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The Olympics Made Surfing Lame, Somehow

Surfing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will happen on machine-generated, ‘stationary’ waves, ensuring whoever the winner is won’t necessarily be the best surfer in the world.

10.11.15 4:01 AM ET

Surfing is probably going to be in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which is stupid and everyone I know agrees. 

For those who don’t pay attention to fringe sport, Olympic inclusion is a long and arduous process. The International Olympic Committee, always looking to “prune the tree,” gathers regularly and votes on a slate of sports based upon host cities’ desires. Golf and rugby sevens will be the only new sports in Rio but the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee just said yes to surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing, karate and baseball/softball.

The nod is a big coup for the International Surfing Association and its president, Fernando Aguirre.

“Surfing has incredible and growing global appeal, particularly amongst young people,” Aguirre said. “It embodies a cool, playful lifestyle that would add a completely new element to the program, helping the Games reach new fans through live action and stunning broadcast opportunities.”

Except the broadcast opportunities won’t be stunning because the action will be taking place in a chlorine bathtub.

Wavepool technology, for those who don’t pay attention to fringe sport, has taken a major leap in the past few years and that leap has allowed surfing to be an Olympic sport. The ocean, you see, is too fickle to fit into necessary scheduling requirements. Wavepools solve the problem by creating surf on demand. 

The first commercial one, Surf Snowdonia Wavegarden, just opened in Wales (two others are set to open in Portugal and Austin, Texas) and promised proper head-high waves with power. Barrels even!

The reality has been less rosy. Smallish, weird, and riddled with technological problems.

Iconic surf journalist Derek Rielly says, “Once you’re in a tank, you realize, it ain’t a sublime, slow-motion experience, with easy roll-ins and endless walls. To create a wave of any sort of substance in such a short space requires power and violence.”

The late Andy Irons, three-time world champion, said, “Wavepools are so hard to surf. Y’gotta read those things like the fuckin’ Matrix!”

And so the Olympic surfers will be flopping around in 2-to-3-foot wedges. Any good surfer can figure out the angles but the game ain’t the same as proper ocean surfing. To be surf champ you must master both giant, very scary, very dangerous waves as well as smaller fun ones. You have to be able to ride the barrel, toss an air and have an outstanding power repertoire.

“Without a doubt the best surfer in the world, in any given year, is the WSL World Champion. They need to consistently perform over a 10-month period in a variety of conditions. Kelly [Slater] is the king because he has tamed all comers in all arenas—no question,” said Brodie Carr, ex-CEO of the Association of Surfing Professionals/World Surf League, who also ran the Sydney Olympics.

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So should surfing be included in the Olympics?

“Yes,” he said. “We are a sport that should sit alongside the other great Olympic sports and give us the opportunity to showcase our athletes and competition for the world to see.”

In other words, the Olympic gold medal surfer would not be the best surfer in the world, so Brodie thinks it’s stupid too. 

“I would surf in the Olympics, but if I won I would still tell people that I am a four-time NSSA East Coast champion first because those four mean a lot,” said Sterling Spencer, four-time National Scholastic Surfing Association East Coast champion. “The Olympics means rhythmic gymnastics.” 

And Sterling hits close to the truth. The Olympics are stiff, uncool, and corrupt.

There was much debate before snowboarding entered the Winter Games in Nagano 1998. It first got co-opted by the Federation Internationale de Ski. Skiers and snowboarders are not generally friends and especially weren’t in 1998.

Terje Haakonsen famously boycotted. Today he says he feels even more strongly about Olympic evil.

“There’s just no respect for the history and culture of snowboarding at all. I mean, you can’t even pack your own bag, some nations say you can’t even use your own social media ‘cos they want to control all the media,” he told whitelines.com. “The sponsorship is controlled, and people have to suddenly promote Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. It’s really hard to understand why you would go along with this.”

My wife was a professional snowboarder in 1998 and she thought it was just as stupid then. “The inherent nature of snowboarding is anti-establishment. Inclusion in that shit is counter to our deal,” my wife, Circe, tells me. Now she is an extreme-sport agent and her client, Iouri Podladtchikov, won halfpipe gold in Sochi and got a massive bonus, so she is happy. 

The coolest thing Olympic surfers can do, I think, is get kicked off the team. Or have my wife as their agent, win gold and get massive bonuses.