Stab Magazine | Stab Debate: Should Olympic Surfing Be Held In An Ocean Or The Pool?

Stab Debate: Should Olympic Surfing Be Held In An Ocean Or The Pool?

Just because we’re late to the party, doesn’t mean we can’t spill our drinks!

style // Mar 18, 2019
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 6 minutes

About a year a half ago, Stab reported that surfing’s first Olympic appearance would most likely take place in a Slater Wave Co. wavepool.

As it turned out, we were wrong.

A few months after that piece went public, ISA President Fernando Aguerre announced that surfing in the Tokyo Olympics would take place in the ocean, and not the artificial wave-maker that was being constructed (but is now lying dormant) outside Japan’s capital city.

As far as we understand, nothing has changed. Barring some Slaterian miracle, the first surfing Olympics will be held at a nondescript Japanese beach break.

Specifically this one!

Surf fans have divergent opinions about their “sport” (or not sport, depending on your beliefs) being featured in the Olympics in the first place. Some believe it’s a sign that we’ve “made it” and will lead to prosperity in all corners of the surfing community. Others believe our Olympic inclusion is the white, pus-filled head of a mainstream infection that has plagued surf culture for decades.  

That is not what we’re here to talk about.

We’re here to talk about whether surfing in the Olympics should be held in the ocean or in a pool. Of course we’re a little late to the party on this one, and none of our ramblings will effect any change in the IOC’s unwavering pursuit of …whatever it is the Olympics are pursuing… but with the Games less than 18 months away, we can’t help but think about surfing’s legacy, and how Tokyo 2020 might change it forever.

Below, Michael Ciaramella and Rory Parker will present their sides of the pool/ocean debate. After reading, you get to pick the winner.

The WSL used the Founders Cup as a prop to convince Olympic officials that a wavepool was the best option for Tokyo 2020. It did not work, for reasons you’ll read below.


It’s been nearly a year since Fernando Aguerre announced that the 2020 Olympics would be held in the ocean. Still I can’t get over it.

With this decision, the ISA, IOC, and Japanese Olympic Committee have done a great disservice to the sport of surfing for reasons that I will list below.

  1. The waves: “Japan gets really good waves!” Yeah, but can you guarantee those waves on July 26-29 at Tsurigasaki Beach between the hours of 8 am and 5 pm? No? Well then you’re kind of fucked, aren’t you? Because that’s the official window surfing has been given in the 2020 Olympics. Unless of course the waves are too bad on those days, in which case the four *extra* days in the contest window can be utilized. Meanwhile, if you were using a wavepool, you could have the whole event run on an immutable schedule, like every other sport in the Games, which on top of being efficient would also help with viewership both live and on TV.  

    We will be of immense fortune if Tsurigasaki turns on like this for Tokyo 2020.

  2. The best surfer probably won’t win: Usain Bolt doesn’t lose unless he royally fucks up his run. Same goes for Shaun White, Mike Phelps, and whatever 11-year-old gymnast China will be presenting this year. But in surfing, it’s not that simple. The best surfer in the world loses, like, all the fucking time. Mostly because they’re not just competing against their human opponent – they’re also competing against the ocean. For this very reason, along with the fact that some complete no-names will inevitably get an Olympic bid due to the qualification process that the ISA/IOC have designed, we could easily see some QS boner take home the greatest prize in sport, thus making him the best surfer in the world for the next four years, despite the fact he couldn’t score over a 4.5 on the Championship Tour. Meanwhile in the pool, all weaknesses are exposed and the best performer wins. Isn’t that what we want?

  3. Some Olympics are inland: Tokyo 2020 is near the coast. Paris 2024 is kinda near the coast (actually eight hours to Hossegor – a trip no typical Olympic fan would make). And Los Angeles 2028 is near the coast. But this is a trend that will eventually fall. What happens in 2032 when Kyrgyzstan is hosting the Games and we don’t have an ocean for the surfers to compete? The Olympics are all about uniformity, and the only way to guarantee consistency across all years of Olympic surfing is to hold the event in a structure that can be built anywhere in the world – a wavepool.

The Middle East, for instance.


Surfing is a hobby, not a sport, and doesn’t belong in the Olympics at all.

But no one consulted me and it’s gonna happen no matter how I feel. So, fuck it, I don’t care. It ain’t worth raging against.

