Surfing’s Olympic Dream

Gold medals, kids with dreams, massive credibility, huge sponsorships, government investment, world-wide coverage, global respect, a key to unlock (finally) massive global uptake of surfing. The last vestiges of surfing’s counter-cultural past (those dole bludging, drug taking surfie scum!) washed away in the flood of team uniforms, podiums, teary athletes festooned with medals. The next surf boom unleashed, not just in coastal nations but worldwide now that wave pools have become a reality. Does this prospect thrill, or chill to the bone? Depends which side of the fence you are looking at it from I suppose. Me? Apart from the tingly thrill of seeing Kelly on the podium in between Bulgarian weightlifters, I feel like I’m hog-tied and naked in the deep freeze. But let’s look at both sides, see how the arguments for and against stack up.

But before we blow the whistle on the first half lets take a look at a few of the facts of the case, as far as we know them.

First up, surfing is only in the Olympics as a result of a radical modernization and reform program of the Olympics with the very scary and conspiratorial title of Agenda 2020. There’s a lot in it and if you ever want to waste a half day you can spend hours reading all the motherhood statements and organizational jargon. But I’ll save you the time: surfing was included as part of efforts to appeal to youth and to reach gender equality goals. More on whether surfing is a good fit with these goals later. The Olympic Competition in Tokyo, held, for the moment at least in “Shida” beach will consist of a two-day competition in amongst a Beach and Culture Festival over a 16 day waiting period with 20 men and 20 women competitors.


The prime mover to get surfing recognised as an Olympic sport is a kinetic Argentinian surf-industrialist named Fernando Aguerre. He was the owner of Reef, yep the one with the fetish for gals’ backsides, until 2005, and has been El Presidente of the International Surfing Association for a staggering 23 years, almost half of its 53-year existence. To say he’s a true believer is somewhat of an understatement. He’s a guy who can say this: “The Surf and Beach Festival to be held at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, will allow the ISA to share our values, lifestyle and culture with billions around the world. What a great way to spread surfing’s Aloha in an unprecedented way.”, with a completely straight face. And maybe he’s right, maybe the World would be a better place, if everyone, all seven billion of us, surfed. Personally, I think we would all be happier if they take up mindfulness and yoga.

One person obviously excited is Andrew Stark, CEO of Australia’s peak surfing organisation Surfing Australia. He sees in the Olympic inclusion not just a theatre for Australian surfers to win Gold and push high-performance surfing to new levels but an increase in Government investment because of the new status. “In Australia” he explains, “Your investment profile if you are an Olympic Sport is more advantageous. The investment we can put into high performance will be increased as a result of the Olympics. We are already starting to see that”.

One clear sign of increased government support is the signing of Bede Durbidge as Elite Program Manager, a move backed by surfers as well as governing bodies like the AIS and Australian Olympic Committee. According to Stark, the signing of Bede gives surfers who make the Olympic Squad an advantage not just in the Tokyo competition but in WSL tour events.

Australia’s Olympic Training squad is yet to be announced and Stark was coy on the details, saying a final makeup would depend on a number of factors related to the final methods surfers would be subject to for Olympic inclusion by the ISA. When pressed he confirmed they did have a provisional squad and that it included both CT surfers and Non-CT surfers. Australia, of course, has an embarrassment of riches as far as potential squads go and with a total tally of 20 men and 20 women there are going to be a lot of nations who miss out. The ISA and WSL will be walking a tightrope as far as including as many countries as possible into the 40 surfers. 45 countries competed at the recent ISA world games in France. Former WSL CEO Paul Speaker sees the inherent conflict in opening up the chance of other countries to representation, “we don’t have a global footprint in terms of representation. If you take the Men’s CT and QS rankings — the top 45 on either side — you end up with about 10 countries represented”. Global behemoths with national pride resting on medal counts, China, in particular, will be pressing for inclusion. Courtney Conlogue puts her finger on the imperative to balance the need for global representation with showcasing the best of the best, “Honestly I think it’s a make or break having the best athletes in surfing in the Olympics. With how long we have waited we need to do this right”. Stark sees a rising-tide-floats-all-boats scenario where the Olympics “opens up funding and opportunity for other countries to invest in high performance”. It’s likely Australia will get two or at the most three men and the same number of women competing in Tokyo.

One of those with a good chance of making the training squad, if not at these games then certainly the next is Lennox Heads’ Mikey McDonaugh, one of the hottest junior surfers in the world. Mikey sees Olympic inclusion as the next step in the evolution as surfing as sport. Asked what it might mean to him to one day win Gold Mikey is effusive, saying “Ever since I was growing up, winning a World Title was like winning Gold in any other sport….and there was never any thought of going in the Olympics and winning Gold because surfing wasn’t there, but now that it’s been added it’s something crazy to think about. It gives me goosebumps knowing that one day I could represent my country at the Olympics and have the opportunity to win Gold.” Hard to argue with that or a kid in Indonesia, or Fiji, or El Salvador finding inspiration and purpose in going for Gold.

