The Evolution of Surfing, and its Potential to Become an Olympic Event

Hana Tuitama - USA
March 1999

Surfer: one might picture a brainless bleach blond male, approximately in his mid to late teens, shabby appearance, casual and laid back with no clue of what the "real world" is like . Could it be this same image that prevents the sport of surfing from becoming an Olympic event? Perhaps! Surfing is a popular sport with professional surfers earning around $120,000 or more in competitions. It has been around longer than basketball and has made profitable amounts of money, yet it isn't even a part of the E.S.P.N Extreme Games (a mini version of the Olympic Games for alternative sports).

According to leading surf activist, and founder of organized high school surfing, Dr. Bruce Gabrielson, "Although, surfing as a sport has made great strides, it will never gain the kind of recognition, influence or support other sports have until it becomes an Olympic sport" (Gabrieson,Int.). Even though there are some problems with adding surfing to the Olympic venue, there exists solutions in addition to long-term benefits. The sport of surfing has developed from an ancient Hawaiian pastime to a multi-million dollar international sport, fully capable of becoming an Olympic event.

Surfing has evolved from a cultural pastime to a popular trend, and finally to become a booming tourism and clothing industry. Today, anyone can stroll down to the beach and pay to learn how to surf, but in ancient times it was a sacred sport reserved for kings. "Surfing was literally the sport of kings, and they in turn were often the best surfers, for, besides its religious implications, proficiency in the sport was a definite status symbol at all levels of Hawaiian life" (Dixon 21).

One of the first missionaries to arrive in Hawaii to witness this spectacular site was Captain James Cook. Judging by Captain Cook's reaction, surfing was a site to behold, "I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was being driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea." (George 104). While Cook's view on surfing was positive most missionaries opposed the sport and viewed it as bringing evil. "Most missionaries in Hawaii viewed surfing as a shamefully hedonistic pursuit that encouraged gambling, sex and a host of other mortal sins." (Krakauer, Infotrac) The missionaries views dominated Hawaiian life and culture for a while, but eventually the sport was revived and became increasingly popular.

In the 1900's surfing was revived and a a subculture was born. In 1907 novelist Jack London revived surfing from its sinful-period by writing about his experience at North Shore, Hawaii in The Cruise of The Shark (Krakauer). The popular publicity of this book brought surfing back (Krakauer). London's popular North Shore book reached a wealthy developer named Henry Huntington. Huntington used surfing to his advantage by inviting George Freeth (London's surf teacher in Hawaii) to display his talent at Redondo Beach, in hopes to lure city dwellers on his new Redondo Beach to Los Angeles railway line. (Krakauer). It was through this advertising scheme that a new subculture was born in Southern California. In memory to the two great pioneers of surfing, Freeth's statue can be found at Redondo Beach as a tribute to him, and Henry Huntington is remembered by the world famous surf city, Huntington Beach.

Another pioneer in surfing was the legendary Duke Kahanamoku. Due to his many early contributions to the sport, Kahanamoku is known as the father of surfing . Duke Kahanamoku was an athlete who excelled in surfing and swimming, and won a gold medal in the 100 meter freestyle in 1912 (Krakauer). After winning the gold, he used his fame to advocate surfing . He brought popularity to the sport, by demonstrating it across the country while on his victory tour (Krakauer). Kahanamoku's influence increased surfing's popularity immensely.

During the fifties, surfing became more than just a sport, but it had also evolved its own culture. " To be a surfer was to belong to a vibrant, close-knit society possessing its own values and mores, its own manner of dress, its own language"(Krakauer Infotrac). This prelude into the sixties surfing scene would mark the end of the small close-knit comfort, and expose it all across America.

Surfing's exposure to the American public in the sixties had a great impact on America's youth. Surf culture dominated America with personalities such as Frankie and Annette, Gidget, music by The Beach Boys, The Surfaris, Jan and Dean, along with the many classic slang terms: hang ten, cowabunga , gnarly, and the one that survived which is still used today, "dude". The popularity boom was great for business, but not for surfers whose close knit society was exposed and causing the ocean waters to be infested with novices and wannabes.