But on the pool vs ocean front I have an opinion. It’s very simple:

Riding a wave in a pool is not surfing.

There’s nothing wrong with wave pools, no reason they shouldn’t exist. The tech is neat, they’ll provide a lot of fun should anyone figure out how to wring a profit from them. Build more than one, avoid bankruptcy. Expand inland and build an empire selling chlorinated stoke.

But there’s more to surfing than standing on a wave and riding it to shore. The skill set of a truly talented surfer extends far beyond linking together maneuvers. Reading the ocean, reacting to a constantly changing platform, positioning yourself for the best waves and instinctively setting up for a section far down the line. Which is why, in even the most crowded lineup, the best surfers typically find the best waves.

Sure, there’s an element of chance. That’s part of surfing. Will the waves suck in Japan? Probably, but that’s part of surfing too. Will some no-name three-to-the-beach their way onto winners’ podium in onshore garbage? There’s a very good chance, because that’s how competitive surfing works.

Olympic wave pool proponents are looking at a square peg, a round hole, then reaching for a hammer. They may make it fit, but it’ll bash shit beyond recognition along the way. 

1 630 1120 1 70 News slater k2366SR18cestari mm

Round head, round hole, square stance.


But bashing shit beyond recognition is kind of my point.  

Surfing in the Olympics will forever be a novelty spectacle – never a true indicator of athletic supremacy. Reason being, the best surfer in the world is not necessarily the best surfer in one type of condition on one given day. That’s why the Championship Tour has 11 events across a wide variety of wave types and conditions.

And barring 2015, that system typically produces the year’s top performer.

But the Olympics will never find the “world’s best surfer.” Or if they do, it will be by pure luck. So with the event being arbitrary in nature, you might as well change the rules of engagement (i.e “bashing shit beyond recognition”) to suit the needs of the Olympic system – which, as I outlined above, would clearly favor a wavepool as its playing field.

The Olympics should be finiding the world’s best “wavepool surfer,” which is a feasibly attainable goal and an impressive feat in its own right.

But here’s the part that really kills me.

Almost everyone involved in surfing’s Olympic debut – from the athletes down to Fernando Aguerre – believe the surfing event should be held in a pool. However the Japanese Olympic Committee has an agenda that prohibits it.

Back in March of 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit off the coast of Japan. This seismic shift produced a tsunami that devastated many Japanese coastal regions, most famously destroying the Fukushima Powerplant, whose radioactive sludge was released into the air and open ocean, killing hundreds and mutilating even more.

Now, eight years later, Japan wants Fukushima (and all surrounding coastal regions) to be perceived as “safe places” by the international public.

Don’t believe me? Check out this propaganda clip posted by The Olympics.

I won’t sit here and pretend to know anything about radioactivity or its injurious half-life. For all I know, the ocean and air in Fukushima (and Tsurigasaki Beach, 300 km to Fukushima’s south) might be cleaner than what we surf in Southern California. But to fuck up surfing’s first Olympic appearance just to woo a few more tourists to your beaches is a gross misuse of power.

Can’t you see we’re being used?


There will come a day, likely in the very near future, when we see our first wave pool wunderkind. A landlocked grommet will be gifted a season pass to Waco and start blowing minds. He’ll learn every inch of the pool, every facet of the wave. He’ll do airs and hacks the likes of which we’ve never seen.

It’ll be fun to watch, snatch tons of views, and I look forward to the first videos of a truly blasted flip trick (sorry, Zoltan.)

But that young man is going to have a rude awakening the first time he tries to surf a dumping overhead beach break. He won’t understand how to thread the needle into the lineup, won’t be able to fight a current. He’ll be able to beat all comers in the pool, but fall apart in the salt. Because he won’t know how to surf. He’ll only know how to ride a surfboard.

There’s a famous documentary about this very subject. I’m surprised you’ve never seen it.

If he’s lucky he’ll find his very own Chandler and Turtle, spend the second act training, then turn the surf world on its ear. But until he does, he’ll be nothing but a barney.

Because surfing happens in the ocean (and sometimes in the Great Lakes, I guess.)

I understand why Olympic proponents want a pool- it’s because they know the event will look like shit if it doesn’t. But that’s their problem, they should have seen this coming. Japan’s motivations don’t matter at all. The Olympics are nothing more than a means to turn public money private while beating the drums of nationalism, no matter where they occur.


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