Surfing is officially an Olympic sport. Unless a few big changes are made, it was a terrible decision. When the IOC announced that yes, they’d take our little sport (or pastime, or whatever you want to call it) and all of the problems that come along with judging it, the debate about whether or not it should be in the Games fired up anew. It can, I think, mostly be boiled down to two sides: those that think surfing is a sport and those who do not. I land somewhere in the middle. While I appreciate the talent that comes with pro surfing, all too often the entire judging system completely fails.
Surfing, in its current form, isn’t a sport, despite entities like the WSL trying very hard to make it into one, ending the year by crowning the “best surfer in the world.” Part of sports is finding out who’s best, and in its current state, pro surfing doesn’t always do that. Need proof? Look no further than our forgotten world champion, Adriano de Souza. He is, without a doubt, an incredible surfer. But you won’t find many that would agree that he was actually the best surfer in the world. He is simply the one who got the most points, and the way it’s set up isn’t always indicative of who’s actually the best in the world. It creates a space where strategy is almost as important as talent–which is fine in many sports, but not in surfing.
The way the WSL set up their scoring system–and to be fair, if there has to be one, they’re doing a decent job of it–doesn’t lend itself to finding the best surfer in the world. It lends itself to finding the surfer who is best at racking up the points, points that depend almost as much on the waves themselves as they do on the surfer. But, like I said, the WSL is doing their best to do something that’s impossible, at least in its current state. But there’s a way to change it: wave pools.
For surfing to actually be a real sport–one with clear winners and losers–the playing field needs to be even. To really crown a champion, everyone needs to be able to compete on exactly the same thing. Take gymnastics, for example. When gymnasts are on the pommel horse, they’re all on the same pommel horse. Mary Lou Retton was on the same one as everyone else. If she was on a smaller, wider pommel horse, it wouldn’t be fair (an astute reader recently pointed out that pommel horse is a men’s event… but you get the point.) That’s where surfing is at right now, despite a million little tweaks during heats that try to make up for the fact that the competitors are all playing on a different field, with different obstacles and endless possibilities. A wave pool would give judges the ability to judge the surfer themselves, not the way they surfed the particular wave they happened to catch. In defining a winner, luck can’t be a factor. But that’s just part of the problem.
When surfing hits the Olympics in 2020, it’s going to be in the ocean. Over a span of about two weeks, athletes who’ve been training their whole lives for a brief moment on the biggest stage in sports show what they’ve been training to do–and in sports like track and field, where judging is as simple as a timer–it works. For surfing, though, determining who the best in the world is requires an actual season. Right now, the best surfer in the world needs to excel in all conditions, unless it’s in a wave pool and surfers surf the same amount of the exact same waves. Which would basically create a whole new genre of the sport, much like the halfpipe did for snowboarding, or the mega ramp did for skateboarding. Sure, it’ll take away from part of what makes surfing so great, but that’s an unfortunate downfall of classifying it as a sport.
So while much of the general surfing public hates the idea of surfing in a pool, it’s the only way to make competitive surfing fair–and to crown a world champion in the Olympics in any other way won’t be fair to anyone, the winner included.