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Could Surfing Help Remind us What the Olympics is Meant to Be?

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Photo: International Surfing Association

By James Diamond |

Last month the International Surfing Association (ISA) President told me he thinks his sport will “surprise people” when it makes its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020.

He also said the sport will be a “huge contributor” to the Olympic Movement in general because surfing’s values link perfectly to “Olympism”, as he put it.

Now, I’d forgive all of you for taking Fernando Aguerre’s words with a pinch of salt. In fact, you should, because obviously a man who has been campaigning for surfing’s inclusion for more than 20 years is never going to say it will go badly.

But, as it happens, in this instance I think it is worth paying attention, because surfing’s inclusion could do more than just surprise people.

If done right, its inclusion could be a revelation.

Let me explain…

If you read my previous blog on esports and the Russian doping scandal, then you will know I’m big on Olympic values. After all, the greatest show on earth is not called as such just because it is the biggest multi-sport event on the planet, it is also because the Games has the power to bring people together unlike any other event.

But in recent times, sadly, the Games has been hijacked by politics and in many ways, certainly behind the scenes, it is becoming polarising.

But surfing could (emphasis on the could) help change that, by reminding us all what the Games was originally meant to be about.

You see, just like the Olympics itself, surfing is about more than just sport. It is a culture, and one which fits perfectly within the Olympics.

Why? Because it is intrinsically linked with the ideals of leisure and, fundamentally, fun.

Sure, I will not deny that, at times, as in any sport, surfing contests can get heated, but the sport oozes a laid-back image which aligns perfectly with the Olympic ideal that it is simply the taking part that counts.

After all, unlike in most other sports, the majority of surfers who take up the sport and continue to practice do so purely for the thrill of it without ever actually competing.

As President Aguerre said to me in November, “you can be surfing alone on an island for all your life, and you’ll be happy and a great surfer”.

“It is more about self-improvement,” he said.

And with that, Aguerre is onto something.

He also claimed surfing was one of the more inclusive sports because “it doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, young, old, fat, skinny, black, white, any race, any religion, the ocean doesn’t really care”.

“Anyone can walk into any ocean in the world and surf,” he added.

To some extent he is right on that, but it does ignore the fact that to walk into the ocean, “anyone” would first have to pay their way to a specific part of the coast where good waves form on a regular basis.

As someone else at the ISA World Junior Championships in Huntington Beach said to me last month, surfing is, in reality, largely a rich man’s sport.

“How many families do you think can afford to fly their kids out to California for this?” they asked…

Good point.

But, let me draw your attention back to Aguerre’s original quote.

“It is more about self-improvement.”

Here, he has hit the nail on the head. And not just about surfing, but also on what the Olympics is supposed to be about.

When Pierre de Coubertin declared it was not the winning but the taking part that counts, he wasn’t just trying to cheer up all the losers by saying winning didn’t really mean anything.

After all, if that was truly the case, then all competition would be pointless.

Instead, Coubertin was saying the true purpose of sport is not the quest for victory, but rather the constant battle to better oneself.

Sport, and therefore the Olympics, is not supposed be about who you can beat, but rather how good you can get, and surfing could help remind us of that.

Everything about what the ISA have planned for Tokyo 2020 suggests this idea will be the stand-out feature.

For example, the actual surfing will not be the only thing on offer at Tsurigasaki Beach in 2020. Far from it.

Rather, Aguerre described what is planned as a “beach surfing festival”.

In a similar vein to the urban park at the Buenos Aires Youth Olympic Games, the beach in Japan will also feature artists, musicians, food and even, if you fancy it, yoga.

Plus, Aguerre has said the ISA can’t and won’t cordon off the whole beach front for the competition, meaning anyone inspired by the event will be able to go surfing on the same waves as the Olympians at the same time.

Such inclusivity is impossible in all other sports.

It is all being designed to show how surfing is more than just a sport, and if it is properly embraced and sufficiently marketed, it could go down a storm.

However, I say “could” because there are several crucial factors that will determine the success of the event, over which the organisers can have little to no control.

Firstly, and most pressingly, the waves.

If there are none, then obviously it will be a disaster.

The chances of such a nightmare scenario arising are surely slim, but even well-known surfing beaches like Tsurigasaki do not always have swell and, if Tokyo 2020 falls during a period of calm weather, then the event will not even get off the ground.

In less than perfect conditions surfers will spend most of their time just sat in the water waiting for a wave, which does not make it a brilliant spectator sport.

Secondly, if surfing is to showcase itself fully then it needs to be accessible, but on public transport it could take more than two hours to travel to the beach from the main Olympic Park, which may not encourage non-surf fans to go and check out the event.

And yet if it does all go to plan, and if we, the fans of the Olympics, are willing to embrace it, then surfing’s inclusion at Tokyo 2020 could be a huge success.

At a time when the win at all costs mentality has a firm grip on global sport, surfing’s inclusion on the Olympic programme could be a breath of fresh air.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz

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