Junior Faria Rock and Rollin in a longboard singlefin. Photo: Luiz Blanco


The Inertia

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?

Who cares?

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.

  • gdkp

    I think what you fail to consider is the real definition of “sport” and “competition”. You define sport in terms of the NBA, NHL, MLB etc. Two teams pitted against each other.

    “Sport” is also competition against oneself, against others and against nature. Skiing could be lumped into this category, another subjectively judged sport. Mountain climbing is not as much a race as it is the act of skillfully overcoming nature (insert Surfing here), and chasing the personal best.

    The article points out that competition is innate to human nature, no doubt about that. We’ve been killing each other for thousands of years, the ugliest form of competition. We have a need to prove dominance. You mention that “legitimate sports were built around competition”. What form of competition? We find outlets to compete with each other in anything we do. Cars weren’t invented to compete in sport, but we managed to turn them into a competitive outlet. We love to compete in anything that is a feat of strength or endurance. We discovered surfing, that exists in an arena of high physical skill and strength… throw in a healthy does of testosterone, and how can you NOT form competition?

    Lastly, consider surfing’s historical place in Hawaiian and Polynesian culture. Even in its earliest roots, it was an absolute sport and absolute form of competition. Chiefs were the most skilled riders in their community. The ruling class had the best beaches and best boards. Prestige and social rise could be gained by the ability to surf.

    Modern surf competition has definitely become diluted by big brand names and Hollister clothes; its subjective and because skills are progressing so fast (post Modern Collective) its tough right now to keep a strict level of rules. But that’s what ‘sport’ is all about, bigger, faster, higher… and we’re watching that happen. It’s all in how you define it.

  • gdkp

    I think what you fail to consider is the real definition of “sport” and “competition”. You define sport in terms of the NBA, NHL, MLB etc. Two teams pitted against each other.

    “Sport” is also competition against oneself, against others and against nature. Skiing could be lumped into this category, another subjectively judged sport. Mountain climbing is not as much a race as it is the act of skillfully overcoming nature (insert Surfing here), and chasing the personal best.

    The article points out that competition is innate to human nature, no doubt about that. We’ve been killing each other for thousands of years, the ugliest form of competition. We have a need to prove dominance. You mention that “legitimate sports were built around competition”. What form of competition? We find outlets to compete with each other in anything we do. Cars weren’t invented to compete in sport, but we managed to turn them into a competitive outlet. We love to compete in anything that is a feat of strength or endurance. We discovered surfing, that exists in an arena of high physical skill and strength… throw in a healthy does of testosterone, and how can you NOT form competition?

    Lastly, consider surfing’s historical place in Hawaiian and Polynesian culture. Even in its earliest roots, it was an absolute sport and absolute form of competition. Chiefs were the most skilled riders in their community. The ruling class had the best beaches and best boards. Prestige and social rise could be gained by the ability to surf.

    Modern surf competition has definitely become diluted by big brand names and Hollister clothes; its subjective and because skills are progressing so fast (post Modern Collective) its tough right now to keep a strict level of rules. But that’s what ‘sport’ is all about, bigger, faster, higher… and we’re watching that happen. It’s all in how you define it.

  • gdkp

    I think what you fail to consider is the real definition of “sport” and “competition”. You define sport in terms of the NBA, NHL, MLB etc. Two teams pitted against each other.

    “Sport” is also competition against oneself, against others and against nature. Skiing could be lumped into this category, another subjectively judged sport. Mountain climbing is not as much a race as it is the act of skillfully overcoming nature (insert Surfing here), and chasing the personal best.

    The article points out that competition is innate to human nature, no doubt about that. We’ve been killing each other for thousands of years, the ugliest form of competition. We have a need to prove dominance. You mention that “legitimate sports were built around competition”. What form of competition? We find outlets to compete with each other in anything we do. Cars weren’t invented to compete in sport, but we managed to turn them into a competitive outlet. We love to compete in anything that is a feat of strength or endurance. We discovered surfing, that exists in an arena of high physical skill and strength… throw in a healthy does of testosterone, and how can you NOT form competition?

    Lastly, consider surfing’s historical place in Hawaiian and Polynesian culture. Even in its earliest roots, it was an absolute sport and absolute form of competition. Chiefs were the most skilled riders in their community. The ruling class had the best beaches and best boards. Prestige and social rise could be gained by the ability to surf.

    Modern surf competition has definitely become diluted by big brand names and Hollister clothes; its subjective and because skills are progressing so fast (post Modern Collective) its tough right now to keep a strict level of rules. But that’s what ‘sport’ is all about, bigger, faster, higher… and we’re watching that happen. It’s all in how you define it.

  • gdkp

    I think what you fail to consider is the real definition of “sport” and “competition”. You define sport in terms of the NBA, NHL, MLB etc. Two teams pitted against each other.

    “Sport” is also competition against oneself, against others and against nature. Skiing could be lumped into this category, another subjectively judged sport. Mountain climbing is not as much a race as it is the act of skillfully overcoming nature (insert Surfing here), and chasing the personal best.