What about the arguments against, surely nothing more than the grumblings of a few old discontents with irritable bowels? Maybe. Firstly, does surfing even deserve to be in the Olympics? Has it snuck in the backdoor via false pretences, crashed the party like a classic Miki Dora scam? The primary justification for surfing’s inclusion- in the words of the ISA’s President: “Surfing speaks directly to young people. The unique culture and youthful values are the embodiment of the sport and we must harness this youthful energy and use it as a driving force behind our ambitions”, –       looks very wobbly when you stack it up against the facts. In the powerhouse and engine room of competitive surfing, Australia, the demographics of surfing are crystal clear and incontrovertible. Surfers and surfing are ageing. It’s no longer a youth sport that appeals to the young. At the time a 19-year-old Midget Farrelly was becoming Surfings first World Champion in 1964 at Manly Beach, according to esteemed surf journalist Nick Carroll, “around 30% of both Australia’s and the USA’s coastal population was under 21 years of age. Today, pretty much the same percentage is over 55”. Surveys carried out between 2010 and 2014 in Australia by market research firm Roy Morgans found a substantial decline in men under 35 surfing but an increase in surfing numbers overall, driven primarily by both men and women over the age of 50. Yes, there is a surf boom but it’s being driven not by the energy of youth but by superannuants and retirees. Seachangers are taking over the surfing world. Don’t believe me? Take a look around the line-up. Chances are if it’s not a slab you’ll see more faces over 40 than under it.

As baby boomer money and property wealth floods Australian and American coastal enclaves there’s little chance the demographic clock can be wound back to 1964, when 60000 people lined the Manly foreshore to watch Midget take the Title, simultaneously legitimising a wayward subculture and cementing an antipodean centre of gravity for competitive surfing that has never been displaced. Will these greying surfers be capable of providing the ballast for a long-term Olympic sport? According to Marg Bryant, a keen surfer in her 60’s who is enjoying a late career shift as talent for a superannuation ad campaign with surfing as the main motif, surfing is about friendship, escape, peace, contentment, the idea of it as a competitive sport barely enters into the picture. The last surfing as Youth-Culture-Vanguard train left the station about 20 years ago and it’s a massive X for the Olympic equation whether the growing numbers of ageing surfers will give enough of a shit about it to keep it up, so to speak. This quote from the legendary George Greenough when asked if he cared about surfing being in the Olympics sums up the attitude of many:  “I don’t care about it. It’s just too remote from my surfing experience.”

If the surfing tribe itself can’t engage can the rest of the world be relied upon to find surfing as an Olympic Sport as mesmerising as the breathless slogans would suggest? It’s a clear and present danger that with only 20 male and 20 female athletes from around the world surfing in Tokyo could get lost in the white noise of a massive sporting event with each country curating which sports it chooses to focus on. Instead of surfing being showcased in front of billions of eyeballs it might barely register on the global sporting radar. This is an even bigger danger if Shida beach fails to produce a decent typhoon swell and the Gold Medal is decided in 2 ft slop. That will not be compelling viewing for Joe Sixpack in Buttfuck, America.

The only way around this is a wave pool event, something George Greenough sees as a necessity. He envisions a format where the surfer tells the judges what manoeuvres they will perform and then under the controlled environment of the wave pool goes out and executes a routine. Gymnastics on water, in other words. In a strange way, as remote as it is from surfing in the Ocean with all it’s inherent unpredictability and flaws, that makes sense. It sure does seem in a parallel universe to the idea of surfing in the Olympics- men and women gliding gloriously on ocean swells- that energised surfing’s original evangelical Duke Kahanomoku.

The bigger question: Is it even an Olympic sport? Should it be an Olympic sport is rarely asked. Skateboarding, another inclusion into the Olympics that sees itself as an Anti-Sport faces a similar dilemma. According to Baker rider Braydon Szafranski, “Gang of Misfits… not athletes!! Skateboarding is a crime, not a sport”. The days of surfing truly being a counter-cultural activity that represented some kind of danger to society are long gone, but they don’t seem that far away. Ironically it is the ageing baby boomers who make up the fastest growing segment of surfings growth curve who cleave the most to this romantic image of surfing, despite the million dollar homes and superannuation. Nostalgia is not a rational emotion. Some memory, some longing still remains for the freedom of being outside the strictures of organised sport, of society and despite the Olympics and wave pools may continue on as a defining feature of our beloved pastime. The Olympics and wave pools are now the present but whether they represent a durable future is a script yet to be written.