Surfing is changing. Brazil is well on its way to becoming the new USA. If the Oi Rio Pro is any indicator, surfing is looking at a cultural shift in popularity, and at the same time, it’s looking at a shift in how it is perceived by the non-surfing public. In other words, surfing is sitting on fertile ground, and Brazil is the place where the seed has been planted.
For years, the business of surfing was (and still is, in fact) dominated by white people. Despite its roots in Hawaiian culture, the biggest surf companies were owned by white people. The best surfers were, by majority, white. Companies marketed to a white audience, instead of a surfing audience. It was a strange conundrum: the market was largely white because the companies marketed to them, and the market stayed largely white for the same reason. They created and enforced the surfer stereotype, simply by sticking to what they’d built. But all that’s changing now.
In the last few years, the Brazilian Storm has taken the contest world by, well… storm. Although there were many before him, it was Gabriel Medina who opened the floodgates, and the rest of the world isn’t even close to getting them closed. This year, Filipe Toledo has taken the reins, and while the year is far from over, he’s looking like a clear favorite.
Up until a few years ago, racism had more or less left surfing’s arena, with the exception of a few instances.There was the Otis Carey debacle, where Nathan Myers penned a line in an issue of Australian Surfing Life that was, if nothing else, a horrible choice of words. In at atmosphere like the one created by social media where, if the opportunity presents itself, any indiscretion, no matter how innocent it may have been, will be judged in the harshest light possible, word choice is a pretty damn important thing. But racism in surfing as a whole was pretty limited from the late 80’s on.
Enter a group of hyper-talented surfers with a country of screaming fans behind them. Racism became a hot topic in our little world. Xenophobia became a buzz-word. Allegations of racism, both valid and not, were thrown around the internet. Hell, my girlfriend received a Facebook message from a man from Brazil telling her than I was a racist and she should hate me because this website posted a video of Gabriel Medina dropping in on someone.
It goes back a long way. Back when Duke Kahanamoku was in the process of becoming the father of modern surfing, he headed to America as a stop-over on his way to the 1912 Olympics in Sweden. It was the early part of the century, well before America and the rest of the world began to realize how ridiculous racism is. Although he was competing on a world stage, he was refused service in hotels and restaurants. Then, years later, in 1972 and in the midst of South Africa’s apartheid era, Eddie Aikau wasn’t able to check into his hotel in Durban because his skin wasn’t the right color. There are a million other examples, but suffice to say, the race conversation in surfing is still very much alive. And when Medina began his World Title campaign last year, the pot began to boil.
Twenty-fourteen was a bad year in surfing–or, depending on how you look at it, a good one. It was bad because Medina’s charge for the podium exposed an ugly truth about surfing: racism ran rampant across comment boards and on beaches. It turned into an “us vs. them” mentality. But it was a good year because a Brazilian won a world title and started the ball rolling for a country full of the most fanatical fans ever to set foot on the beach. Take John John Florence’s walk down to the beach in his round five heat at the Oi Rio Pro. Even at Pipeline, where John John is a legitimate son of the entire island, there has never been such fan fare. Tears rolled down people’s faces as they stretched their hands out to touch him. Adoring fans screamed in an almost religious fervor. That has never happened before on such a large scale in surfing’s history. When Medina returned home last year as a champion, he was received with adoration usually saved for rock stars.
Brazil, as it stands right now, is the most surf-stoked nation on the planet. And surfing has never had a better chance to break away from its anarchist roots than right now–and although many surfers, myself included, don’t want surfing to become a sport on par with the NFL or the MLB, the business that is competitive surfing most definitely does want that.
Brazil is a nation that has competition ingrained in it. The country views surfing differently than the rest of the world. It’s more sport than art, more contest than pastime. And for those marketing surfing, it’s looking like a pretty damn good place to invest.