    The article points out that competition is innate to human nature, no doubt about that. We’ve been killing each other for thousands of years, the ugliest form of competition. We have a need to prove dominance. You mention that “legitimate sports were built around competition”. What form of competition? We find outlets to compete with each other in anything we do. Cars weren’t invented to compete in sport, but we managed to turn them into a competitive outlet. We love to compete in anything that is a feat of strength or endurance. We discovered surfing, that exists in an arena of high physical skill and strength… throw in a healthy does of testosterone, and how can you NOT form competition?

    Lastly, consider surfing’s historical place in Hawaiian and Polynesian culture. Even in its earliest roots, it was an absolute sport and absolute form of competition. Chiefs were the most skilled riders in their community. The ruling class had the best beaches and best boards. Prestige and social rise could be gained by the ability to surf.

    Modern surf competition has definitely become diluted by big brand names and Hollister clothes; its subjective and because skills are progressing so fast (post Modern Collective) its tough right now to keep a strict level of rules. But that’s what ‘sport’ is all about, bigger, faster, higher… and we’re watching that happen. It’s all in how you define it.

  • gdkp

    I think what you fail to consider is the real definition of “sport” and “competition”. You define sport in terms of the NBA, NHL, MLB etc. Two teams pitted against each other.

    “Sport” is also competition against oneself, against others and against nature. Skiing could be lumped into this category, another subjectively judged sport. Mountain climbing is not as much a race as it is the act of skillfully overcoming nature (insert Surfing here), and chasing the personal best.

    The article points out that competition is innate to human nature, no doubt about that. We’ve been killing each other for thousands of years, the ugliest form of competition. We have a need to prove dominance. You mention that “legitimate sports were built around competition”. What form of competition? We find outlets to compete with each other in anything we do. Cars weren’t invented to compete in sport, but we managed to turn them into a competitive outlet. We love to compete in anything that is a feat of strength or endurance. We discovered surfing, that exists in an arena of high physical skill and strength… throw in a healthy does of testosterone, and how can you NOT form competition?

    Lastly, consider surfing’s historical place in Hawaiian and Polynesian culture. Even in its earliest roots, it was an absolute sport and absolute form of competition. Chiefs were the most skilled riders in their community. The ruling class had the best beaches and best boards. Prestige and social rise could be gained by the ability to surf.

    Modern surf competition has definitely become diluted by big brand names and Hollister clothes; its subjective and because skills are progressing so fast (post Modern Collective) its tough right now to keep a strict level of rules. But that’s what ‘sport’ is all about, bigger, faster, higher… and we’re watching that happen. It’s all in how you define it.

  • gdkp

    I think what you fail to consider is the real definition of “sport” and “competition”. You define sport in terms of the NBA, NHL, MLB etc. Two teams pitted against each other.

    “Sport” is also competition against oneself, against others and against nature. Skiing could be lumped into this category, another subjectively judged sport. Mountain climbing is not as much a race as it is the act of skillfully overcoming nature (insert Surfing here), and chasing the personal best.

    The article points out that competition is innate to human nature, no doubt about that. We’ve been killing each other for thousands of years, the ugliest form of competition. We have a need to prove dominance. You mention that “legitimate sports were built around competition”. What form of competition? We find outlets to compete with each other in anything we do. Cars weren’t invented to compete in sport, but we managed to turn them into a competitive outlet. We love to compete in anything that is a feat of strength or endurance. We discovered surfing, that exists in an arena of high physical skill and strength… throw in a healthy does of testosterone, and how can you NOT form competition?

    Lastly, consider surfing’s historical place in Hawaiian and Polynesian culture. Even in its earliest roots, it was an absolute sport and absolute form of competition. Chiefs were the most skilled riders in their community. The ruling class had the best beaches and best boards. Prestige and social rise could be gained by the ability to surf.

    Modern surf competition has definitely become diluted by big brand names and Hollister clothes; its subjective and because skills are progressing so fast (post Modern Collective) its tough right now to keep a strict level of rules. But that’s what ‘sport’ is all about, bigger, faster, higher… and we’re watching that happen. It’s all in how you define it.

  • gdkp

    I think what you fail to consider is the real definition of “sport” and “competition”. You define sport in terms of the NBA, NHL, MLB etc. Two teams pitted against each other.

    “Sport” is also competition against oneself, against others and against nature. Skiing could be lumped into this category, another subjectively judged sport. Mountain climbing is not as much a race as it is the act of skillfully overcoming nature (insert Surfing here), and chasing the personal best.

    The article points out that competition is innate to human nature, no doubt about that. We’ve been killing each other for thousands of years, the ugliest form of competition. We have a need to prove dominance. You mention that “legitimate sports were built around competition”. What form of competition? We find outlets to compete with each other in anything we do. Cars weren’t invented to compete in sport, but we managed to turn them into a competitive outlet. We love to compete in anything that is a feat of strength or endurance. We discovered surfing, that exists in an arena of high physical skill and strength… throw in a healthy does of testosterone, and how can you NOT form competition?

