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Olympic surfing imagined.

Olympic surfing imagined. Image: Webber Wave Pools

The Inertia

The Olympics have always been somewhat of an odd thing for surfers. On one side, there are the people who want it in there, along with all the other summer sports, like running really fast, running really far, jumping into sandpits, jumping over tall bars, and throwing various heavy or pointed objects as far as one can.  Then there are the people who hate the idea of surfing in the Olympics. “It can’t be judged!” they yell. “It’s an art form!” And of course, there are the various groups in between, all in some stage of caring, from not at all to very much.

The International Surfing Association is in the caring very much camp, which makes perfect sense. It’s been one of their goals from the outset, and Fernando Aguerre, ISA Pres/guy that wears awesome shirts, has his sights set on Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics. The folks on the Olympic committee, though, aren’t exactly convinced. But following a pile of changes in the tail end of last year, there’s a decent chance they might come around. The reforms include making the games more attractive and relevant to a wider and modern audience.

When snowboarding made its foray into the Nagano Olympics in ’98, it changed the face of the sport. No longer was it stuck on the fringes; it became something completely different. It became a money-maker. By selling that fringe-sport mentality, it became the next big thing. So could that happen to surfing? Probably not, for a few reasons. What is far more likely, I suspect, is for surfing in wave pools and surfing in the ocean to branch off each other, much like surfing and wakesurfing. Both technically surfing on waves, but two entirely different things.

In the past, surfing has been the red-headed step child of the Olympics because of the obvious reasons: contestable surf in many of the locations set for Games just isn’t there. And when even the governing body of professional surfing can’t always guarantee a contest that involves really good waves, the Olympic committee’s point is proven.

But with the advances in wave pool technology snowballing in the last few years, there is a very real possibility of surfing becoming something else entirely: an Olympic sport held outside the ocean in waves that are exactly the same every time–which is exactly what is needed for surfing to be properly judged. That, along with a set amount of points for certain maneuvers. The idea of objectively scoring things as vague as “speed, power, and flow” to within a tenth of a point of each other borders on ridiculous. Fair scoring dependent on a field that is constantly shifting crosses that border. And yes, I realize that judging is based in a heat-to-heat basis. But until each wave is identical, there will never be a fair scoring process in professional surfing. It’s not possible.

Which, of course, is where wave pools enter. “I am sure it will be one of the first Olympic venues to sell out of tickets,” Aguerre told Kyodo News.”Today you go to any beach around the world and people are dressed like surfers, wearing surf brands, and they all want to surf. Surfing is a young sport, it’s practiced by people of all ages, but it’s also a sport that has captivated the hearts and minds of young people around the world.”

While Aguerre is right about surfing captivating the hearts and minds of young people, he’s wrong about what surfing in the Olympics would be. It wouldn’t be surfing. It would be surfing in a wavepool–which, while very much a fun idea with implications that will probably have some effect on surfing as we know it right now, it’s not surfing. Surfing needs the ocean. Without it, it’s just riding waves.


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