Hawaii competing as its own nation in surfing has always sat for me on the far side of irrelevancy. The only things at stake are two flags – the one beside an athlete’s name on TV, and the one draped over them by a PR gremlin if they win something. Everything in between is stateless, or at least should be. Arguments for and against this old competitive surfing tradition, which actually predates Hawaiian statehood (1959), spark up about once a year and generally take the form of tradition vs. the fact that Hawaii is a state, and all the other states get jealous when one starts putting on airs. With the rumor mill running wild about the Olympics this year (I know, enough with the Olympics already – sorry), the age old debate will undoubtedly resurface with smart money on the “Hawaii-is-America” camp to take the win if – but only if – surfing gets its Olympic berth.
Popular thought within the surf world holds that Hawaii remains separate in surfing competitions because of the state-wide grudge it holds against the mainland for its annexation. This is only partly true. What Hawaiians think about the rest of America is a matter of hot debate, nowhere more so than in Hawaii itself, where questions of Identity, race politics, heritage, and at least 100 years of extreme multiculturalism inform every aspect of daily life. If you ask 10 different people in Honolulu what “Hawaiians” think about a certain political topic you’ll get 10 different answers as well as 10 different opinions on what it actually means to be Hawaiian.
The aloofness to the mainland that we see specifically in surfing comes from a combination of factors. First, it mirrors the mentality of any exceedingly small society that has created something of outsized importance in the world – think the Irish and their Guinness or the British and their soccer. Second, they consistently punch above their weight in it – think New Zealand and Rugby. Thirdly, their concentration of good waves is frankly staggering. And finally there is the lingering belief among Hawaiian surfers that the mainland has never really done much beside exploit their waves and image for its own gain. This isn’t unfounded. Outsiders first nearly stamped out surfing, then the US mainland resurrected it as a kitschy tourist draw to their new south Pacific holiday colony. Every year the surf industrial complex rolls into town around now, acts a fool in the lineup, drives too fast through the neighborhoods then invariably goes home with stories about monstrous Polynesian men threatening them at every corner. That such stories are mostly figments of overactive Californian and Australian imaginations goes without saying but they have created an image of certain parts of the islands – while absolving themselves of any blame – that will take decades to reverse.
It’s not clear if giving Hawaii its own flag in competition is a small concession by pro surfing elders to the embarrassing way they have treated the Islands for the last 50 odd years, or if it’s just another of the many traditions that surfers value so much – one of those quaint little reminders that surfing is still small enough to to feel like a large and unruly family in which plenty of non-sequiturs are accepted in order to keep the boat from rocking too much .
The ambiguity between Hawaiian surfers’ shared cultural identity and their national reality – which is one of the defining traits of nearly all people in our hyper-globalized age – is actually accommodated quite comfortably in surfing. We are, above and beyond all other things, coastal people who often have more in common with each other than we do with inlanders from our own nominal countries. Pro surfing in particular is a small demimonde of highly trained athletes who rarely, if ever, venture outside of viewing distance from the sea. I would go so far as to say that Mick Fanning, Adriano de Souza and Keanu Asing more properly belong to a nation of surfers than they do Australia, Brazil and Hawaii – flag waving on the beach be damned.
Accommodating (if sometimes uncomfortably) a range of national identities is one of the hallmarks of a truly modern culture, and for once, it feels like surfing is in a leading position to do this instead of being 10 years behind like it is in so many other areas. Even the execrable anti-Brazilian sentiment of the early 00’s has mostly petered out. However, an Olympic berth will inevitably mean more flag waving, more national anthems, more soppy, post heat interviews about how your country is greatest. The idea, of course, is to stamp out of any sort of cultural ambiguity in favor of some 19th century aristocrat’s nationalist ideal of all-encompassing countries going head-to-head to prove their prowess and vim on an international stage. Bullshit. Atavistic, backward-thinking bullshit. There are sports that are well suited to atavistic, backward-thinking bullshit, namely, any of the ones that simulate war, but I don’t think surfing has ever fit comfortably into that group and I hope it never does. If we have to compete under flags at all, let them be the ones that we choose for ourselves, not the ones thrust upon us by history and circumstance.