Roger Cox: Artificial waves the only way of ensuring reliable surf

Roger Cox. Picture: TSPL
Roger Cox. Picture: TSPL
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There were two significant pieces of news for surfers last week: one exciting, the other... confusing.

Firstly, the sport of kings took a big step closer to making its Olympic debut after the executive board of the International Olympic Committee (consisting of the president, Thomas Bach, and 14 other Olympic big cheeses) voted unanimously to approve it as one of five new sports to be included in the programme for Tokyo 2020. All that now stands between surfing and a place in the five-ring mega-circus is a vote at the IOC Session in Rio in early August – and it sounds as if that may already be as good as in the bag. Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association (and hardly a man who is likely to want to tempt fate at this delicate stage in proceedings) has gone as far as to say: “the word out there is that it looks very good for a yes”.

There will, of course, be many surfers – predominantly grizzled, jaded old-timers, still paddling out in all weathers in spite of creaking joints and niggling long-term injuries – who would like surfing to revert to being a misunderstood and largely ignored minority pastime. But even the members of surfing’s grumpy walrus faction must be at least a teeny bit excited at the prospect of their sport finally being recognised at the biggest athletic jamboree on the planet. And even the grumpiest of the walruses must be hoping, if only on some deep, subconscious level, that if surfing does get its moment in the limelight it will be able to do itself justice.

Which brings us to last week’s second bit of news – the confusing bit – in which we learned that, if surfing does indeed make it to Tokyo, it will take place not in an artificial wave pool, as many commentators (including this one) had predicted, but in real waves off the coast of Japan. In an interview with US surfing website, The Inertia, Aguerre was about as unambiguous on this point as he could have been, short of seeking out the nearest tattoo parlour and having the information inked on his forehead.

“The IOC and Tokyo 2020 have both agreed they want it on the ocean,” he said. And when pressed again about the possibility of the contest being held in an artificial wave pool, he added: “As of now I can say no man-made waves will be used.”

“Hmmm,” thought the surfing world to itself. “This could either go very, very right, or it could go very, very wrong.”

It’s not that the coast around Tokyo doesn’t get waves – it gets plenty – and late July/early August is right in the middle of typhoon season. Trouble is, when the typhoons aren’t doing their thing, the surf in this neck of the woods tends to be unreliable at best, miserable at worst.

For international surf travellers, The Stormrider Guides are the equivalent of the Lonely Planet books for backpackers – revered as the ultimate authority. Here’s what they have to say about the Chiba Peninsula, Tokyo’s best stretch of surfing coast, about 30km from the city:

“The typhoon belt produces an average of 20 swells per season (June-October). Typhoon swells are unpredictable and can last from either several hours to many days, depending on the track they take across the Pacific. They can send 2-8ft (0.5-2.5m) SE swells, which last two or three days. There are many flat days and if you’re unlucky, you may end up surfing no more than 1-2ft (0.5m) mush.”

Holding a summer surf contest here, then, is an almighty gamble: an epic, board-snapping typhoon swell could arrive right on cue, allowing the Olympics to showcase the sport in all its spectacular glory, or we could be forced to watch some of the world’s best surfers desperately flailing around in one-foot slop while TV commentators from 200 different countries scratch their heads and apologise to the viewers back home before swiftly cutting to the synchronised swimming.

Would it have been a safer bet to hold the contest in one of the new generation of man-made wave 
pools? Absolutely: perfect waves and state-of-the-art surfing could have been guaranteed, and the watching world would have been spared the myriad frustrations that surfers live with every day: flat spells, onshore winds, inconvenient tides and all the rest.

On a theoretical level, then, it’s great that the IOC are insisting on “the real thing;” surfing in a wave pool isn’t true surfing, after all. On a practical level, however, I suspect Bach and the gang may not be prepared for the logistical nightmare the real thing could turn out to be.