Editor’s Note: On August 18, The Inertia’s EVOLVE Summit will celebrate individuals from the surf and outdoor worlds that use their influence to make a positive imprint on society. Few people in surfing have embodied that more than Tom Carroll. In 1985, Carroll boycotted three ASP events in South Africa during apartheid, an abhorrent system of institutionalized racism that worked to subdue South Africa’s native population for nearly 50 years during the 20th century. TC quite possibly sacrificed a third world title, finishing second in the tour rankings that year. Here, he took a moment to reflect on that decision and some of the lessons it taught him. We will be premiering a short film about his stand called Boycott the Gunston 500, and Tom will be speaking about athletes taking a stand on societal issues at this year’s EVOLVE Summit. Get tickets for our inaugural EVOLVE Summit now and enter code LASTCHANCE at checkout to receive $25 off until midnight PT August 8th, while tickets are still available.
Let’s reel it back to 1985 and being an Australian — a sportsperson who is now out there in the public eye as a world champion surfer for the second time. There was contention around competing in South Africa as any sportsperson – from footballers, a cricketer, rugby, or any international athlete traveling to South Africa. As a surfer in other parts of the world, that might have gone a little under the radar, but not so much in Australia. If you were a tennis player, for example, and you competed in South Africa, you were looked upon as somebody supporting apartheid. I felt a great sense of responsibility around that as a human. And what I was feeling was becoming more intensified. I was just this kid — only 23, maybe 24, quite young, and quite naive. But that was probably on my side because I didn’t have to think too much.
I don’t want to just pinpoint surfers, but I think athletes — people who are pushing themselves to the edge physically — have a natural sensitivity that’s brought to the surface. I had been working really hard to become the best version of myself on all different levels and now I felt a deep responsibility as a world champion. Having grown up in somewhat of a bubble, I was never influenced by that feeling of separation or looking down upon others. So when I saw what was going on in South Africa, even though I loved going there and had a lot of support and friends there like Shaun Tomson, I couldn’t overlook the way people were treating each other there.
There are actually quite a lot of things I would do differently surrounding that decision to boycott. But then again a lot of those same things might have swayed me back. I didn’t know how to go about making the decision without feeling that I was agreeing with or supporting apartheid. I just couldn’t do it. So I talked to my brother, who was really the only person I talked to about boycotting aside from a few close friends. I didn’t even share it with my manager or my sponsor. I just went and did it. And that was probably a really naive thing and even an immature thing that I definitely would have done differently with hindsight. I would have communicated it to people around me and the people who supported me. Why? Because it put them into shock. I would have consulted in them, even just to let them know: “This is what I want to do.” I would have let them know what to prepare for. I would have let the media know, rather than it coming out in one newspaper interview. But that doesn’t change the fact that I just wanted to step up.
The one thing for me is that once we make a decision like that — as with anything major — there’s a balancing act. The very first thing when I went into all this was an idea that maybe I could change one person’s mind. If I can do that with just this one action, if I can change one person’s mind for the better about their feelings toward another human being then I’d have achieved what I’d set out to do.