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5 Aug

Olympic Surfing

by Sam Bleakley

A dream come true

The water has now settled on Olympic surfing’s debut, offering a chance to reflect on the landmark event. A close-to-shore typhoon delivered big and stormy conditions at Tsurigasaki beach, meaning paddling, positioning and wave selection were key to success. Brazilian firebrand Italo Ferreira and American ace Carissa Moore both won gold in the men’s and women’s respectively, with Japanese Kanoa Igarashi and South African Bianca Buitendag claiming silver, and Australian Owen Wright and Japanese Amuro Tsuzuki taking bronze.

After the medal ceremony Italo Ferreira explained how “this has been quite a story for me because I started surfing on a (styrofoam) cooler top when I was a kid before I got my first real board and won my first event. Because of my upbringing I have a lot of passion for the sport. I truly believe that the Olympics will change our lives. Not just the medallists, but for all the surfers that competed in this historic event. All surfers made history here. Every surfer has a piece of this gold medal.”

Carrisa Moore added that, “Getting to share the sport with so many people that maybe have never even watched surfing was super special. As a Hawaiian, just seeing Duke Kahanamoku’s dream come true to have surfing in the Olympics is super special. It's a big time for surfing to be recognised on this level.” Duke Kahanamoku won swimming gold in the 100 metres freestyle at the 1912 Olympics in Sweden. He was built for speed: slim and muscular, blessed with extraordinarily long hands and feet, and had developed the ‘flutter kick’ to replace the ‘scissor kick’ in freestyle. Subsequently, he won gold in the same race in 1920 in Antwerp (there were no Games in 1916), and silver in 1924 in Paris, where his brother Samuel won bronze. Touted as the fastest swimmer alive, Duke was invited to give swimming exhibitions around the world, often travelling with a surfboard. He believed surfing should be an Olympic sport. It was a dream later taken up by Argentinian Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association, who has successfully campaigned for the last 30 years to get surfing included into the Olympics.

Surfing wasn’t the only sport to debut in the latest vision for a more youth-and-entertainment-focused Olympics: skateboarding, BMX and climbing also arrived in style. These were selected to celebrate the revised Olympic motto ‘faster, higher, stronger, together’. And for British fans, a remarkable feature was the incredible success of Team GB in these action sports, winning two gold, one silver and two bronze medals across BMX and skateboarding (not to mention the medals in snowboarding at the last two Winter Olympics).

These achievements raised the question: what would it take for a British surfer to win an Olympic medal? To find out more, The Wave caught up with Emily Currie and Ed Leigh. Emily is a multiple national short and longboard champion and member of the British surf team. Ed is a former professional snowboarder, co-host of Ski Sunday and the voice of action sports for the BBC, on the frontline of the live broadcast for all of Team GBs action sports across both the Summer and Winter Olympics since London 2012.

"All surfers made history here. Every surfer has a piece of this gold medal" - Italo Ferreira

What do you think are the core ingredients that generate Olympic success for British action sports?

Ed Leigh 

The key thing is to identify talent at an early age. So a lot of the best will have started around the age of 4,5 or 6. Take Lukas Skinner as an example in surfing, Mia Brookes in snowboarding and Sky Brown in skateboarding. These kids have all been on boards from a young age, and critically the sport is a huge part of their family. I don't think that is something you can work around you - you need these kids exposed at a young age to a very high level. For example, Mia Brookes’ parents were both snowboard coaches, so she was exposed to great snowboarding from early on. It’s exactly the same for Lukas Skinner thanks to his dad Ben. Lukas was around elite level surfing from day dot, so the chances are so much higher to be really good. There are no shortcuts to being in water on waves from a very young age.

But on top of this you need decent facilities, which for surfers means decent waves. I think a surf lake can do that only to a certain extent because it will develop a very specific skill sets, like aerial surfing (which is of course really important). So you have to open up opportunities to a wide variety of waves. The next thing is then setting elite level goals, and training everyday to reach those goals. 

Emily Currie 

It was fantastic to watch all the success at Tokyo 2020, and also in the snowboarding in the last Winter Olympics. You can really see how a core ingredient is the way these sports have such a strong scene, a strong culture, that surrounds them. And that is definitely similar to surfing. Clearly having successful role models who make a breakthrough in competition is important. Surely this will now happen with skateboarding after Sky Brown won bronze. That will really push the sport a lot further, and I think this helps generate increased funding. Sky Brown has already been a part of our national surfing junior teams and events, and for sure if she commits more to surfing, it's an exciting opportunity that will give British surfing more attention because of the status she already has.

What do you think surfing can learn from the likes of snowboarding and BMX to develop a better plan to impact at the Olympic level of competition?

