Did you watch the Oi Rio Pro? I just watched a few highlights here and there, because I don’t stay up to watch surfing contests. Truth be told, I don’t really watch surfing contests, even if they’re in the middle of the day. I did, however, watch the Founders’ Cup, because I felt as though I would be watching the birth of the future of pro surfing. The tiny cone-shaped head of the future pushing forth from the bloody womb of the past, wriggling its way into the light, screaming at the cold, so ugly, wrinkly, and pink, but healthy and ready to grow into a fine, broad-shouldered iteration of surfing. After the contest, however, I wasn’t so sure. I thought that maybe I had just watched the birth of a three-eyed monster, malformed and hideous, but still strong enough to fundamentally change the sport, despite the dying struggles of the frail old ways. Then Rio happened.
It’s a contest that gets shit on. Shit waves, shit water quality. Surfers watching shootouts in the streets, other surfers (ahem, Slater) flat out refusing to go for various reasons. This year at the Rio Pro, the venue was shifted to Barrinha, a place that served up the most beautiful chunks of unpredictable surf. And compared to the machine-perfection of the Ranch just a few weeks prior, how wonderful all those little imperfections looked!
Watching those Rio highlights, I was struck by something: on its own, the event was nothing special. Sure, there were moments—Filipe’s anti-gravity air, for example—but without the ruler-edged “utopia” that the Ranch previously spat out for comparison, it wouldn’t have seemed nearly as good. Generally, after the Oi Rio Pro, there are the usual calls for its removal from the tour. “The water’s too dirty!” the faceless interneters shout. “The waves suck! Get it off the tour!” Not this time, however. This time, the internet has been awash in Rio praise. After all that excitement of a man-made perfect wave, it seems that the viewers love the imperfection. Sure, it makes scoring impossible. It makes it nearly impossible to turn surfing into a lucrative spectator sport. The non-surfing public will never understand the vagaries of a surfing contest held in the ocean. The judging will always be confusing when scoring is based on the whims of Mother Nature. In a pool, it’s clear even to the inland masses who did better. If the end goal of pro surfing is to turn it into a real mainstream sport, that, my friends, is why pool surfing is the only way forward.
While I’m not against the Surf Ranch as a venue for Olympic surfing or wave pools in general—I say let build them all over and watch the ocean crowds dissipate into the chlorine—if the Founders’ Cup did one thing right, it was to show us all that surfing in the ocean (even at the Rio Pro!) will always be better.