Barton saves the day as surfing joins the five-ring circus.
Well, we got pretty much what we expected. Average, but rippable, beach break waves, an English commentator with no idea, and convincing wins to Italo Ferreira and Gabriel Medina.
It wasn’t exactly a thrilling debut for Olympic surfing, but as my girlfriend on the couch put it succinctly, ‘Thank god for Barton.’ As an anchorman commentator, the 1988 world champ has been commissioned with the role of educating the masses whilst keeping the traditional fans convinced it’s worth watching. Upbeat, articulate, and worldly, Barton did a great job of keeping both parties engaged in conditions that would have reminded him of Huntington in his 80s heyday. Although it was hard not to chuckle when he recalled a phrase that is modern pro surfing’s version of the satanic verses, ‘Great length of ride.’ That one was obviously for the newbies.
Barton’s mysterious British commentary partner, Johnny Ryan, sounded about as comfortable as a high bar gymnast with soapy hands. Obviously, someone had decided that casting an ill-informed talking head would somehow make surfing more accessible for the uninitiated. The masses could learn along with Johnny as Barton filled in the blanks. Maybe other commentators weren’t available or they didn’t want to spend the money. I felt sorry for the English guy but I’ve never longed to hear Joe Turpel launch into a monologue or scream ‘incomplete’ so much. Ronnie? Where were you when we needed you?
While the waves weren’t great at least they were consistent and the action was non-stop, which was probably good news for fans from both camps. In the first televised heat, Kanoa Igarashi looked slick on his Sharp Eye in front of a home crowd while Jérémy Flores floundered in fourth. For one brief moment, I thought we might see Flores throw one of his famous tantrums. It could have been more controversial than a cocaine-snorting member of the Australian equestrian team, with nostrils like a horse, but Jeremy had obviously been told to be on his best behaviour – or the cameramen had been instructed to keep clear.
Kolohe surfed like an all-American Olympian who’d been watching Michael Phelps hype reels for breakfast. The Huntington-like conditions played perfectly into his hands and he slapped the crumbly Shidashita lips like a star-spangled banner flicking proudly in a stiff wind. To win gold in these kinds of conditions you will have to really want it and Kolohe has a hungry, light-footed look about him. Unfortunately the same could not be said for Julian Wilson who seemed heavy on his feet alongside his competitors. Ultimately Peruvian goofy-footer Lucca Messinas got the nod over Kolohe with an inspired finish to their heat. If conditions remain similar – much more like a QS contest – then there is a good chance that we will see a couple of non-CT surfers, like Messinas, do well.
Fortunately for Australia, Owen Wright looked more confident on his shrunk-down equipment. Despite his 6’3” frame Owen was comfortable in the small, weak conditions and claimed a solid heat win. By comparison, John John seemed uncertain in his approach. It’s been a while since the two-time world champ has competed in sloppy, beach break crumble and perhaps he has not fully regained confidence in the knee that has been a reoccurring problem. Like Wilson, he will have to come through the repechage round if he wants to stay in the hunt for the dangling bling. Meanwhile, Medina pulled out his spin-to-win act to secure a come from behind victory. Medina may not like the conditions and might be happier partying in Tokyo, but once you drop him in any kind of heat he becomes a ruthless competitor. Daresay he, and many of the surfers, also have some pretty hefty sponsorship incentives for claiming gold.
There is still talk of the approaching typhoon. In these conditions, my viewing span tapped out after four heats, and I was happy to chase my own two-footers on a Sunday morning. Hopefully, the playing field has been dramatically transformed by a spinning low-pressure system next time I tune in.