When I write about surfing I often use the word sport in quotes because I strongly believe that surfing is not a legitimate sport. So please indulge me because it will come up more than a few times if you kindly spend a couple minutes here. English is not my first language, so your kindness towards this article will be more than appreciated. And if you are one of those guys that stays up late to watch World Tour webcasts while hanging on to every single word that comes out of the commentary booth, please my dear friend, try to get to the last paragraph because you are actually the reason why I’m writing this.
First of all, I deeply respect and admire the people that make surfing their way of life and are professionally related to it. In all levels. Especially pro surfers because they make it all happen despite all the bullshit that it entails.
That said, I have come to believe that surfing is an activity that has absolutely no competitive characteristics in its very core. It is not easy for me to write that because I have built my whole life around surfing, at a recreational and professional level, but hopefully some of my experience will inform my arguments. Think about it: outside the very small competitive world, we don’t score points, we don’t have a clear goal and we don’t even know exactly why we spend so much time and energy to enjoy a few minutes of real wave riding. All we know is that surfing is what we live for, and that is it.
Surfers, in general, are so distant from the competitive reality of our “sport” that it is almost funny to realize that this whole competitive scene, fueled by clothing and accessories companies, has become a relevant part of our community.
We all know that people are naturally drawn to point one person or team, as the best or most technically advanced in the activities they chose to perform. That is a human need and we all need a point of reference in most scenarios in our lives. But I’ve come to believe that, due to the nature of our “sport”, we shouldn’t be wasting our time coming up with numerical excuses to justify who is the best surfer. Actually, by now we should have learned that surfing is such a broad and technically complicated activity, that we will never be able to rationally justify why one person surfs better than the other.
Legitimate competitive sports were built around competition and were born from the human need to challenge ourselves and others. And the ultimate purpose of all legitimate competitive sports is to highlight a single person, or a group of people, as the most technically and physically developed in that specific activity. All of that usually happens in a controlled environment, and is based upon a set of rules to ensure that all the competitors have the exact same conditions of performance. That way it is possible to find out who is the best person or group based on their performances. To sum up, every single legitimate competitive sport is capable of electing its true champion relying on a very clear criteria: Natural selection, ie: survival of the fittest. In a simple way, it goes like this: Here are the rules, there is the field, now get out there and let’s see who gets to the finish line first. Or beats the other guys (or girls). Or scores more points. That’s how it works in swimming, athletics and all other sports.
Now, was surfing created out of the human need to compete? Was surfing built around a set of rules? Is surfing an activity performed in a controlled environment? No. Then why do we call it a sport? Why do we compete? How can we be so sure, that this one guy ranked on the top of ASP’s World Tour, is the best surfer in the world?
I believe that the main reason we will never be able to determine who is, in fact, the best surfer around, is very simple: It is impossible. What we call competition in our activity is nothing but a poor adaptation of rules and criteria created for other sports but applied to our wave riding. Surfing competition is based on guess-work and opinion, improvised rules and corporate interests. There is not a single aspect of competitive surfing, besides actual wave riding, that is linked to surfing’s original purpose.
Let’s have a look at our (thank God!) small, but very important, competitive scenario:
- Our competitive rules change almost every year.
- Since its creation until today, competitive surfing has a hard time finding an efficient competition format.
- Points are the product of personal opinion.
-Our field is the most unpredictable environment on the planet: the ocean.
So why is this whole competition thing so important? Because competition made surfing profitable, of course.
In a very simple line of thinking: a surf competition is a product, not a sport. Just like a surf movie, a magazine, a t-shirt or a surfboard. People make money from it, and that is not a bad thing actually, because every surfer benefits from it, in one way or another.
But that does not mean that it proves anything about someone’s surfing ability.
You see, we challenge the ocean, not other people. Our goal is to have fun, not to score points. We never win, we just want to ride another one. Surfing, my friends, is music. Just like musicians, we play. We have our own instruments and we only care about what sounds good to us. Some play drums, some ride thrusters. Some play bass guitar, some ride longboards. And what may sound good to me might not sound so good to you. Understand now? We all play. And just like musicians, we like to rock to our own tunes even if it sounds terrible to everyone else. Of course, we love to listen to great musicians blessed with talent, but there is no need to agree on who’s the best or the worst. We love to watch Gabriel Medina tearing Trestles apart, we love to watch Shane Dorian getting barreled at Jaws and we love to watch Tom Curren do his thing just about everywhere.
So how can we know for sure who’s better… Jimi Hendrix or Yo Yo Ma? Kelly Slater or Miki Dora? Led Zeppelin or Berlin’s Philharmonic Orchestra? Dane Reynolds or Tom Curren?
We all have answers to those questions, but can we rationally justify our choices? Can we convince someone to change their minds based on facts and not on opinions?
Well, every time I talk or write about it, I end up with more questions on my mind. And I hope I can get you thinking too. I have no idea who will win the Triple Crown this year, or the World Title, but I do know that I will Rock’n'roll till the day I die.