Is Surfing Really a Sport (or just a Pastime), and Why Does this Matter?

Due to COVID-19, the Olympic debut of surfing did not occur in the summer of 2020.  But this year, spectators at the Tokyo Olympics will finally get to see surfers in the water, competing for gold medal glory. While many professional surfers have praised this new contest, others see it as being unnecessary and problematic, potentially leading to more overcrowded line-ups around the world and, in general, continuing recent trends of commercializing the sport. But IS surfing really a sport? In an article assigned for class on 3/30, Brian Blickenstaff notes that many of the best surfers on earth do not enter competitive events organized by the World Surfing League, and that the judging of these competitions has often been seen as subjective and questionable. In addition, there are issues of gender, race, and sexism on tour, and “the clothing and apparel industry that banks on the surfing culture is far, far bigger than the actual professional surfing economy.”  Of course, these issues do not necessarily mean that surfing is not a sport. For this Blogpost, then, I would like you to enter into the fray on this topic, a debate that has been raging in the world of surfing for at least 50 years, and is only intensifying with the Olympics finally upon us. What do you think: IS surfing a sport, or just a fun pastime? In the “sport vs. art” debate, is it true that artistry, the relationship with nature, and individual expression on the waves has taken a back seat to professionalized competition and commercialization? Why do you think the way that you do? And, ultimately, why is this question so important, to “soul surfers” and competitive surfers alike?

Surfing, Science, and the Impact of New Surf Technologies

For our next Blogpost, you will have several options to choose from as you essentially range about some of the material we’re covering during Unit Two (on the science and technology of surfing).  To do so, I want you to let you thoughts go and explore TWO of three science-related topic options.  For each topic you choose to tackle, you should write a paragraph — so, two total paragraphs is the goal. 

Here are the three topic options that you might choose from:  1)  Environmental impacts are prevalent as a result of surf technologies, such as the rubber used to make wetsuits and the Styrofoam that fills most of the world’s surfboards. Yet few surfers choose to acknowledge the “elephant of the room” in terms of surfing and the environment, favoring the notion that the surf community is essentially attuned to the waves and one with the ocean.  How do we reconcile our surfing enjoyment with its real-world impacts?  2)  Address the age-old question of whether shaping is truly an “artform.”  You might consider such things as:  Is board shaping really an “art”?  Why or why not?  And who cares if it is “artistic” or not – what difference does it make? Is it “wrong” somehow to ride a mass-produced surfboard?  3)  For your final option, you should consider the controversial “Surf Ranch”.  What do you think of Kelly Slater’s famous man-made wave (and others like it)?  Is this technological development the latest, greatest example that surfing today has “lost it soul”, or does it represent an ingenious example of forward progress? 

Considerations on the Birth, “Death,” and Rebirth of Surfing

‘Surfing & Society’ is an H-designated course that will deeply explore the history, politics, and development of surfing in America, and beyond. During our first several class meetings, our course has focused on the development and early history of surfing, and for your first Blogpost of the semester you will be asked to do a few (relatively) simple things to get you thinking about the assigned reading for Tuesday, February 2, and to explore certain ways in which it connects up to what we did in the first week of class. For this initial trial run, there are three options for you to choose from, and you should choose TWO of these prompts and respond to them (with your writing amounting to at least two robust paragraphs overall):

1)  One of the very first things we did on our first day together was define and discuss “the stoke.” For this option, you should apply your ideas about “the stoke” to one of our recent readings. It would certainly be sensible to articulate how “the stoke” is seen, articulated, and examined in one of the literary/historical accounts we have read so far (by Captain Cook, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and Jack London). But if you would like to apply this premise to a historical event or colonial topic mentioned in ‘The World in the Curl’ instead, that would be totally fine. Whatever text or topic you wish to discuss, you should explain where and how “the stoke” is seen, and why this particular reference serves as an important and illuminating example of the early history of surfing.

2) The four historical/literary texts listed above (by Cook, Melville, Twain, and London) are fun and quirky and provide an interesting window into the premodern world of surfing. But there is a darkness lurking beneath the surface when it is realized that they are also products of colonialist expansion and exploitation in Hawaii, and the Polynesian islands nearby. For this option, then, you should choose one of these texts and consider it as a kind of political document, a text about war and peace, kingship and rule, imperialism, xenophobic hatred, and so on. To address these issues, your response should focus on a particular passage where issues of power and authority are subtly at issue. How does your chosen passage bring to the page such notions as violence, religion, hatred, justice, misunderstanding, authority, and/or negotiation? Place the passage specifically within the colonial context of the day, consider its meaning and significance, and by all means feel free to offer some thoughts about what YOU think about the topic, text, and theme in question.

3) An important intellectual skill is comparison, and in fact one of the things we will do frequently in class is compare ideas, sources, places, and people from the broad culture and history of surfing. So for the third and final option for this Blogpost, you might do some comparing and contrasting and see what comes of it. For example, you might compare and contrast such things as: Christian missionaries vs. Hawaiian religious leaders; native surfers vs. the white settler population; the morals of Polynesians vs. the morals of tourists; the US government vs. Hawaiian kings; surfing in Hawaii in the early twentieth century vs. surfing in California and other mainland locales; and/or premodern surf techniques and ideals vs. the “modern” notions of the sport that arose in the United States. Whatever topics or ideas you choose to compare, your paragraph should articulate some of the notable similarities and differences but, more to the point, what is learned through the comparison. What does your comparison reveal about early surfers and the rise, “death,” and rebirth of surfing?

Thanks for your efforts, gang – I’m looking forward to seeing what you all come up with for this first Blogpost of the semester!!