This past July, the International Surfing Association, sanctioning body primarily responsible for establishing Olympic surfing qualification in preparation for the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad, to be held in Paris, France, took the extraordinary step of sending a dozen potential Olympic hopefuls to the island of Tahiti, there to take part in a training camp, of sorts, in the village of Teahupo’o. While many have regarded the decision to hold 2024’s Paris Olympics surfing event at a decidedly dangerous surf break on the far side of the world with skepticism, the training camp idea was a good one, considering that with the exception of those surfers chosen from the WCT tour, very few of the remaining international qualifiers from participating countries like Mexico, Japan, El Salvador and the Netherlands, for example, have ever surfed Teahupo’o’s fearsome reef break.
As it turned out, Teahupo’o’s fearsome waves never materialized, but the visitors were still faced with many of the pitfalls that the Games will be sure to encounter next year: lack of sufficient infrastructure, palpable local ambivalence, capricious weather and, most alarmingly considering the short window of opportunity, inconsistent, low quality waves. Despite this litany of “things that could go wrong,” however, it appears that one of the biggest challenges presented not only to the ISA’s Olympic hopefuls, but to eventual organizing committees, film crews, commentators and associated media (surf and otherwise) will be how to properly pronounce the name of what is certain to become one of the world’s most famous surf spots.
Lost to history is the name of the first visiting surfer to refer to the tiny settlement of Teahupo’o, located where the pavement ends on the south coast of Tahiti Iti, as “Cho-poo”— let alone the first to mangle that which had already been mangled, replacing the island’s traditional place name with the slang term “Chopes.” Regardless, the fact that for a number of decades now the broader surfing world outside of French Polynesia has blithely been mispronouncing this renowned surf break’s name highlights a regrettable yet longstanding tone of cultural insensitivity that really does disservice to the idea of a global surfing community. Because whether or not bothering to pronounce a spot’s name right, renaming breaks to imply “discovery” or to throw other surfers off the scent or to simply tag a surf spot as if with graffiti, the manner in which surfing’s maps have been labeled hasn’t been much to be proud of.
Of course, surfers were hardly the first watermen to sail beyond their known shores with a demonstrative pattern of cultural insensitivity. When Viking explorer Leif Erickson first waded ashore from his longboat in northeastern Canada in the year 1000, he dubbed this “new found” world “Vinland,” oblivious to the fact that the region’s native inhabitants, the Mi’kamq and Inuit, knew their ancient home as Beothruk.
In 1644, the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman ran his flagship Heemskerck south of the 42nd parallel and smack into the island known today as Tasmania, promptly naming it and the nearby continent, “New Holland.” An appellation that probably didn’t roll too easily off the tongues of the region’s indigenous Palana Kani people, who for generations had been referring to their land as “lutruwita.” Same with the Aboriginal inhabitants of the eastern portion of Terra Australis, who in 1770 were understandably surprised to learn that their ancestral home of Gundagara was, thanks to Lt. James Cook, claimed for the British Crown and renamed New South Wales.
Sound familiar? It should. Think of the Mainland haoles who throughout the 20th century carelessly assigned their own names to Hawaiian surf spots, like “Castles” for Kalehuawehe, “Banzai Pipeline” and “Sunset Beach” for Pūpūkea and Paumalu, or “Acid Drops” for Poipu Kapili. And hey, at least some of those were clever. As the years passed, and surfers spread out across the watery globe, so many other appellations were simply disrespectful. Take “Burgerworld” for Koroniki in the Mentawai (and it’s MENT-a-why, not men-TAU-wee, for cryin’ out loud), “Steel Vagina” for Kansuaris Baai, West Java, “Shit Pipe” in Scotland’s Thurso Bay and “Killers” in Northern Baja.
Disrespect is one thing, but surf-selfishness is quite another. Pseudonyms have long been used by surf ‘explorers’ to tantalize their fellows surfers with tales of fantasy surf destinations but without revealing their locations, “Rattlesnake Point,” then “Scorpion Bay” for Baja’s Punta Pequeña, “Ollies Point” for Potrero Grande in northern Costa Rica and “The Snake” in West Africa being prime examples. In almost every case apparently giving very little thought to how arbitrarily re-naming a place for selfish reasons might be interpreted by the people who actually live there, and who, in almost every case, play the patient host to foreign surfers. Imagine explaining this particularly egocentric ethic to an accommodating San Juanico fisherman, or Mauritanian goatherder, something along the lines of, “Trust me, Abdoulaye, you don’t want other surfers like us coming here. They’ll ruin the place.”
At this point a mea culpa is appropriate: throughout a long surfing life, and more importantly throughout a long career in the surfing media, I’ve been as guilty as anyone, maybe even more so, of perpetuating improper surfing place names; in the pages of the surf magazines and out, I’ve always called it Scorpion Bay. And even though I know better, having grown up in Hawaii and spent considerable time in Polynesia, I’ve been mispronouncing Teahupo’o along with everybody else. Perhaps that’s why it seems to me that this ramp-up to the Summer Olympics is a good time to change that egregious habit. Soon the eyes of the world will be turned to a tiny, incredibly picturesque village on the island of Tahiti, perceived entirely in the context of international surfing. A village whose residents have, for decades now, been incredibly generous, sharing their remarkable natural resource with the hordes of foreigners who descend on this little slice of paradise every season to shoot their videos and hold their contests and establish their reputations and earn their salaries…and yet still say the place’s name wrong. Yeah, let’s fix that.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the proper pronunciation is “Tear-hoo-poh-oh.”