Surf's up... At the Olympics?

Surfer Sebastian Steudtner of Germany drops in on a large wave at Praia do Norte in Nazare, Portugal, earlier this month. The better waves on every accessible coast are overcrowded. Even mediocre spots are often mob scenes. A multibillion-dollar surf
Surfer Sebastian Steudtner of Germany drops in on a large wave at Praia do Norte in Nazare, Portugal, earlier this month. The better waves on every accessible coast are overcrowded. Even mediocre spots are often mob scenes. A multibillion-dollar surf industry has emerged, eager to “grow the sport”. PHOTO: REUTERS

But organised competition is entirely peripheral to surfing - chasing the waves can become an addiction

The New England missionaries who began arriving in Hawaii in 1820 were horrified to find, as they sailed in, people surfing.

"Some of our number, with gushing tears, turned away from the spectacle," wrote missionaries' leader Hiram Bingham. This devastating display of half-nude "barbarism" - really, it was the ancient practice of he'e nalu, which was rich in traditional religious meaning - clearly had to be stamped out.

Twenty-seven years later, with Hawaiian culture being destroyed by changes the missionaries helped set in motion, Bingham wrote with satisfaction of the "decline and discontinuance of the surfboard".

Of course, surfing was never fully extinguished. A handful of Hawaiians, notably Duke Kahanamoku, who won gold medals for swimming in the 1912 and 1920 Olympics, kept it alive, and the sport slowly caught on across the world.

Today - cue different gushing tears - untold millions surf. The better waves on every accessible coast are overcrowded. Even mediocre spots are often mob scenes. A multibillion-dollar surf industry has emerged, eager to "grow the sport". And now the Tokyo Olympics organising committee has proposed including surfing in the 2020 Summer Games. When I heard this news, I thought, OK, the Calvinists couldn't finish off surfing, but maybe the Olympics can.

Committed surfing is a deep immersion, literal and philosophical, in the ocean. The goal, if there is a goal, is a certain drenching experience of beauty. It's quite possible to surf for decades without laying eyes on a surf contest... The Calvinists couldn't finish off surfing, but maybe the Olympics can.

Organised competition is entirely peripheral to surfing qua surfing. People surf for love. The pastime lends itself to obsession. Surfers travel to the ends of the earth to find great, remote waves. I spent much of my 20s chasing waves through the Southern Hemisphere. Most surfers have home breaks that they come to know at a subgranular level of detail. Committed surfing is a deep immersion, literal and philosophical, in the ocean. The goal, if there is a goal, is a certain drenching experience of beauty. It's quite possible to surf for decades without laying eyes on a surf contest.

But, with increased popularity, a slapdash competitive structure, different in each surf region, has developed. More visibly, there is an international pro tour, on which some of the world's best surfers perform occasional miracles in 30-minute heats. The judging is wonky, obtuse, subjective. Surfing is, after all, more like dance than it is like baseball.

Then there's the ocean. If the waves are good, the contest will be good - and in that case, I will probably be in the global audience, glued to the live-stream, waiting for something transcendent to happen. If the waves are crummy, the contest will be unwatchable.

Surfing photographs well. It makes mesmerising video. It is not, however, a spectator sport. With the exception of a few spots, on random days - contest organisers struggle to find just these spots and days - it is wildly boring to watch.

The action is hard to see from shore, and there's usually not much of it. Lulls between waves are long, rides mostly short and unexciting. Surfers, themselves, can watch waves for hours, but they're accustomed to lulls. Everybody else is much happier with the highlight reel. Getting a sport added to the Olympics is a monumental task.

With surfing, it was taken on by beach-sandal mogul Fernando Aguerre, who grew up in Argentina and made his fortune in California. Aguerre has plugged away for two decades, banging the drum, leaping through bureaucratic hoops.

An Olympic sport needs a "world governing authority", and Aguerre has got himself elected nine times to the presidency of the International Surfing Association, a little-known organisation that evidently qualifies.

To demonstrate widespread appeal, a sport needs many national associations, and Aguerre has rounded up nearly a hundred. The list starts with Afghanistan and includes Nepal and Latvia. Landlocked countries have lakes, where it is possible to operate a stand-up paddle board, which counts as surfing under rules concocted for the cause. Aguerre claims that 35 million people surf, including two million in Japan. Those numbers seem grossly inflated,but can't be checked. So goes the hustle.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which chooses sports to add to, or delete from, the Games, has been concerned, with respect to surfing, about the ocean. Can this unruly beast provide a "level playing field"?

Aguerre has offered, as a solution, artificial wave pools. These are miserable simulacra, with small, weak, short, freshwater waves, but at least the little fake waves are identical, and the technology is bound to improve.

For now, it looks like the 2020 debut of Olympic surfing, assuming the Tokyo proposal is approved, will take place in the ocean, on the Chiba peninsula, which gets some waves in summer. (Pools will be used for future Games.)

Aguerre promises to "create an amazing 'beach party' atmosphere" around the surf event. Indeed, he constantly reminds the IOC that he can bring the "youthful lifestyle" that the Olympics needs to freshen its brand (skateboarding is also proposed for Tokyo), and invokes Duke Kahanamoku.

At his most fevered, Aguerre even conflates himself with surfing as a whole - when an earlier bid failed, he announced: "Surfing is naturally disappointed not to have been included …"

And yet it seems churlish to begrudge the visionary his vision. Aguerre's motives are not simply commercial; he sold his sandal company and is an active philanthropist. Having surfing in the Olympics, he said when I contacted him, "will take surfing to places where there should be surfing - Africa, Asia. This amazing playground, it's right there".

Leave aside the fact that many African and Asian surf spots are horribly crowded already. It never occurred to me that there should be surfing anywhere, let alone everywhere. But perhaps Aguerre is right. Maybe the world's gross happiness quotient can be increased, one twin-fin at a time.

Let a thousand wave pools bloom.

I wish, selfishly, that surfing would become uncool, leaving the waves to a few die-hards. That's not going to happen. What is going to happen, most likely, is the Olympics, and another wave of growth and commercialisation. Bingham must be spinning in his grave.

NEW YORK TIMES

  • The writer is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2015, with the headline 'Surf's up... At the Olympics?'. Print Edition | Subscribe