6.8.08

Surfing in the Olympics?


In 1920, Olympic gold medalist and father of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, first petitioned the International Olympic Committee to include surfing as part of the Antwerp Summer Games.

The Hawaiian icon, who swam to victory in the 100-meter freestyle at both the 1912 and 1920 Olympics and performed countless "surfriding exhibitions" for crowds from Long Beach to Australia, wanted the ancient Polynesian art of wave riding to be showcased for the world to see.

Eighty-eight years later, competitive surfers remain on the outside looking in for an opportunity to represent their countries and their sport at the most prestigious international athletic competition in the world.

It's not for lack of want. Many top surfers would likely jump at the opportunity to surf in the Olympics. Among them is Australia's four-time world champion, Mark Richards.



"I think it would be great if [surfing] was an Olympic sport," Richards said. "I think it would give the sport a lot more credibility and a lot more recognition. If I was still a competitive athlete and surfing was in the Olympics, I think there would be no better feeling than to stand on that one, two, three victory pedestal and have a gold, silver or bronze medal put around your neck, and to have your country's flag and your country's song actually come up behind you. I think that would be amazing."

Surfing is already recognized as a legitimate sport by the IOC. It's currently listed among some 30 "International Sports Federations" not included in the Olympic Games. Other sports on this list include rugby, golf, karate and bowling.

In recent years, the IOC has proven to be more open-minded about bringing in new, unconventional or "extreme" sports. Snowboarding made its first Olympic appearance at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games -- and has since become one of the most popular winter events -- and BMX racing will be included for the first time in Beijing. However, both these sports were introduced as "disciplines" of previously established Olympic sports [skiing and cycling, respectively]. This allowed lobbyists for these sports to avoid the long process of applying for a completely new Olympic sport.

"Surfing and skateboarding are the missing links in the inclusion of what some call X sports," said Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association ISA, recognized by the IOC as the World Governing Authority for surfing, bodyboarding and surfriding. Aguerre said he envisions surfing becoming an official Olympic sport by 2020.

"It will be included," he said in an e-mail Tuesday. "It's an ideal sport for the Olympics: contemporary, yet with deep roots. It's practiced all over the world and it very positively influences the youth of the world. It's practiced by people of all ages, races, cultures, socio-economic levels, and both genders. It's very healthy.

"The main hurdle is the complicated, politically charged process that goes on for almost a decade before a sport is included. Final decision for new sports, as of now, is made seven years ahead of the Games."

Surfing's idiosyncrasies have also conspired to keep it out of the official games. To begin with, surfing is entirely dependant on natural variables. Waves, as well as favorable winds and tides, are needed to showcase the sport in an ideal fashion. Yet the majority of potential host cities are nowhere near good waves.

"I think we need to all look at the Olympics in a different way," said 1977 world surfing champion Shaun Tomson. "I don't think the Olympics should be about a geographic place. I think the Olympics should be about an outstanding performance. ... If you're having the Olympics in Moscow or Berlin, why not have the surfing event held in the Mentawai Islands? Because most of the people who are watching the Olympics are watching it remotely anyway. They're watching via television. So why not have the greatest surfers in the world compete on the greatest playing field in the world?"


The IOC has already worked around those obstacles with other water- or ocean-dependent events such as kayaking and sailing. Both will be featured in Beijing this summer. A man-made course was built for the kayakers, while the sailing will be based out of a marina in the distant province of Shandong. Meanwhile, Aguerre claims that the technology is already available to eliminate the natural and geographic obstacles confronting an Olympic surfing event.

"The dependence on natural conditions [waves] for the event has been severely improved with the development of several artificial wave-making technologies, all manufacturable for a fraction of the [cost of the] kayak course built in Beijing," Aguerre said.

But wave pools open up a separate can of worms for surfing purists, and it's uncertain how many of today's top surfers would be interested in performing in a chlorinated tank on waves that most likely would lack the punch of an ocean-generated swell.



"It would be weird," said Santa Cruz pro Nat Young, "but it would also be more fair because everyone would be on the same type of wave and know when the wave was coming. It would be a lot different. Plus, if it's not saltwater, it would feel a lot different riding."

Young represented the U.S. at the 2008 ISA World Junior Championships in France in May. The ISA championships are one of the closest things surfing has to Olympic competition, and Young could very well wind up a future Olympian should the sport make it into the Games. He said surfing in a wave pool wouldn't keep him from the competition.

"I would do it," Young said. "I saw a video of a wave pool in Japan and guys were getting barrelled and doing huge airs. It looks sick."

The potential dominance of just a few nations -- namely Australia, Brazil and the U.S. -- is yet another potential sticking point for the IOC in admitting surfing to the Olympics. Currently, 31 of the 46 surfers on the World Championship Tour are from either the U.S. or Australia. But Aguerre argues that ISA membership includes the surfing National Governing Bodies NGBs of more than 50 countries on six continents.

"Over 50 National Federations of Surfing are members of the ISA," Aguerre said. "Dominance is not as bad as it seems by looking at the WCT events. At ISA events, there is more diversity."

Then again, even if a small handful of nations were to dominate, it wouldn't be the first time in Olympic history [e.g. basketball during Dream Team era or softball, which will be pulled after Beijing because of the U.S. team's complete dominance every four years]. And yet another burning question: Would Hawaiian surfers represent the island as a separate entity from the United States, as they have in most previous international surfing competitions?

Surfing flirted with inclusion into the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia -- one of the few host cities well-suited to host a surfing event -- but according to Aguerre, "We could not get our ducks all lined up properly.

"It's an expensive process," Aguerre said. "One of the biggest hurdles right now is the fact that many of the members of the IOC that will decide on new sports are heads of International Federations that will probably be either reduced or removed from the games. So this is a clear conflict of interest that conspires against bringing in new sports [like surfing]. Everybody is aware of this matter in the Olympic movement. But being aware of a problem, is not the same as being able to find a solution, and certainly not the same as implementing a solution"¦"

For now, the ISA World Surfing Games and the ISA World Junior Championships remain the closest thing to a surfing Olympics. The ISA has been running world championships since 1964 and the World Junior Championships since 1980 [championships are held every two years]. On Oct. 11-19, many of the world's best surfers from over 30 National Surfing Teams will compete in the ISA World Surfing Games, in Costa de Caparica, Portugal. The winner will bring home a gold medal, but it still won't be from the Olympics.


Beijing Olympics

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