Stab Magazine | An Olympic Dilemma: Pool vs Pond?

An Olympic Dilemma: Pool vs Pond?

The WSL pushes for a pond while the ISA insists Shida is best.

news // Sep 12, 2018
Words by stab
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Back in May, we reported and believed to have confirmed – that the 2020 Olympics’ surfing event would be held in the ocean at Tsurigasaki Beach in Chiba. While the ISA – surfing’s official Olympic body – has previously confirmed that the event is unquestionably ocean bound, Sophie Goldschmidt, Kelly Slater and Stephanie Gilmore have publicly pushed for a reconsideration.   

“The Olympics is an incredible opportunity for the sport and we’re going to support it however we can. Surfing’s entry to the Olympic movement — I think fans are going to be blown away by it because these surfers are some of the best athletes, bar none, on the planet. Surfing deserves to be on that global stage… and we’re working on plans to build one of these facilities. That development is ongoing. There’s still discussions to be had but we hope there’s an opportunity that surfing could take place in one of these stadiums in 2020. Either way, it’s a great time for the sport.” Sophie Goldschmidt said, as published in The Australian on Tuesday. 

The “ongoing development” referred to is a most likely the same wave pool previously reportedly to be “supervised by a famous surfer”. And unless Occy has his hands on the shovel somewhere other than Rockhampton, it’s safe to assume that these reports are referring to Kelly and the WSL’s Surf Ranch tech. According to earlier reports, the development is taking place where the Tokyo Dome once stood – once home to the world’s best artificial waves – and based on overheard conversations at the Surf Ranch, plus additional rumours, construction is already underway and the pool is set for pre-Olympic completion.

What a fabulous coincidence! 

Rest In Peace, Ocean Dome.

These rumours were the first seedling which implied the WSL were interested in swaying the IOC’s position on surfing’s Olympic debut. Now, with Sophie stating there’s still “discussions to be had”, it appears the WSL either has an ‘in’, or is merely sticking their foot in an already jammed door. 

Japan, especially Chiba, isn’t the most consistent coastline for surf – take a look at the typical Japanese QS event – and  the Olympics summertime schedule isn’t helping that matter. Excluding the arrival of of a well-timed typhoon, surfing’s Olympic debut is shaping up to be run in ankle-biting, blown out slop. The swap to a wave pool would obviously eliminate these wave quality concerns, but according to Kelly and Steph these aren’t the only positives a pool would provide in an Olympic environment.  


“To hopefully have the opportunity to get a gold medal at an Olympics, that’s something I dreamt of as a kid. It’s the greatest sporting event in the history of the world. Whether it’s in a wave pool or the ocean … to be honest, I’d love to see it in a facility like this. I think that would be pretty special and that way, it will become a standard format across every Olympics.” Steph Gilmore said in The Australian. Kelly followed suit with a similar sentiment.

“I believe the best surfer in the world, competitively, wins the world title, that’s why we surf in all these conditions, to test everyone’s skill across rights, lefts, big, small, hollow, mushy waves. I think that determines overall the best surfer but the chance to be the guy or the woman who (wins), on that day at the Olympics, is great for surfing to have.”

Or this?

Considering the structure of almost all Olympic sports, both Kelly and Steph have a point. Olympic sports are deliberately run in environments which allow performance to triumph. Who takes home gold isn’t dictated by conditions or uncontrollable variance, it’s determined by the athletes comparative performance across an even playing field. Whether you like them or not, wave pools provide the closest thing surfing’s ever seen to such a platform. In the opinions of many, wave pools might not make for the most exciting viewing – especially with five minute breaks between waves – but they’re much fairer for competition than the ol’ unpredictable ocean. 

Competitive surfing as a whole might be fine without them, but Olympic competition is a different (artificial) kettle of fish.  

As Kelly said, the Olympics aren’t determining the best overall surfer, they’re just deciding who the best was on a particular day. And while surfing’s roots lie firmly in the salt, it makes sense to conform to an Olympic setting if we want to see it their in the future; although whether surfing as an Olympic sport is a positive or not is wide open for debate.  

It’s also worth mentioning that both the USA and Australian teams ran their Olympic training programs in pools. The US team opted for the bowled out walls in Waco, Texas, whereas Team Oz decided Kelly’s basin incarnation was the optimum training platform. Obviously other training will be undergone in the old untrustworthy ocean, but it would make little sense for these teams to dedicate time in the pool if there weren’t a chance of the event been held in one. 

Despite the WSL’s points, at this stage, the IOC itself has made no announcement regarding the speculation or the possibility of switching to a pool. It should also be reiterated that the WSL is not the governing body of Olympic surfing. The WSL might be the authoritative organisation when it comes to competitive surfing as a whole, and house the surfers who will inevitably compete for gold, but they’re not the body that’s calling the shots for 2020. The Internation Surfing Association is.  

And as of this morning (via email), the ISA stood by their earlier releases, and ‘confirmed’ that the Olympics will be held in the ocean. 

“You are correct, the Olympics have always been scheduled to run in the ocean and all of our media releases have reaffirmed this,” Evan Quarnstrom, ISA’s Media Manager replied, “But the stance is still the same, so there is no further comment at the moment. If there are any updates we would be happy to arrange an interview.”

Evan also reiterated previous public statements made by Fernando Aguerre:

“With the support of the ISA, the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 organizers have determined that surfing will take place in the ocean in Tokyo, at Tsurigasaki Beach in Chiba.” Aguirre previously stated, “The ISA has long been a supporter and advocate for wavepool technology. We are interested to learn of any developments of this kind, and obviously we stay in touch with surfing colleagues on all new initiatives which help in the development of our great sport.”

Stab reached out the the coaches of both the USA and Australia teams, but neither of which have responded so far. On the WSL’s front, they were willing to discuss the matter further, but giving the post-pool event calamity their currently handling it would’ve taken a number of days for comment. They did however support the use of Sophie’s quotes, suggesting that the comments made by the organisation’s CEO aren’t decontextualised fluff.

If the event is to be held in the ocean, at least the IOC have maximised their chance of holding it in contestable, or perhaps even pumping surf. There’s a 16-day waiting period and the event will run in four days. As Surfline also pointed out, for three consecutive years Chiba has been on the receiving end of typhoon swells, all of which have fallen within the planned window period – July 22nd to August 8th. In saying that, Shidashita beach faces east, and is therefore riddled with blustery onshores ruining the bundance of swell. But who knows, maybe they’ll score semi-fun waves like those in the clip above, or run the event at a lacklustre beachie while a rivermouth cranks nearby… 

The WSL and ISA have never been able to play nicely in the surfing sandpit, and now it looks as if they might be butting heads (read: positions) again. There’s no chance the WSL will be taking the five-ringed reigns, but they might be inputting their wave pool into the mix. 

We’ll keep ya posted. 


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