What to make of surfing's debut in the Olympic Games? Once the smoke of battle had cleared from Tsurigasaki Beach, and the medals had been dished out, the world's media seemed divided.
If you had only relied on more mainstream outlets for your information, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the sport's first appearance in the five-ring circus had been a roaring success. Even though there were no gold medals for any of the highly ranked Aussie surfers in contention, Australia's ABC still proclaimed that surfing was “here to stay” as an Olympic sport after making a “triumphant debut”.
Commentators from specialist surfing publications, however, weren't so easily convinced. Over on the straight-talking Beach Grit website, Longtom (not his real name) described the waves on the second day of competition as “a sloppy, muddy mess” and in a reference to the great Hawaiian surfer and swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, who did much to popularise surfing in the early 20th century, said: “I feel quite sure [the conditions were] not what the Duke had in mind when he envisioned the Sport of Kings as an Olympic sport”.
On the face of it, of course, the naysayers were right: the first ever Olympic surfing contest was very far from perfect, particularly in terms of the surf on offer. The Duke, looking down from surfer heaven, might have wished the waves in the early rounds could have been bigger and the conditions in the later rounds less choppy. Also, had he been able to select the water colour for the event from a Pantone chart, he might have chosen something other than “industrial grey-brown” for the finals. Still, to gauge how successful surfing's Olympic debut really was, perhaps we should be comparing it not to some unattainable ideal, but to the best it could realistically have been under the circumstances.
In the run-up to the the Games, based on historical data, the general consensus seemed to be that the surf at Tsurigasaki would be weak at best, flat at worst, and the early rounds looked exactly like many people had feared they would: some of the world's greatest wave-riders bobbing around in a gentle, waist-high swell, desperately scanning the horizon for a slightly bigger-than-average lump that might be the difference between success and failure.
Had the entire contest continued in this soporific vein – as it could so easily have done – it would have been a disaster. The arrival of Tropical Storm Nepartak, though, was a much-needed game-changer. True, it created lumpy, stormy conditions that were difficult for the surfers in the later rounds to read, but the waves had size and power and that made all the difference.
Some competitors, like eventual men's gold medalist Ítalo Ferreira and his fellow Brazilian Gabriel Medina, seem to be able to get airborne on even the tiniest waves, but bigger, more powerful waves make for higher speeds and bigger launchpads, and so the later stages of the contest became a masterclass in aerial surfing. There were even a few tube rides on offer – Japanese surfer Hiroto Ohhara getting memorably covered up in his heat against Ferreira, for example. Not even the most optimistic surf fans would have put money on that happening in the early weeks of July.
Would purists have preferred to see the world's best going head-to-head on a long, winding pointbreak like – say – Jeffrey's Bay in South Africa, where it's possible to link together multiple manoeuvres on waves lasting a minute or more? Yes, of course, but that was never going to happen here. The best that anybody could have anticipated was for a tropical storm to roll through the right part of the Pacific at the right moment and give the waves a bit of punch, and that's more-or-less what happened.
So the playing field materialised on cue, but what of the competition itself? There had been fears that the selection process for the Olympics, with some athletes qualifying via the big bucks World Surf League and others qualifying via the amateur World Surfing Games, might lead to some embarrassingly uneven match-ups. In the end, though, there were some memorable acts of giant-slaying, notably by Bianca Buitendag of South Africa, who qualified via the World Surfing Games route and ended up snagging a silver medal, after taking down seven-time world champ Stephanie Gilmore of Australia, currently ranked number five in the World Surf League.
If there was one cause for disappointment in the way the heats eventually panned out, it was that both finals were excitement-sappingly one-sided. Ferreira crushed Japanese surfer Kanoa Igarashi 15.14 to 6.60, posting a 7.0 right at the start that seemed to suck all the belief out of his opponent, while the world number one Carissa Moore of Hawaii similarly dominated Buitendag from early on to win 14.93 to 8.46.
Still, if the worst that can be said of surfing’s first showing at the Olympics is that the finals were a little lacking in edge-of-seat electricity, then the organisers can probably count it a success.
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