Surfing ready to make a splash at Olympics and move away from the stereotypes | Tokyo Olympic Games 2020
At the prestigious Billabong Pipeline Masters in 2019, the final event of the last completed World Surf League Championship Tour (CT) season, Italo Ferreira and Gabriel Medina emerged in the final to duel each other for the world title. It was a significant event. Paddling into the sparkling, clear waters of Oahu, Hawaii, the two most prominent Brazilian surfers of the moment faced off for the biggest prize in the sport, a reflection of both the present and possible future of surfing. Once a sport dominated by Americans and Australians in turn, Brazil has usurped both as the focal point of the men’s field today.
As the competition began, it demonstrated one of the most underrated and fascinating aspects of competitive surfing. Medina, a two-time world champion, is renowned for his mental fortitude but 10 seconds into the contest, Medina tentatively backed out of the first wave as Ferreira swept forward and seized it for himself. He thundered down the side of the wave, smoothly turning at the bottom before emerging triumphant at its end. The crowd down on the beach cheered. The tone was set. Ferreira had immediately asserted himself and in the ensuing 39 minutes, an unsettled Medina was unable to perform well enough to deny him a first world title.
At its best, surfing is that one-on-one mental contest often won by those who choose their waves wisely, who better understand the conditions and can even intimidate opponents with their sheer presence, never letting them out of their sight. It is also, simply, one of the supreme athletic feats in sports. The surfers drive down walls of water, emerge from crashing barrels and sweep into the air, landing on the shifting surface below. Immense core strength, tree-trunk legs, balance and power are all necessary attributes.
As surfing enters the Olympic fold, the first question is simply whether it will work. Of all the places for surfing to make its Olympic debut, this location is hardly an ideal site to showcase the sport to the wider world. The smaller the wave, the smaller the opportunity for surfers to demonstrate the full breadth of their skills. Enter Tsurigasaki Beach, the venue of the surfing event in Chiba around 40 miles outside of Tokyo, which is well known for its diminutive waves during summer the period.
There are also few events more difficult to follow than surfing, which depends on the most unpredictable of battlegrounds in all of sports – the ocean. Any given day of competition requires the correct conditions to take place or else it is postponed until another day. Days of competition and broadcast coverage can span a seemingly unending stream of hours with ample dead time. In addition to their actual opponents, the surfers are competing against the ocean and even the subjective scoring by judges, which can lead to unsatisfying results.
And yet, there is much joy in following the sport. One of the recent thrills has been the clear, steady improvement of the women’s CT. The tour now offers equal prize money and the women surfers continue to become more dynamic with a deepening talent pool. The progression was underlined by Carissa Moore of Hawaii, the current dominant figure. In April, she launched an air-reverse high into the sky, becoming the first woman to execute such a manoeuvre in competition. As Moore clutched her face in disbelief after landing it, her opponent, Johanne Defay, applauded from the water.
Few characters are currently more absorbing than Medina, a defining figure of the past decade in surfing. His first world title in 2014 helped catalyse the rise of Brazilian surfing and his success has made him a superstar at home, reflected in his social media count and his close friendship with Neymar, but to others his unrelenting win-at-all-costs mentality has marked him as the resident villain. His ruthlessness has led to incidents ranging from the “interference” dramas of 2019 when he blocked an opponent from taking a wave in the dying minutes of their contest, to some comical outbursts earlier on in his career.
Above all, however, Medina is just a phenomenal surfer. He creates some of the most astonishing height in the air, yet he is extremely well rounded in his strengths. At times, he seems to make time slow down, generating a constant stream of excellence from an abundance of waves as his foes struggle to keep up. His ability to consistently produce has been unrivalled this year.
Some object to surfing as an Olympic sport since they view it as a lifestyle far more than competition, while others dread the even more crowded beaches that could come from any augmenting popularity.
Regardless, what this Olympics represents for the surfers and also to all new sports is the chance to demonstrate their profession on the biggest stage, showing all the athleticism, skill, talent and work required to succeed, which is often still shrouded by outdated stereotypes of their sport.
Curious onlookers will catch a glimpse of surfing for the first time and then have the opportunity to stay on past the coming two weeks. Time will tell if they do.