    Lastly, consider surfing’s historical place in Hawaiian and Polynesian culture. Even in its earliest roots, it was an absolute sport and absolute form of competition. Chiefs were the most skilled riders in their community. The ruling class had the best beaches and best boards. Prestige and social rise could be gained by the ability to surf.

    Modern surf competition has definitely become diluted by big brand names and Hollister clothes; its subjective and because skills are progressing so fast (post Modern Collective) its tough right now to keep a strict level of rules. But that’s what ‘sport’ is all about, bigger, faster, higher… and we’re watching that happen. It’s all in how you define it.

    • http://jrfaria.com/ Junior Faria

      Hey there “gdkp”,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and opinions on this matter. Really made me think about it and see it through another point of view.
      Cheers

  • B-rad

    A young surfer once told me, “this is the greatest sport there is, it’s you against the Ocean! I smiled at him and said, “to me it’s about alone time with God and then you catch a wave and become one with nature”. good article

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

  • Johnathan Florence

    People on Twitter are saying this isn’t the entire article. The Portuguese version supposedly had some pretty choice words about the ASP. Is that true?

    • http://jrfaria.com/ Junior Faria

      Well, I’m not on twitter anymore so I don’t really know what specific article they might be talking about. This “portuguese version” can be anything, since I’ve been writing for a few brazilian media and my blog for almost 4 years now.
      Anyways, I might have to get back on Twitter…

  • http://twitter.com/Badinskas Gorik Badinskas

    Nice piece. Is there any way I can in touch with Junior? I need to pose some questions regarding this piece and some other he posted in Brazilian sites…

  • Sebastian

    This is a thought-provoking article and for the most part I agree. One place where I’d take issue with you is in your statement that “surfing is an activity that has absolutely no competitive characteristics in its very core.” As gdkp suggests, all human endeavors have a competitive aspect to their nature simply because humans are competitive creatures. Surfing is no exception and because of its difficulty I’d say it inspires more competitiveness among its practitioners than many other activities.

    But that’s different than calling surfing a sport. In my mind, a sport requires hard, objective judging criteria; e.g. did you get from point A to point B faster, get the ball in the net, pin the other guy to the ground? At its core surfing is not really a sport – there’s just way too much subjectivity in the judging. Yes, they’ve rejiggered the judging criteria to try and address that problem, but at the end of the day style (aka “art”) remains a big factor in declaring a winner. If I were forced to categorize surfing I’d say it’s an art form, more similar to playing music than to running or basketball.

    All this is not to say that I think surfing competitions don’t have value or are somehow sacrilegious, in fact I’d argue that contest surfing has had a lot of positive impact on the growth and development of the art, not to mention that it can be entertaining, and sometimes utterly transcendent to watch.

    • http://jrfaria.com/ Junior Faria

      Hey Sebastian,
      Interesting point of view, I agree with a lot of what you said.
      I find it kind of tricky sometimes to express myself in a second language (I’m brasilian), but I’m working on it. A lot of what you said I agree with and maybe I didn’t make myself very clear in the article above.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Carletes-Saez/100002820475116 Carletes Saez

    Excellent article, totally agree with your point. Aloha!

    • http://jrfaria.com/ Junior Faria

      Thanks!

  • Matthew Vanatta

    Surfing is different things to different people, I always read articles trying to define what surfing is, and it’s pointless. If you like competitive surfing, sweet. If you like longboards and garage rock, sweet. I think it’s a little bit selfish to try and pigeon hole surfing into what we want it to be. Let it breathe, let it have different aspects, it’s what keeps it interesting.

    • http://jrfaria.com/ Junior Faria

      Hey what’s up Matthew,
      I totally agree with what you said about what makes surfing interesting and that our differences are what makes it so special.
      But I never meant to sound selfish or whatever, I’m just getting my opinion and my point of view out there… I’m not arrogant enough to try to define what surfing is. Like you said, that is pointless.
      Thanks for your opinion.

      • Matthew Vanatta

        Oh man I didn’t mean you in particular my friend, we all are guilty of this in some way, shape, or form. I just know that the best thing we can do for something as beautiful as surfing is cherish all aspects of it, even though they may be flawed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Zensurf Leandro Bento da Silva

    Great article! Contests are a big circus and unless held in classic waves not fun to watch. Venues can pretty much say what is t ASPs agenda. Anyways Jr. keep on writting in the free world!

  • http://twitter.com/DrJessPonting Dr Jess Ponting

    I like the analogy to music. Perhaps the overwhelming popularity of music competitions around the world (American Idol, X-Factor, The Voice, America’s got Talent in US alone, almost every country has their own versions of these) hints at why we enjoy making sport out of art that can really only be judged subjectively, and why we are absolutely riveted by the artifice of the contest (and I am unashamedly one of the riveted when it comes to the WCT). To gdkp’s point, surfing’s history, pre-colonial history, is very much linked to, indeed steeped in high stakes competition.