In the year 776 BC, a humble Greek cook named Koroibos made history, winning the first and only event in the first Olympic Games of antiquity, the stadion race. The foot race, no longer than 600 feet, was the beginning of a long storied history in Ancient Greece of sport, competition, and athleticism that would continue until 393 AD. Like Koroibos himself, the prize for his achievement was a modest one, an olive branch.
The Olympic Games, like most public activities in Ancient Greece, existed as a way to both honor and emulate the pantheon of gods. Indeed, no one could run as fast, or be as strong as the gods, but dammit if they didn’t try.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away the people we now know as Polynesians were spreading across the South Pacific, developing unique, albeit related cultures, religions, and societies. When exactly Polynesians settled in Hawaii is disputed – anywhere from 300 to 1266 AD. Nor do historians know when exactly ancient Polynesians, specifically Hawaiians, began to recreationally practice surfing. Still, if the beginnings of Polynesian surfing temporally overlapped with the period of the Olympic Games worlds away, it’s safe to say the Ancient Greeks would have been amazed by the way Polynesians effortlessly slid across the ocean, taming the surf.
Forgive me for all this talk of ancient civilizations. I just had the opportunity to visit Athens, and the place’s affection for ancient history is contagious.
Greece prides itself as the cradle of democracy and the birthplace of the Olympics. With all the controversy surrounding surfing’s debut in the 2020 Games, the focus on the ancient history of the Olympics, and that of surfing seemed to me to offer a new perspective – if not only to imagine the collision of two ancient civilizations that never encountered each other face to face.
Say what you will about the modern Olympics. It’s too commercial. It’s a profit-motivated racket. Insert modern surfing and indeed the same could be said. Cynics might go so far as to say the essence of both surfing and the Olympics have been bastardized and leveraged by and for shareholders and corporations.
The criticism isn’t entirely unfounded. But in the case of surfing, the purity of its attraction, I think, can still be found beneath the dirt and grime of consumerism, sponsorships, and corporatism. The same can be said for the Olympics. In the way the Ancient Greeks wanted to see who among them could most closely match the strength and power of the gods, globally we remain transfixed on the pinnacle of human achievement in sport.
And why should surfing be excluded from that display? Because it’s cool to be anti-establishment? Because God forbid, it might inspire someone to pick up a surfboard?
“Lineups are already too crowded,” goes the typical pissing and moaning against surfing’s Olympic debut – likely coming from the same folks who have tuned in to watch curling or gymnastics every few years, and never thought twice about giving them a shot.
I like to imagine that had the Greeks made contact with ancient Polynesians, the exchange of ideas might have included making and riding surfboards. In ancient Athens, philosophers would then break from pondering human existence any time the surf was pumping.
Had surfing become a new activity in Greece, you can be sure it would have just as quickly become an Olympic event.
Now, nearly 3000 years since the first Olympiad, modern surfers have the opportunity to share their sport with the world. Whether it gets the stage it deserves in Tokyo is another matter – two foot slop isn’t exactly a great way for surfers to display their talent.
Still, there’s no question surfing is right where it belongs.