Why isn't Surfing in the Olympics?

The Difference Between a Sport and a Lifestyle

Could this be what surfing in the Olympics looks like in the near future?

For over twenty years, there has been lengthy discussions of whether or not surfing should be an Olympic sport. Organizations like the International Surfing Association (ISA) have been strong proponents for surfing as an Olympic sport while the surfing community as a whole is not sold on the idea. The ISA wants to see the world’s best compete on the world’s biggest stage. The general surf community asks “how could a lifestyle be judged?” Even the mere mention of surfing and Olympics opens the proverbial can of worms for endless debates about just what is surfing anyway? A sport, or a lifestyle?

Opening Ceremony of the 2012 ISA World Junior Championships in Panama. Photo: Parkin

Well, in actuality, it’s both! The reason people debate over the issue is because surfing means different things to different people. And that’s part of what makes surfing so rad. But make no mistake, surfing is BOTH a sport AND a lifestyle. Humans are competitive by nature. So, naturally humans enjoy competing while surfing. Whether it’s trying to do a better turn than your bro, or being in the final of the Pipe Masters, we all “compete” in some way while we surf. Even diehard bohemian purists still compete without even knowing it; for every time you catch a wave you are inherently competing with yourself to do better, go faster, turn harder, get deeper, etc. On the other hand, surfing offers an unparalleled lifestyle that compares to nothing else on earth. The interaction between the sea, the sun, and physical exercise brings all surfers to an advanced state of being that can simply be described as “bliss.” It is argued that this type of feeling cannot be measured by a score or judged by a panel.

Team USA member Quincy Davis would be stoked to be an Olympian. Photo: Parkin

Hmmm. Both views seem logical. And both views are realized. Certain individuals are hardwired to be hyper-competitive and can take that route if their talent matches their enthusiasm, say like Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning, and especially Adriano de Souza. Others are content to enjoy surfing for the happiness it gives them, like Dane Reynolds, David Rastovich, and Ozzie Wright. Again, that’s what makes surfing what it is. The Yin and Yang. The juxtaposition of a surf jock and postmodern hippie all surfing the same peak. So, why isn’t it in the Olympics?

The Olympics are a funny thing. That’s why. Where else can you have masterful displays of athletic skill, strength, speed, and endurance side by side with leisure games like badminton and ping pong? But seriously, the Olympics require a static playing field that surfing just can’t offer. The ocean is a dynamic, churning, living thing that can’t be counted on for a two hour time slot in between the 100 meter dash, and the long jump. That is the biggest problem blocking surfing’s acceptance by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Not money, waves. For example, where would you hold the surfing competition for the 2012 games in London? England does have waves, but this is their off season for surf and none of their waves are world-class. How about the games in China in 2008? You can see my point. Just the location to have the event would be nearly impossible to agree on and would possibly have to be held in a neighboring country! Furthermore, shouldn’t the surfing segment of the Olympics be in the Winter Games, when the waves are good on any continent?

Team Japan member Takumi Nakamura would be proud to represent his country in the Olympic Games. Photo: Parkin

Enter wavepool technology. The only reason the technology exists is so people can collect some coin for surfers riding waves. That’s old news. Being limited to the coastlines, the hardgoods (equipment) aspect of the surf industry would love to spread their wares like the softgoods (clothing) sector has, and engineers are always looking to develop the perfect wave that they can charge 100$ an hour for landlocked Abercrombie shoppers to ride. But the wavepool is also the key ingredient in surfing’s bid for Olympic acceptance. It perfectly and precisely solves the problem of an unpredictable ocean. The surfers can be “judged” on a level playing field of mechanically engineered pulses of swell. Grandstands can be constructed. Venues can be altered. Spectators can be charged admission! And if that doesn’t take the soul out of surfing, I don’t know what will.

Wavepools like this one would be ideal for an Olympic venue. But at what cost to the soul of surfing?

Wavepools and spectators aside, one can easily look at the ISA World Games, the ISA World Junior Championships, and the ISA World Masters Championships as models of how the Olympics could run the surfing segment of the games. In fact, the ISA is the only organization in surfing that is officially recognized by the IOC. Well organized, well funded, and well respected, the ISA events are the Olympics of surfing. Teams from 40 countries compete for nothing but individual and team medals and most importantly, bragging rights. With completely organized opening and closing ceremonies as well as live webcasts, the ISA Games are indeed exciting to watch. You can see the looks on the competitors faces that the ISA events mean something more to them than the ASP events. They train hard. They cheer for their teammates. They carry and wave their flag while their teammates are surfing. They take pride in their country. They have real passion. These are all traits of true Olympians.

Check out this video of the ISA World Junior Championships in Panama!

Recently, surfing as an Olympic sport was once again up for review by the IOC. And once again was not put on the short list for new entrants into the games, while eight other obscure and weird sports were considered. But that won’t stop the governing bodies of the ISA as they continue to fight for surfing’s Olympic acceptance. Of course, the professional competitive surfers are all for it. You think Kelly Slater wouldn’t want a gold medal to go with all those World Titles? I can almost see Adriano De Souza crying his little eyes out on the winner’s podium accepting a medal for his country. One things for sure, fans of competitive surfing would be on Cloud 9 if they got the chance to see their favorite surfers ripping for their countries.

2012 ISA World Junior Champions Dax McGill, Kalani David, and Matheus Navarro. Photo: Parkin

It remains to be seen whether surfing will get the green light in the 2024 games. In the meantime, read the following statement by the ISA President (and Reef Sandals founder) concerning the fate of Olympic surfing. Also, be sure to follow the ISA events to get a taste of what it would be like to have high performance surfing in the Olympics!

Statement from ISA President, Fernando Aguerre regarding the recent decision by the IOC to not include surfing in the 2020 Summer Olympics:

The International Surfing Association would like to congratulate the eight sports included on the short list for further consideration by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the 2020 Olympic Program.

Surfing is naturally disappointed not to have been included on this short list. We remain firmly convinced that, with its unique attributes of sport performance, youthful relevance and growing global industry, Surfing would bring proven excitement, value and fun to the Olympic Games.

We recognize and appreciate the serious consideration the IOC has given us thus far. We can see tangible progress in our Olympic aspirations.

We may have missed this big wave, but like any good surfer, we know there are more waves to come. We will therefore continue to develop the sport of surfing on a global level and explore the best way to continue to contribute to the Olympic Movement.

Best Regards,
Fernando Aguerre
President ISA

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