, until John John ruptured his ACL in Brazil last week. Now last year Florence’s absence wasn’t seen as such as taint. While he had won the two previous World Titles, his poor start in 2018 meant his chances of a historic three-peat had slipped. Medina’s domination in the back half of the year, and his epic Pipe performances, also meant Florence's absence became less of an issue.
This year however is different. Florence holds a commanding lead, has won two events and last year’s contenders Medina and Wilson are off the pace. His third World Title looked inevitable until that fly-away pull-out in Brazil. The ligament rupture means that whoever claims the 2019 World Title will have done so with the world’s best surfer rubbed out of the equation.
Another asterisk will need to be added to the list.