Why there are good reasons to love and despise surfing’s Olympic Odyssey
There will be no Mexican waves at the crowd-free Japan Olympics, but for the first time in history, there will be real waves ridden in the pursuit of gold medals. In just a few days representatives from 17 surfing nations, including Germany’s Leon Glatzer, will pull on national colours to compete at Shidashita beach, around 80km outside of Tokyo.
In surfing circles, the Olympics run-up has been more controversial than when the 1968 East German bobsleigh team was disqualified after being discovered taking a blow-torch to their runners immediately before a race. (True story and fair play for effort I reckon)
With its mass exposure, kitsch formalities, and naked ambition the Olympics inspire an internal conflict for surfers. On the one hand, we do suffer from a kind of collective low-self-esteem issue. Part of us secretly wishes that our mens and womens surfing greats received just as much recognition as other sports stars. Without going into the stats there is an argument that Kelly Slater is the greatest individual athlete of all time, but he’s never going to get the recognition, money or mainstream coverage of a Usain Bolt or a Roger Federer – at least not for his sporting achievements alone. In Australia, many of us would love to hear more sporting analysis and news about the achievements of say, Owen Wright and Steph Gilmore instead of having the airways, papers, and screens clogged with endless League, AFL, and swimming stories – surely we are more interesting than swimming. Perhaps we imagine that if professional surfers receive a little more recognition, we all might walk a little taller as surfers, riding in the wake of the success of our leading performers. And so in light of this perspective, the Olympics seems like it could be a good thing for our collective self-esteem. There has already been an element of this in the lead-up to the Olympics with Australian representatives like Steph Gilmore featuring more prominently and frequently in TV advertising campaigns. Suddenly we are part of the mainstream team.
However, there is undeniably a kind of cognitive dissonance at play (holding two or more contradictory beliefs) when it comes to the Olympics. While we may enjoy seeing our surfing heroes mounting a podium in a team tracksuit with gold dangling around their necks, on the flip-side of all this are our fears about the inherent kookiness of the mainstream and the Olympics. Surfers have always liked to consider themselves as being a little cooler than participants in other sports. Our hair was beach-bleached, our skin bronzed and with our knowledge of the ocean, we seemed to radiate an air of mystique and nonchalance. Maybe it’s bullshit, but we’ve all traded on the ‘surfing’ image at some point. Perhaps it relates to the sexual politics of our teenage years. Sun-kissed guys and girls trade on being surfers as an angle when it comes to courting a partner. Perhaps we do better than the daggier footballers and the netballers in the dating game as a result of being surfers.
Even many of those who compete still embrace the inherent rebellion and counter-culture affiliations of surfing. Fans like their favourite surfers to do well in contests, but they tend to like them more if they have a rock star edge or a quirky dimension to their personality. They must be more than just supple-limbed athletes who are wrapped in tight, activewear and always play between the lines. Surfers were the ones destined to rip down the conservative norms of society – not reinforce them.
And if pro surfers don’t make as much money as many of their sporting counterparts, they are far richer in the economy of cool. Surfers are horrible snobs in a way, but do we relinquish some of our ‘cool status’ by dressing down and hanging out with sports like weight-lifting, badminton, and handball?
Our fears of kookiness are also linked to the idea of letting mainstream press and commentators try to dissect surfing. We’ve already seen a little of this in some of the official releases. In an otherwise slickly written bio John John Florence’s official US team member Insta post, referenced him riding ‘60ft waves’ to win The Eddie Aikau event.
John John must have recoiled a little, knowing full well that Hawaiian locals would have been hard-pressed to call it 30ft that day. Or there is this mainstream interview with Kolohe where he is asked to explain the rules and talk about his favourite manoeuvres. All good wholesome and necessary stuff for newbee fans but undeniably a little cringe-worthy for those of us who have been participating and watching for a while.
Kolohe on favourite manoeuvres and rules
Then there is the even greater fear. That the Olympics will make surfing so popular that every lineup will be filled with thousands of little Jimmys and Jennys who are determined to be the next big thing in surfing. Great for surf schools and wetsuit sales but a little frightening when it comes to your personal wave quota.
Maybe the pool would have been a better option – if only because it would impel the latent surfing masses to satisfy their hollow dreams in chlorine?
So, given all this internal conflict where will the Olympics land in terms of acceptance or condemnation from the surfing core? Perhaps it will ultimately come down to the waves. Good waves (when they show up) are arguably really the true stars of any surf event; and without them, it’s difficult for surfers to captivate either a diehard or uninitiated audience. A report a few days ago on Surfline screamed,“Tropical cyclone surf is likely for the opening days of the Olympic event,” Our fingers are certainly crossed that the isometric rings comply with the Olympic ones, but as every surfer knows those weather systems can be shiftier than a Russian sprinter with several plastic bags full of his girlfriend’s urine in the fridge.
If the waves aren’t great then perhaps there is one other thing that can save Olympic surfing – pure patriotic competition. Nothing crystalizes international rivalries in sport like the Olympics. Yes, we talk about the rise of the Brazilians on the WSL and their battle to wrestle surfing supremacy from the Australians and Americans/Hawaiians, but many of our personal favourites on tour go beyond international allegiances. In the Olympics the lines and lanes are much more clearly defined. The team tracksuits and kits are worn with flourish and pride, the national flag appears alongside every competitor’s name and each medal goes towards a country’s tally.
Furthermore, the Olympics amplifies the national rivalries between individuals. A potential, finals match-up of Steph vs Carissa and John John Vs Italo in Tokyo may feel like the stakes are higher than in a regular WSL event. Here they have a chance to join the pantheon of great Olympic rivalries, like Mary Decker and barefoot Zola Bud who ran a famous 3000m race in 1984. It ended badly for both after a disastrous collision between them. WSL victories may be talked about amongst surfers for years but Olympic wins can resonate for decades if the right circumstances conspire.
Whether it’s a train wreck or a revelation, I think I’ll be tuning in. The surf tragic in me conquers all other reservations (unless the waves are good that morning). However, I would dearly love to see Roy and HG introduce a whole new lexicon of terms to surfing in much the same way they did with their coverage of the gymnastics at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. The celebrated duo is scheduled to have a lash at Tokyo, so it may happen. As they say, if you can’t get it right then get it wonderfully wrong.