Hawaiian surfers will represent United States in 2020 Olympics

  • John John Florence represents Hawaii during the Finals of the 2017 Billabong Pipe Masters. (Damien Poullenot/WSL)

When John John Florence competed in the Billabong Pipe Masters this week, winning his second world championship, he was, as is the custom in surfing, listed as representing “Hawaii.”

And, when Carissa Moore won the Roxy Pro France she was also a “Hawaii” representative with the state flag well in evidence.

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In the surfing world — pro or amateur — Hawaii, unlike any other state or region, has long been an entity unto itself. For example Courtney Conlogue is “U.S” and not “California.”

For Hawaii, the designation is, in parts, a holdover from the competition of pre-statehood days and, at the same time, a recognition of being the birthplace of the sport.

But when surfing debuts as an Olympic sport at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Hawaii will lose its stand-alone designation and, with it, what would have otherwise been a likelihood of having the maximum four competitors (two women and two men) in the 40-member field.

Under an agreement announced this week between the International Surfing Association and the World Surf League, each country is allowed up to a maximum of four representatives and Hawaii will come under the U. S. banner as it does in all other Olympic sports.

Never mind that in the world rankings, especially on the women’s side where four of the top 14 are from Hawaii in the year-end World Surfing League rankings, our state is heavily represented.

As an example, if the year-end 2017 rankings were used, Sebastian Zietz would lose out on the second U. S. spot to California’s Kolohe Andino.

Australia, which had seven men and six women in the top 20 of their divisions, will similarly feel the crunch as the International Olympic Committee seeks a more egalitarian field and the world surfing bodies aim for wider exposure.

Nations, such as, say, Norway, that might not otherwise qualify an entrant will have that opportunity under a format calculated to provide wider exposure.

“I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing,” said Randy Rarick, a Surfing Walk of Fame honoree. “It is an opportunity to expand surfing’s (reach) and I think Hawaii will still be represented.”

In their announcement this week, the WSL and ISA said, “up to 18 of the 40 places at the Games will be reserved for WSL championship tour surfers (10 men, 8 women). The remaining 22 places will be determined at the 2019 and 2020 ISA World Surfing Games, the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, and a single slot each (women and men) from host Japan.”

“It is unfortunate that we can’t maintain that identity since surfing is endemic to Hawaii, but we have to respect the same rules as everybody else,” said Fred Hemmings, a former championship surfer and historian of the sport. “You can see where it would be opening up a Pandora’s box otherwise.”

Surfing has been our state’s enduring gift to the world, a sport embraced by more than 35 million across more than 100 countries, the ISA says.

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It was the late Duke Kahanamoku’s vision and fervent hope as far back as 1918 that surfing would someday become an Olympic event and expand the sport globally. “Why not?” Kahanamoku wrote. “Skiing and tobogganing have taken their rightful place as official Game events … “

Now that it is poised to finally arrive a century later, it is, in some ways, as a double-edged sword.

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