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Mikey February catches a good wave at Jeffrey’s Bay. Photo: Van Gysen.
Q3 2017

Surfing into the Olympics

Well-known surfing journalist CRAIG JARVIS discusses the effect of its new Olympic status on surfing participation

It was a unanimous decision to get surfing accepted as a sport in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. All 90 members of the IOC, voted surfing in, along with skateboarding, baseball, karate, and climbing. Their decision, it seems, has turned surfing around in a full circle.

It is a boring cliché to talk about the hippie and chilled culture of yesteryear, as surfing is nowadays big business and more the science of sport than dope and peace signs. In fact, it is strictly controlled by WADA for performance enhancing substances, with athletes often tested for such.

By becoming an Olympic sport, surfing has indeed entered the main stream sporting arena.

“Things quite simply went into top gear after the announcement [about the Olympics] in August last year,” says an enthusiastic Robin De Kock, veteran of the sport and GM of Surfing SA.

“Existing sponsors and new sponsors have helped the growth of surfing since the announcement, and 2017 has seen the largest number of contests on the South African calendar in over a decade. All of the contests have attracted an additional 20% of competitors than previous years. The Olympics is a big deal and surfing as an Olympic sport is a bigger deal.”

The new sponsors are encouraging. While always been supported by the dedicated surf brands — Billabong Quiksilver, Hurley and fairly fresh brand Vans among others — surfing is now attracting corporate sponsors. This year will see Corona sponsoring the biggest event, the Championship Tour at JBay, Cell C is sponsoring the Goodwave event, with the biggest domestic prize money (R100 000 first prize), Volkswagen is sponsoring the SA Open of Surfing, while Sea Harvest, that used to sponsor a massive event in Cape Town two decades ago, has come back to the sport and is sponsoring junior events. Our top pro surfer, Jordy Smith, sponsors the Jordy Smith Cape Town Surf Pro.

There is a very clear line between competitive surfers and free [recreational] surfers however, and the competitive surfers are in the minority when looking at the bigger picture of the sport.

Whether this mainstream sports status might encourage more people to actually start surfing, remains to be seen. People fall in love with riding waves before they fall in love with winning competitions.

Do we [South Africa] have any hope in the medal-winning department?

“I think we have a very good chance of a medal at the Olympics,” says De Kock. “Some of our current top performing surfers, such as Jordy Smith, Bianca Buitendag and Mikey February are at the right age to challenge for medals in Tokyo.

“When 2020 comes around, there will only be 20 men and 20 women surfers, and South Africa still has to qualify as a nation, but we are not only ranked in the top ten in the world, but also are the top ranked country in Africa.”

The sport has become stagnant globally over the last decade with regards to participation numbers, and the alarming rise in shark incidents have kept many people from entering the sport.

Yet, a direct result of the Olympics announcement was that 47 countries competed in the 2017 ISA (International Surfing Association) World Games this year, 15 more countries than in 2016. These countries included marginal surfing nations like Greece, Turkey, China, Russia and South Korea, to name but a few.

The surfing contest site for the 2020 Games will be Shidashita Beach, or “Shida,” a fun and consistent beach break, located about 40 miles outside of Tokyo in Chiba. The surfing part of the Olympic Games has a 16-day waiting period, and will take 2 days of surfing to complete. There will be 20 men and 20 women competing.

There has also been much talk about surfing in the Olympics going to the wave pools for conformity, and to take away the noted luck factor of catching a good wave when surfing in the ocean. With a wave pool as competitive venue, every surfer would be able to catch identical waves, and their performances would be on a relatively level playing field, so to speak — as opposed to having to contend with the inconsistencies and vagaries of the ocean.

This theory was nullified when Shida was announced as the venue, but wave pools are still popping up all over the world, and High Performance Surf Centres around the world are looking at wave pools as part of Olympic training programmes. There is still persistent talk that for 2024 and beyond, the Olympics will retain a wave pool as a contest venue for surfing, as technology will increase so much for the wave pools to perfectly emulate ocean waves. If that were to be the case, there would be a larger divide between competitive surfers and purists, with that divide being between saltwater and chlorine.

In the meantime though, surf schools continue to thrive, and participation numbers continue to grow. It will take some time for the effect of surfing entering the Olympics to filter all the way down to your quiet local beaches, but for now it all looks positive.

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