Opinion: Watching surfing at the Olympics is exciting, but I’ll be watching the waves


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Sonu lives and surfs in San Diego since 2012. He lives in Clairemont.

Sport is so ubiquitous in human life that it almost seems natural to include surfing in the Olympics at some point. As with other sports, there are competitions, points, a final and a winner. But surfing differs from the rest in that it requires the collaboration of Mother Nature, who plays by her own rules. Add a subjective assessment and you get the imperfect sport of competitive surfing. Understandably, it rarely does what it needs to do, which is to identify the best surfer.

The surf debut at the Tokyo Olympics is not spared from these shortcomings.

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In contrast to any other sport, chance plays a major role in contest surfing and is helplessly disregarded. It’s an uncomfortable by-product of competition in an ever-changing playing field determined by waves, wind and tides. Waves are random, if inconsistent, spread over 30-minute heats, and no two waves or heats are alike. Within a limited waiting time, contests often run early rounds in poor conditions to end with good waves or vice versa. The end result is an uneven playing field where performance alone does not determine the outcome.

In an attempt to determine performance, the judges condensed a surfer’s wave into the categories of speed, power, and flow and quantified them in numbers. Style, the ethereal quality that defines a surfer’s aesthetic, is lost somewhere in the criteria, while surfers and judges get caught in a feedback loop in which certain maneuvers are rewarded and thus repeated. Surfers do enough to get the score and stay on their boards, raw surfing is refined and recycled, and those who take risks are not always rewarded. Those who “surf smartly” are not contributing to the progress that we would expect from the competition.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule. The salvation of even the imperfect competition is when Mother Nature steals the show and the best in the world are there to take advantage of it. Seeing amazing waves being ridden amazingly is just something to enjoy. At this point, judgment is almost forgotten and the numbers don’t matter.

Those beautiful moments happen when the ocean offers a blank canvas and surfers forget about the jury, put the heat strategy aside and express themselves at the peak of their skills. A couple of historic feats that we can still remember: Kelly Slater’s impossible high line over the foam ball in a bus-sized Teahupoo keg at the Billabong Pro Tahiti 2014. Owen Wright drives through freight train tubes on his way to two perfect heats to the Fiji Pro 2015 John John Florence’s dominant redefinition of powersurfing in the 2017 Drug Aware Margaret River Pro. Commenting on John’s performance, Slater said, “John didn’t surf to win heats. He just surfed to express in his own way what he can do best. “

It is the same happiness to experience Mother Nature at her best and to witness these historical moments that interest me as a surf fan despite my reservations about contest surfing. I hope the waves can inspire in the Olympic arena. Tsurigasaki Beach, a popular competition site, was selected as the best place to catch tropical waves in the Pacific, and the 16-day wait from July 25th to August 9th marks the start of the typhoon season in Japan. So the Olympics must score at least one typhoon to run the four-day competition within that time. A typhoon could bring double the overhead + barrels as it did during the waiting period in 2016, 2017 and 2018. But at the test event in Tokyo in 2019 and during the waiting period in 2020, the waves were waist high on average. It takes a little luck for Mother Nature to show her full potential.

When the waves bring something epic, I tune in to see it. But if not, I’m not angry. The Olympic Games can have their competition. Competition is not what surfing means to me. I have never surfed a contest before. I will never be like John. And I’ll never ride the barrel like Slater But I know those perfect moments of quiet solitude, those glimpses of perfect harmony with a wave that pulls me back to the ocean in search of more.

The founder of surfer magazine John Severson said it best: “In this crowded world, the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.”

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