"Not surprisingly, most surfers who had been involved in the sport in the pre-Gidget days were less than happy about the cross commercialization and the resulting population explosion in the waves" (Krakauer). Champion surfer Mickey Dora expressed his displeasure of the attention surfing received on a nationally televised surfing competition in Malibu in 1965: "As the events final round was drawing to a close, in the midst of executing a difficult nose-riding maneuver on the biggest wave of the afternoon, he lowered his trunks and mooned the thousands of spectators lining the shore, not to mention a television audience in the millions" (Krakauer). Even professional surfers became disgusted with the trendy attention, but inappropriate actions like those Dora's gave the sport, and surfers in general, a bad name.

Today surfing is a huge industry with top surfers earning around $100,000 or more for competitions, and traveling to exotic places to do what they do best. Surf based clothing companies such as Quiksilver, Billabong, Rusty and Local Motion are popular brand names that sponsor surfers, surf competitions, etc., and yet they don't spend ridiculous amounts of money on mainstream T.V advertisements.

Surfing is a special sport requiring an ocean or machine that will produce 'surfable' waves. For Olympic competition, if the host city is located by an ocean, such as Sydney, Australia, there will be no problem finding 'surfable' waves, but there is no guarantee that the host city will always be by an ocean. Also, competition will have to change in order to fit the agenda that the Olympic Committee has established. If history repeats itself with the exposure of surfing causing another popularity boom, the consequences of Olympic competition might not be as harmless as being mooned by a professional surfer.

Land locked countries are an obvious problem for surfing. According to Dr. Gabrielson, "The major problem currently is the disadvantage land locked countries have with a sport that isn't widely accepted in their country" ( Countries would have to spend money on building a wavepool, which would seem like a waste since majority of that land locked country doesn't surf. If wavepools aren't installed, either the nearest ocean would be used or the event would have to be delayed or cancelled.

In addition to land locked countries, Olympic competition would differ from regular surfing competitions . Current world champion Kelly Slater states, "The Olympic Champion would be winning on one event, whereas the World Champion is decided over a year-long multiple event tour." (Goldfarb, Infotrac) If this were to occur, it would lead to a gold medallist who is an inadequate representative. "You could end up with a situation where everyone's looking at the Olympic champion saying, "God. How'd he win?" (Slater, Kelly - from Goldfarb).

Although wave pools are a great solution to land locked countries, they too have their disadvantages. Some of these disadvantages are:

The judgement criteria related to wave selection would be eliminated. Boards designed for surfers who surf salt water on a regular basis would be different for the competition since the pools freshwater would change board flotation slightly. Since the wave break is the same, trick surfing and more radical maneuvers would tend to weigh heavier in judgement criteria. (Gabrielson
With these disadvantages in mind judging would have to be more difficult than usual and it would be essential for surfers to have a knowledge of how to surf both ocean and wave pool waters.

Mickey Dora's expression of displeasure with the attention surfing received is nothing compared to today's crimes committed by those who are not willing to put up with any surfer on their turf, "Countless other shows of 'localism' - threats, tire-slashings and 'spearing' other surfers by launching surfboards at them in the water-have plagued Southern California beaches over the years" (Woolfolk, Infotrac).

According to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, in 1996 there were 1.5 million surfers in the United States. (Woolfolk) Surfers are ensuring that history won't repeat itself by literally fighting for the right to ride the waves.

It's evident that there are many changes that need to be made if surfing is to be included in the Olympic venue, yet there are ways to solve these problems. Wavepools are the only realistic answer to land locked countries, and are useful after the Olympic Games. It has been proven that celebrities pushing for a cause they believe in usually have a better chance of getting that cause to be recognized than a regular civilian. Perhaps this is what surfing needs to become an Olympic event.

