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If surfing is accepted in the 2020 Olympics, would surfers represent Hawaii or the USA? John John might need a new flag...

If surfing is accepted in the 2020 Olympics, would surfers represent Hawaii or the USA? John John might need a new flag…


The Inertia

The last time I was in Hawaii was in 2008. I know, shame. It was a family trip to Kauai. Summer. In other words, not a surf trip. Inadvertently the vacay coincided with the Beijing Olympics. It’s not the worst thing in the world, watching javelin throwing whilst beaming with national pride in paradise. Apparently the Olympics were poorly planned that year, because they overshadowed the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Who knew?

Waipio Little League from Waipahu, Oahu were crushing it. And everywhere we went people were either tuned into the Series or the Games. In the case of the latter, particular attention was paid to Hawaiian athletes like Bryan Clay, a decathlete.

In the final days of our family sojourn in Kauai, we heard cheers poolside. Waipio Little League were world champs. Days earlier Bryan Clay won gold, boasting such a significant lead in points he hardly needed to compete in the tenth and final event.

The whole island was buzzing. It was a point of pride that not just an American but a Hawaiian was being championed as the greatest all around athlete at that time. And Hawaiian pride ran so deep that the Little League World Series felt almost mainstream.

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Eight years later, surfing has officially become an Olympic sport. The traditional practice that originated with the ancient Hawaiians, was re-popularized in Hawaii in the early 20th century, and has since become a global phenomenon has been voted in by the International Olympic Committee. Opinions are mixed. But what does this mean for surfing Hawaiians?

The relationship between ethnic Hawaiian-ness, and being Hawaiian because of where you grew up has always been a difficult one to pin down. Not to mention balancing all of that while simultaneously being considered, like it or not, American. There’s a certain Hawaiian pride – an affinity to root for American athletes in the games, but especially Hawaiian ones – like I witnessed during my Kauaiian jaunt. It’s a question with colonial roots that are particularly important in the sport of surfing.

The WSL prefers not to be in the business of splitting hairs. According to the official rule book, “Tahiti, Reunion Island, and Hawaii are classified as countries.” If you reside in these places, you receive the PYF, REU, or HAW moniker next to your name along with a flag (in the case of Hawaii whether ethnic Hawaiian or not). Not to get into semantics, but both Reunion Island and Tahiti are technically part of France, just as Hawaii is part of the United States, but are recognized distinctly.

Come Tokyo, though, all of that goes out the window. Tahitian and Reunion Island athletes will wave the Tricolour with their mainland French compatriots just as Hawaiian athletes will be expected to wave Old Glory. Changing the moniker may seem insignificant. Hawaiians will obviously be aware of the Hawaiian athletes that are competing. Look at Bryan Clay.

But when it comes to the question of qualification, all ‘Americans’ hoping to fill a particular spot will be treated equally. In other words, it’s theoretically possible no Hawaiian will represent the United States in the sport of surfing. You know, the sport that was born in Hawaii. And, oh yeah, the one that Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian ambassador of stoke himself, championed be included in the Olympics over a century ago.

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It’s not a certainty. Indeed, the IOC hasn’t even begun to assess what qualification system it will use to determine the 40 athletes that will compete in Tokyo. And there’s a smattering of highly ranked Hawaiians that will most likely make the cut. But the possibility raises important questions about Hawaiian identity in the first place, post-colonialism, and respect for the history of the sport.

Remember when Calvinist missionaries seeking to evangelize Hawaiians also restricted surfing? How about when Da Hui came about as a direct result of Hawaiians being excluded from contests at their home breaks? History hasn’t been kind to the pioneers of the sport of kings, unfortunately.

Of course it wouldn’t be fair, really, if precedence were given to Hawaiians to compete on the US squad. But it certainly wouldn’t be good if no Hawaiian were represented in surfing’s first Olympic showing considering surfing owes everything to the ancient Hawaiians.

The prospect of surfing being presented to the world via the Olympic Games demands these controversies be properly understood, and sorted out. Or else, run the risk of not having the buy-in of the descendants of those that originated the sport in the first place.

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