Surfing in the Olympics: a debut that could go either way

Will surfing make a triumphant first appearance at the Olympics this month, or fall flat on its face?

Hawaiian surfer John John Florence, pictured here at Thurso East in Scotland, will be among the favourites to win the first ever Olympic gold medal for surfing PIC: Roger Cox / JPI Media

Between 1900 and 1920, tug-of-war was an Olympic sport, and judging by the medals tables of the time Great Britain did pretty darn well at it, picking up two golds, two silvers and a bronze. Of course, winning an Olympic medal in those days – particularly in a somewhat niche sport – wasn't quite the achievement it is today. In the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, for example, Great Britain won silver. Sounds impressive, until you realise that the only other nation to take part was Sweden. In 1912, then, "silver" was really just another word for "turning up" or "finishing second out of two," while "gold" simply meant "beating the other lot."

Still, technically we remain the most successful tug-of-war nation in the history of the Olympics. Not only that, we are also undefeated in Olympic competition in the 101 years since we beat the Netherlands to win gold in Antwerp in 1920. Undefeated for more than a century! What other nation can boast such a phenomenal record, in any sport you care to name?

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What’s that you say? Bring back tug-of-war as an Olympic sport, so that we might once again dazzle the world with our stubbornness, bloody-mindedness and general ability to dig in our heels? Well, these days we have Brexit for that, but there was a moment when it did seem as if tug-of-war might be making a return to the five-ring circus.

In 2015, the Tug of War International Federation (TWIF, yes really) made an official application for tug-of-war to be included in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Among the other sports vying for a place were chess, bridge and orienteering, so there was at least cause for cautious optimism. However, it wasn’t to be. The five new sports eventually selected for 2020 were sport climbing, skateboarding, karate, baseball (softball for women) and, of course, surfing.

Now, as regular readers will know, surfing is a sport/pastime (delete as appropriate) very close to this writer’s heart, and ever since 2016, its forthcoming Olympic debut in the now delayed-by-a-year Games has been a source of low-level anxiety. And now, with that debut only a couple of weeks away, those anxiety levels are beginning to peak.

It’s not that surfing can’t make a case for itself as a valid competitive sport – it’s more than done that since the first pro series was established in 1976, but it has largely done so within the context of its own little bubble. That is to say: surfing contests make sense to surfers, more-or-less, but there’s a big question mark over whether they will make sense to anybody else.

The most obvious sticking point is the labyrinthine nature of the judging process. Every time a surfer rides a wave in an Olympic heat, a panel of five judges will give it a score out of ten, down to two decimal places. These scores will be based on the following five criteria: commitment and degree of difficulty (ie. how risky a wave is, and how difficult the manoeuvres performed); innovative and progressive manoeuvres (eg. boundary-pushing moves such as aerials and tail-slides); variety of manoeuvres (not just doing the same turn over and over again); combination of major manoeuvres (how well a surfer can connect high-scoring moves) and finally speed, power, and flow (what it sounds like.) Only the best two wave scores count, so a surfer with an 8.41, a 6.32 and a 2.18 will score a total of 14.73.

Clearly there’s a fair amount of room for aesthetic debate here – indeed, this is perhaps the first time in the history of the Olympics that a gold medal could potentially be decided based on a concept as abstract as "flow." The question is: will non-surfing TV audiences be captivated by the nuances of this system? Or will they find it confusing as hell and change the channel?

The obvious precedent is halfpipe snowboarding, which, having made its Winter Olympics debut as skiing’s awkward little brother is now a huge TV ratings hit. Only a tiny fraction of the people watching at home will be able to tell you what a triple cork is, of course, but it looks cool so, frankly, who cares?

Put the best surfers in the world in the best waves in the world, and you could have an event to rival halfpipe snowboarding in terms of how heart-in-mouth it looks. Unfortunately, though, while the surfers taking part in the Olympics really do include some of the world’s best, the chances of Tsurigasaki beach – the chosen contest site, 40 miles east of Tokyo – serving up world-beating waves are slim. UK surf mag Wavelength predicts "clean, 3-4ft peaky beachbreak conditions." Not exactly the stuff of adrenaline addled surfing dreams.

The other four sports debuting at this year’s Olympics have the advantage of being able to rely on fixed arenas, but if the Pacific decides to go flat for a week in late July, it’s possible that the surfers might not have an arena at all. Or – maybe worse – if there are only small, dribbly waves on offer, the watching world will probably just scratch it’s head, shrug, and move on. That would be a disaster for surf fans, although, on the up-side, it might make the return of an Olympic tug-of-war event a little more likely.

The waiting period for the Olympic surfing competition runs from 26 July until 2 August, see https://olympics.com/en/sports/surfing/

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