Dave Lochtfeld is the award winning creator of Flow-Rider, a type of wave pool for waterparks, "He created the Flow Rider so land locked surfers could still enjoy surfing" (O'Brien, Infotrac). Lochtfeld has won many prestigious awards for his creation including, Best Waterpark Attraction, Industry Innovation Award, and top award for New Major Ride at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Convention.(O'Brien). Lochtfeld's creation is unique since it allows you not only to surf, but also to do tricks.(O'Brien)

Using wave pools for competition have some advantages. According to Dr. Gabrielson:

Judging would be based on the same wave conditions, time period, number of riders, and judging criteria for all surfers. Scoring could be similar to that used in gymnastics, with the highest and lowest score not counting in the total. A country without a coastline but with a wavepool could potentially have a medal contender, plus could use the pool after the Olympics were over (

With these advantages surfers would benefit in some way. Wavepools are great not only for Olympic competition but also for recreational use. Publicity is a great way to benefit a cause. Celebrity personalities are also an effective way to push for a cause, " I truly believe that it will take another Olympic Gold medallist like the Duke to really speed the process for recognition up" (Gabrielson E-mail). Major corporations are also extremely helpful in getting a cause recognized. Their help not only is good for the cause but also for their business. "I think Surfrider [the Surfrider Foundation] has formidable political and public support, and may represent the real push we need" (Gabrielson, E-mail). The Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to make the public aware of various environmental issues, especially pollution in ocean water. With their help not only will surfers benefit themselves but also society.

Who decides what sports get to be in the Olympics? The International Olympic Committee decides what sports get recognized, then which one becomes an Olympic event. (U.S. Olympic News Network In order for a sport to be in the Olympic games there are three qualifications: first men's sports must be played on four continents in seventy-five countries and women's sports needs to be played in forty countries and on three continents, and the sport must be admitted seven years before the next Olympic games by the I.O.C. (U.S.Olympic News Network Before all this is to happen, the sport in question must be recognized by the I.O.C.

Recognition by the I.O.C does not mean it will become part of the Olympic program, it will join other sports that have received recognition. (F.A.Q. Page

These qualifications seem simple, yet the process is long and drawn out. As for surfing's part in this, it has reached the first step in becoming an Olympic event and meets also meets all the requirements. Surfing received recognition by the I.O.C in 1997, which was a major step to being included in future games. (U.S.Olympic News Network Surfing is played on more than four continents (North America, South America, Australia, Africa, Europe, Asia) and at least seventy-five countries; therefore both men and women qualify. Since it was accepted in 1997 it can't become an official Olympic sport, but according to Brad Goldfarb, "Surfing has become so huge internationally that in the year 2000 it will be a demonstration sport at the Olympics" (infotrac). All has been done, that can be done, to become an Olympic event. It is now up to the I.O.C to come to a conclusion.

When surfing becomes an Olympic event, it will benefit not only the business aspect , but also the environment. Due to the international exposure, business's will be in fierce competition to have competing surfers use their products. Clothing and board companies are expected to benefit the most from this exposure. Tom Holbrook, Vice-President of Sales for Quiksilver, seems to have an optimistic look on surf exposure, "Surfing's acceptance level has skyrocketed from the early years when it was considered reckless. Now the sport is perceived as a wholesome lifestyle and everyone wants to be a part of it." (Actman, Infotrac)

Olympic exposure also proved to have a great impact in the past. Due to Duke's popularity as an American hero an estimated 5,000 people were surfing in California by the late fifties. (Krakauer, Infotrac) There are many places on this planet that have great surf as well as beautiful beaches and great weather, thus increasing tourism.

The environment will also benefit from surfing's exposure. As more and more people travel to the beach, and find that it's closed due to pollution, the environmental issue will be forced to the forefront. Multi-World Champion Kelly Slater wrote a letter to the Mayor, and had it publicized in a local paper after surfing at a beach in France, where there was a sewage outfall that made the water smell foul. (Goldfarb, Infotrac)

According to Slater, a surfer is obligated to be an environmentalist. (Goldfarb) It's virtually impossible to surf without water; for this reason it is up to those who use the ocean waters the most to keep it clean by any means possible. "I've voiced my opinions and done what I could to help come up with a solution, whether on my own or through the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps to fight coastal pollution" according to Slater. (Goldfarb) If people are constantly exposed to these problems of pollution, it will motivate them to see that the problem is fixed.

What was once regarded as the root to all evil is now an internationally practiced sport. There are still barriers waiting to be broken in order to get the respect and recognition it deserves. Surfing meets the standards of the I.O.C., and the question of it becoming an Olympic event hangs in the balance for reasons that are unknown at the time. In conclusion, the requirements of the sport have been met, and if Olympic entry is gained it will benefit the environmental and economical aspects of the sport. Surfing- a sport worthy of Olympic victory, and anticipating its arrival.

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