And maybe Hossegor and Trestles for the 2024 games?
I’m not here to throw shade on Kelly Slater or his miracle of technology. I want to explain the reasoning behind the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee’s decision to hold surfing in the ocean.
The International Surfing Association (ISA) proposed Olympic Surfing to be held in a wave pool or at Shidadhida Beach. They didn’t specify if the pool was to be Kelly Slater Wave Co, Wavegarden or another company’s design.
Both committees watched the jaw dropping videos of Surf Ranch, visited the Japanese beachbreak in winter, and went with the latter.
The committee that spends billions erecting stadiums around the world wouldn’t budge throw a little green at a pool? Surprised me too.
Surfing Magazine went as far as to write a opinion piece entitled “Olympics Surfing Should Be In Wave Pools”. Much of it based on a popular assumption that surfing didn’t qualify as an Olympic sport because the ocean is an uneven playing field, and therefore you can’t crown “the best surfer in the world” after one surf contest, even it is in pumping waves.
While I agree with that statement, judging or crowning the world’s best surfer was never a concern to the IOC according to ISA President, Fernando Aguerre.
“It had nothing to do with judging, but rather the ability for there to be waves in future host cities. The IOC decision was to approve surfing for 2020. For 2024, Los Angeles and Paris have expressed their interest to have surfing included. No talks between those cities has been about man-made or natural waves”.
(Lower Trestles and Hossegor, although not in the city of LA or Paris, are proposed sites for Olympic Surfing in 2024.)
It all seemed to coincide perfectly. Kelly Slater releases the video of the artificial wave on December 5th, 2015. Same year the the ISA grows to having 100 Surfing Nations with Iran’s inclusion. I thought both were equally important for the successful IOC bid in Rio de Janeiro on August 5th,2016.
So why did the IOC decide to go with Shidashida over Slater’s synthetic perfection?
At the heart of it, wave pools aren’t a proven return of investment.
“More than anything”, says Fernando Aguerre , “it must have a proven business sustainability model”.
The Surf Ranch is mouth-watering and the interest surrounding the technology is very real, but Kelly Slater Wave Co and the World Surf League (WSL) haven’t built one for commercial use yet.
The likelihood of Kelly Slater Wave Co/WSL sanctioned events at a casino or resort are probable. Only a matter of time until an investor makes it happen. Fingers crossed it won’t be Trump but until the kinks are worked out, the IOC can’t justify building one. Kelly’s wave pool is like the 11-time world Champion, without equal. But much of the financial side of his pool is unknown.
Kelly Slater hasn’t given an outright price for an elite-level wave pool. In an article with BloomBerg, Kelly Slater says that his prototype could be scaled to fit any body of water, for a price.
“The cost of a system will depend on many variables, most obviously the size of the pool and the foil. “If you said $2 million you wouldn’t be wrong, and if you said $20 million you wouldn’t be wrong either,” he says. “It’s like a buffet.”
Let’s imagine the IOC was drop 20 million dollars for the barrel buffet. The Surf Ranch sits on 20 acres of dust in Lemoore, California. The cost to clear that much land in Tokyo might be more than the pool and technology itself.
But unlike a buffet, Kelly’s pool isn’t “all you can surf for $14.99”. We don’t know a price per wave estimate or even if Kelly’s pool is a 2 million or a 20 million dollar version. We do know that it’s solar powered which aligns with the Olympics stance on sustainability.
Let’s imagine the IOC was drop 20 million dollars for the barrel buffet. The Surf Ranch sits on 20 acres of dust in Lemoore, California. The cost to clear that much land in Tokyo might be more than the pool and technology itself. But costs aren’t the only concern.
In the videos of Surf Ranch, the wave is a dream, not a drop of water out of place. But we don’t know what it would be like to run a live event in one. For instance, after each wave, the foil needs to be reset. How long does that take? How long does it take for the turbulence in the pool to settle after each wave?
Let’s say, to make the wave all perfect and glassy like we see on the videos, that there is one wave every ten minutes. Would a heat consist of two waves apiece and last 40 minutes? Downtime between waves is bad enough in the WSL viewing experience. Imagine waiting for the bubbles to go flat in a pool.
And we’ve only seen Kelly’s pool offered as a right. Would we expect the IOC to award backside and frontside gold medalist or to build two pools adjacently?
Tokyo 2020 runs from August 7th to the 23rd. Surfing will have the duration of the games as a waiting period for swell. With only 40 allocated competitors split evenly amongst the sexes, Olympic Surfing will take only two days to complete.
The odds of getting two fun days at Shidashida during early typhoon season are good, (it was pumping this year) and if need be, the event could go mobile. There are plenty of options close by on the Chiba peninsula. Shidashida is renowned however, for being Japan’s most dependable beachbreak.
Located one hour from Tokyo by car or train, Shidshida has held World Qualifying Series contests and Pro Junior events since the 1990s. A wide beach, the location is ideal to handle crowds of visitors.
Fortunately, for those competing and spectating, the waves for the Olympics could be fun. Check out this WSL clip of a Qualifying Series event at Shidashida during a typhoon swell. Conditions look better than Huntington Beach did for the US Open of Surfing.
Surfing being voted into Tokyo 2020 Games was a monumental shift, but it doesn’t secure a permanent slot to future games. Kelly’s wave pool is our ticket to landlocked countries and that’s exactly where the IOC should build them.
Introduce surfing to a place where it wouldn’t be possible. Building a pool when the coast is an option, sets a precedence for host nations to uphold. Olympic Surfing might be considered too costly to run if that’s the case. The IOC has to be certain that what they build will benefit the host nation’s economy and Japan’s history tells them that the wave pool craze doesn’t last.
Until Slater showed off the Surf Ranch, the wave at Ocean Dome, part of the Seagaia Resort, was the internet’s most sensational wave pool. This video of Owen Wright and Julian Wilson, was the only glimpse we saw of Ocean Dome’s potential, but nine years later it never stops looking like a good time.
But what the video doesn’t show is that Ocean Dome was expensive to operate and close to a good surf spot. Both were factors for the pool going flat forever in 2007 due to bankruptcy. Slater’s wave is better, but without proof of its commercial success, it’s too big of a financial risk to the Japanese economy, and that’s the ultimate decision maker when it comes to Olympic politics.