Opinion: Putting surfing into the Olympics would be bad for both surfing and the Olympics.
Pros: The Olympics are a cynical institution that degrades sport in the name of tv ratings every two years and surfing is a poor fit for them.
Cons: A berth in the Olympics would grow the sport in the mainstream and bring more money and prestige to the industry.
Is there anything as depressing as the god-awful spectacle of the Olympics? Every two years we’re assaulted with two weeks of juiced-up pedigree athletes wallowing in their 12 seconds of fame while desperately trying to sign endorsement deals with one hand and waving a flag with the other. Yet, like many institutions created by the Victorian English the games continue to limp forward, groaning under the weight of their bad-faith idealism, stopping every few paces to pump their ruined veins full of human growth hormone and spewing platitudes about good sportsmanship and honor to anyone who is unlucky enough to be caught in their apocalyptic penumbra. And for what? So the wealthiest countries in the in the world can rack up their medal counts and pat themselves on the back for being good global citizens while they drone bomb the sweet Jesus out of whatever corner of the Middle East has incurred their wrath this week.
For the last decade, some of those involved in competitive surfing have tried desperately to throw their hats into this heartwarming spectacle. And now it seems that their efforts are finally paying off: it was recently announced that surfing is on the short list for a spot in the 2020 Tokyo games. And while rumors once swirled around the event taking place on a standing wave, the ISA announced yesterday that the competition would actually take place in ocean waves.
Making surfing an Olympic sport would be a mistake, and not just because The Olympics is a tired institution riddled with cynical marketing and faux-nationalism. Even if it really were a pageant that united the world in sporting excellence, surfing could simply never work within its rigid competitive paradigm.
Despite my, ahem, distaste for the Olympics, there are some sports that work well within its hoary embrace. Track and field and gymnastics are all enjoyable Olympic sports. So is downhill skiing. Swimming ain’t bad either. What all these sports have in common is their ability to be precisely measured and quantified. The person who can run 100 meters faster than anyone else in the field is the winner of the race. There is no grey area there. Even the judged sports have highly refined style guides that ALL the athletes train for. There is, indisputably, a proper way to do a Yurchenko vault and you don’t win a gold medal by adding your own flavor to it. Of course, this doesn’t rule out corruption and misjudging, but it at least standardizes the criteria.
A standard criteria is exactly what surfing lacks. How could it have one? It takes place on a playing field that is different every day and even different for each scoring ride. Regardless of what the WSL claims, there is no logical way to standardize a judging process for such an activity. Within the context of surf culture this is not necessarily a bad thing. The subjectivity of style and personal interpretations of wave riding define the unique identity of the sport. It is precisely the unquantifiable, interpretive nature of surfing that makes it so beautiful. That these things should cause WSL judges no end of grief just gives surfers more to talk about in the beach parking lot after each competition.
Of course, this sort of vagueness is anathema to the Olympics, which means any possible partnership would have two major outcomes; both being negative. The first is that surfing would enter the ranks of rhythmic gymnastics and handball – sideshows for the main events. Even in a legitimately great comp most non-surfers only care to watch one or two waves before boredom sets in. How long do you think their attention will last over a few turns before they flip back to the long jump? The second, and much more worrying effect would be the development of a highly standardized, highly commodified and ultimately sterile form of surfing that would sit at odds with much of the wider culture.
If you want to see how the Olympics can systematically gut anything good from a sport, look no further than snowboarding. First it was brought into the Games under the Faustian bargain that it would be governed by the International Ski Federation – because those two sports have always gotten along so well. Then it debuted with giant slalom, which was really its own punch line. Now it has turned into aerial acrobatics where 18-year-old boys in baggy salopettes frantically try to jam one more quarter rotation into their quadruple corks each year. The last half-pipe gold medal was given to a Swiss who calls himself IPOD for negotiating a Russian half pipe not fit for an Afghan sewer system then claiming harder than anyone else, even Shawn White, who has made a career of claiming harder than anyone else. I would like to think that surfing is immune to this kind of idiocy, but it’s not. No sport is.
Yes, an Olympic berth would “grow the sport,” and any kind of growth brings undeniable positives with it – more money, more coverage, more of that vague, mercurial capital known as “respect” that some in the competitive surfing scene are so obsessed with. But make no mistake: You don’t partner with the Olympics, the Olympics gobbles you up and then shits you out into whatever time slot fits their already clogged TV schedule. Of all the reasons not to be in the Olympics, the most obvious is saving your sport’s image from the schmaltzy, aren’t-we-just-one-happy-world-without-boarders propaganda that these bureaucrats force feed people every few years. It’s drool-on-yourself stupid, and in an era when the richest places in the world are battering some of the poorest and then closing their doors to the refugees, it’s patently false – a lie told to keep people on the sports page and away from the current events. To think that surfing would, however peripherally, be part of the same sort of nationalist power struggles that embroiled sports like weightlifting and swimming during the Cold War is unutterably depressing.