Ed Leigh 

All these action sports share a lot in common. For example, there was no money in snowboarding or BMX for these original medal successes. They have come from hard work and passion in sports with rich and strong cultures. But then you need a framework to build on the breakthrough successes through coaching. Some successes have been freak talent, like snowboarder Jenny Jones, who won a bronze in the slopestyle at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. But in the case of Billy Morgan’s medal (in snowboard big air in 2018 in Beijing), and BMXers Charlotte Worthington, Bethany Shriever, Kye Whyte and Declan Brooks (golds, silver and bronze in freestyle and racing in Tokyo 2020), its about legacy. People have paved the way with programs for the talent to follow. For example, Lesley McKenna, a previous Olympian, set up a brilliant programme within snowboarding that allowed Billy Morgan to flourish and win his bronze medal in snowboarding in 2018.

It was exactly the same in the BMX. Jamie Bestwick, the coach of Declan and Charlotte, has been a prolific X-Games medallist who is passionate about developing talent. He sacrificed a lot so the pair could compete abroad to gain experience, and he's built programmes to develop his athletes and to goal set at the highest level. So in the UK, having really good surfers to coach the young talent is critical. I think that is the thing that most recent medals have got in common – excellent coaching. And there’s no substitute for great coaching from people who have been extremely talented in their own discipline.

Emily Currie 

It's inspiring to see that these action sports can win medals at the highest level. And that gives us belief that we can do the same with surfing. I do a lot of coaching work with Surf Solutions run by Joel Grey, and I really know the difference that good coaching can make with performance and also the psychology of sport. This has been happening in those other sports. But I don’t think it’s just about coaching small groups for surfing. I think it's important to get a really strong and big squad for British surfing. This allows the talent to be supported that might not shine otherwise. If you just select a small group you might miss the best talent because there are people who will thrive with broader funding and coaching over a longer term. Then it’s about getting the squad on training trips to get comfortable in all kinds of waves.

Do you think wave pools and surf lakes would be better territory for Olympic surfing?

Ed Leigh 

There are so many interesting discussions to be had on this. Yes it would have been a great legacy for Tokyo to have run the event in a wave pool or surf lake, but I think the ocean was better. Of course they are incredible learning facilities that can give hours and repetition on a surfboard you cannot get in the ocean, but events only in these facilities will change the way people perform. I think you will end up with boards that are designed especially for lip tricks creating a much more skate orientated approach and a heavy focus on airs. That’s fine, that’s exciting, but I think the ocean remains the place for surf events because of all the other parameters of paddling and wave selection.

I like to look at it this way: if you're in a wave pool every wave could be considered a perfect 10 and it's up to the surfer to not get the perfect score. But if you're in the ocean, the wave could be a lower score, and it’s up to the surfer to turn that into a perfect 10. This is the dynamic of surf competition that makes it so compelling. Yes there are waiting periods, and waits between waves, but I think that element of having Huey (the so-called ‘Surf God’) there, and giving the surfer the opportunity to excel in changing conditions, is fundamental.

Emily Currie 

I think it was really good that the first event was in the ocean, but I'm certainly not against surf lakes and wave pools hosting the big events in the future. If it is in a surf lake, it definitely changes the way you compete. You develop more of a routine that you practice and refine. It’s then much harder for the judges to separate the very best. Whereas in the sea you have to do what the wave will allow based on the conditions. It means you really stand out when you are synch with the conditions because it's also about positioning and catching waves and making the most of the rides you get. The surf was really challenging across the three days at the Olympics, from clean and tiny to huge and messy. So it was amazing how well the likes of Carissa Moore and Italo Ferreira adapted to these conditions to win gold. And I think they deserved it most. 

Surf lake, wave pool, or ocean, remains one of the hottest debates around Olympic surfing. The biggest challenge to ocean surfing is the need for a waiting period, especially when a primary source of revenue for the Olympics is the sale of lucrative television broadcast rights for the events. Booking in a broadcast team to cover an event with a waiting period is a logistical nightmare compared to all the other sporting schedules that have pre-set time slots and guaranteed action. But the show will go on, with Paris confirming that the 2024 Olympic surfing event will be held at the ultra shallow coral reefbreak Teahupo’o in Tahiti, French Polynesia. This crystalline left, delivering both spiralling glassy brilliance and hideous danger, is widely considered the most challenging wave on the planet, and the measuring stick of giant barrels. If there’s a swell, it could be spectacular.

Then the following Summer Games are on the Pacific coasts in Los Angeles in 2028 and Brisbane in 2032, more known for playful points and beachbreaks. Versatility will remain key to Olympic surfing success as the Duke’s dream continues.