The Olympic Surfing Challenge
Dr. Bruce Gabrielson
"Every mountain that you climb must start with a first step. We fail if we currently can't even agree on the first small steps."
During the early 1980s I attempted to get some type of Olympic recognition for surfing. My hope was to have surfing become an exhibition sport for the Los Angeles Olympics through its then affiliation with the AAU. The effort failed for several reasons. Most important then as now was overcoming the reluctance by landlocked countries to support a new activity that would primarily be the domain of countries with natural coastlines. The second biggest roadblock was dealing with the multitude of existing organizational structures and people that weren't willing to compromise. I learned from my efforts that it would take many years (if ever) for surfing to make it into the Olympics in its traditional format, and only some serious give and take among all parties would result in a viable recognition thrust.
Our World Has Changed
Now, a real personal surprise to me, here I am again trying to climb the impossible wall. I'm getting older, the frustration within the sport is still there, many of the organizational people have changed, and it appears the primary problems to recognition still haven't gone away. However, there is now at least one real difference that didn't exist a few years ago, and this is the world wide immediate exposure the surfing world has through the Internet. Ideas can be exchanged immediately and can come from anyone, not just from "official" sources. The problems can be freely discussed, and although the possible solutions might not be agreeable, at least everyone in the world will immediately know why the attempt failed. This time, while there may still be innuendoes and personal attacks by those in organized surfing's hierarchy, with the full story available to everyone, there will be less uncertainty.
Also, this time around, some in the USSF want my input and hopefully will listen to my suggestions. On another personal note, I've been around organized surfing since the early 1960s, and most know that I'm only interested in helping the sport, not a particular group, surfing association or country. I don't want everyone to think that my recommendations will be best for any one organization.
Real Issues and Realistic Goals
There are a few major issues that will prevent surfing from getting into the Olympics, period. Besides the fact that to the rest of the athletic world, surfing is "just another minor sport", for quick acceptance any Olympic competition will need to fit into the Olympic venue and will also need to be acceptable to the major land-locked countries. Anyone who thinks that surfing will make it at the Olympic level just because every country with a coastline might support it is simply wrong. This thinking has prevailed for a long time and might be the underlying basis why many won't accept any alternative approaches.
I'm still willing to bet that any country supporting the inclusion of a new sport will also have within its borders someone capable of placing or winning. The question is how can surfing, or a derivative or our sport become more acceptable to land-locked countries. Like it or not, the only way I can see this happening is if we hold Olympic competitions for wave pool surfers. With this in mind, we should change our focus from "pool surfing doesn't show true ability" to something like "how can we get a good quality wave and competition event out of a pool break?"
I think that the surfing world's next attempt to gain recognition within the Olympics should first concentrate on a potentially achievable goal, pool surfing, rather than an impossible goal for now, traditional coastline surfing. Realistically, "traditional" surfing might get into the PanAm Games or the Pacific Games, but anything else is simply not going to happen. Certainly these games should be the most likely immediate goal of any traditional recognition effort.
If we could shift focus, the issue will then become not can a land-locked country win, but how competitive can everyone with strong traditional surfing programs be against those countries whose surfers only surf in a pool environment. Are we willing, as a sport, to compromise in order to get into the games? I realize no one wants to hear this, but facts are facts. The first Olympic surfing champion, if there is one, will likely be a wavepool surfer, not a traditional surfer. If the surfing world was to shift its recognition focus towards a realizable objective, then we should start to push pool surfing at some national level, and the corresponding development of quality pool breaks, towards this longer-term outcome.
I've published other articles over the years describing the advantages and disadvantages of pool surfing. If no one wants to deal with pool surfing, then lets go along on our merry way and let time take its course.
The other big obstacle to overcome for Olympic recognition is consistent judgment criteria and local organizational flavor. There are many organizations in the world, each with different agendas. Surfing will not be accepted unless every organization gives and takes to come up with one set of criteria everyone can live with. The intent should not be to set the rules up to favor any one location or organization but to provide some general format acceptable enough that none would have an advantage over any other.
In this article, I've presented the issues that I personally think need to be overcome by organizations and surfers all over the world. There should be a set of shorter-term goals and longer-term goals developed that will eventually lead to some form of Olympic recognition for our sport. The shorter-term goals should be practically achievable within a few years. This article has again pointed out a methodology for moving surfing further towards the status of an Olympic sport. If our sport isn't mature enough to get some form of acceptance, then so be it. If, on the other hand, we first work towards an achievable goal, then maybe we stand a chance.