"Why would it be surprising that a pudgy, fifty-something, white male WSL judge would err in favour of classic surfing rather than the brand of athleticism and progression brought to the table by the Brazilians?"
Let me tell you a little secret about teaching and schools.
They’re not entirely objective. We might want them to be. We might strive every day to make sure all our actions are in pursuit of fairness. We might even believe wholeheartedly that all decisions made and marks awarded are just and right.
But really we’re deluded.
Teachers have their favourites, whether they admit it or not. Being conscious of it is the healthiest approach.
These pupils are not necessarily the brightest, nor the most studious. Intelligence is important, but personality is vital. The ability to hold a conversation will take you further than an academic mind ever will.
The things we favour are hardly secret. We like independence of mind and spirit. Active listening. Sustained effort. Understanding and respect of other pupils. Engagement with people and ideas. Common human decency.
These are qualities desirable in all people. But when you’re marking something with subjective criteria, an essay for example, you might well err on the side of positivity for some pupils more than others. This is not just teaching, it’s life.
Schools are simply a microcosm of society. This is how the world works. The corporate ladder, who gets the best shift patterns at the sawmill, who starts or gets benched on the Sunday league team. All decisions are based on our subjective biases, conscious or not.
All this is to say: why would the judging of professional surfing be any different?
Honestly, I feel vindicated. If you follow my wraps here, you’ll know that the overscoring of flow and the castration of explosiveness is a drum I’ve beaten before. The strength of my ire is based on the fact I watch near enough every wave on this Tour. Forgive me if I underestimate your pro surfing masochism, but I just can’t see that many others are doing that. But at Surf Ranch every wave’s a keeper, so you pay attention. And what did you see? Was the curtain pulled back?
Is it surprising that some styles are favoured? Not at all. Why would it be surprising that a pudgy, fifty-something, white male WSL judge would err in favour of classic surfing rather than the brand of athleticism and progression brought to the table by the Brazilians?
And I know this argument seems fallible when there are Brazilian judges among the Australians and Americans, but they are all still men of certain age and sensibility.
Moreover, if Make Or Break taught us anything, it’s that the cult of personality rules the judging tower. Pritamo Ahrendt, a forty-five year old Australian, is the loudest voice in the tower, standing over the other judges shoulders, cajoling them towards their decisions, and asking are you sure? Are you really sure about that score? Maybe you should look again…
These judges (all surfers, remember, committed, knowledgeable surf nuts, as Richie Porta has always been at pains to remind us) do not identify with Brazilian athletes. When they sneak a wave or two pre or post waiting period, they are picturing themselves as Ethan Ewing, not Italo Ferreira. Maybe they even exchange a “how ya goin mate” with Ewing in the water, or cheery smile from Griff. By contrast, Medina and Ferreira give cold stares. They’re too busy training, not surfing.
Look at the sheer physicality of Italo and Gabriel. They seem to grow before our eyes. These men are athletes first, surfers second. And something in that doesn’t sit well with the judges. Unconsciously, perhaps, but no less apparent.
In life, we are led by ego, consumed by silent bias, castrated by the narrowness of our experience. We act, every single day, in ways that we know are wrong, little ways and bigger ways. Yet still we continue. We lie, we cheat, we show favouritism, we harbour secret thoughts, we act on bodily impulses. And through it all we might convince ourselves that our actions as an individual are pure and justified. But they’re not. They’re really not.
I hadn’t intended to focus on the judging controversies, but the glut of content has forced my hand. The notes I took at the beginning of the day were all in admiration of the poise of Gabriel Medina and Filipe Toledo. It struck me that we often do them a disservice by focusing simply on their talent, by saying that those guys are just good. Because it’s so much more than that. What they exhibit with regularity is poise and execution. This is never more apparent than in the pool.
And it’s something that is to be revered in surfing. The elite level of all sports requires big performances in big moments, but few are as intense as riding a wave. There is no downtime, no timeouts, no teammates to carry you or hide behind. In surfing there is just an uncertain canvas on which you must produce your greatest work in the space of seconds. Gabriel Medina and Filipe Toledo do this time and time again.
“Ethan Ewing’s not going to do an air”, I noted. “Men against boys vs Medina”, I wrote conclusively. Then Ewing won and I was forced to reevaluate what my eyes had told me.
But really it was nothing new. Ewing’s 9.07 against Medina was a simple case of a surfer judged against himself, not his opponent. No-one expects Ewing to disconnect from the wave face, so when he does the judges go weak at the knees, even if his aerials look like child’s play in comparison to Medina.
But Gabriel lost, somehow, and he has every right to feel aggrieved. Medina is the best surfer in the world, at every location, by the numbers and the eye test, yet he’s still outside the top five.
He can win any or all of the remaining events, but he might not. And these finals, this Tour as a whole, would be a diminished experience if not for Gabriel Medina.
In the other semi final Colapinto matched up with the seemingly unshakable Toledo. Both looked rattled to begin, but mostly Griffin. Perhaps the much-hyped pressure cooker of the pool was beginning to steam.
When Toldeo, needing a simple 7.0 on the right to win, a score he might get literally with his eyes shut, couldn’t make the wave, it seemed like something had shifted. He needed a ten on his final left – a score that has not yet been rewarded in the pool. His shuv it / varial to switch barrel was techy as it gets, but surfing is not ready for this. It certainly wasn’t a ten. It wasn’t particularly even to my tastes, but the 6.60 awarded was offensively low.
The final match-up between Italo and Griffin seems to have stirred the most controversy. It was hard to see what else Italo might have done. Beyond the mistake on his final wave, feet slipping off the wax to a rattled anti-climax, he surfed like a man possessed. I didn’t count turns, nor should we, but I’d hazard a guess Italo did more than anyone over the two days.
The decision, as is the judges wont, came down to a matter of taste. These judges clearly preferring Colapinto’s smoothness over Ferreira’s skitziness.
Between waves, Italo was like a caged beast, twitching and slamming Red Bulls. There was some delightful weirdness as he clung to the ski that Strider sat on, the latter rabbiting nonsense into the mic whilst Italo stared into the middle distance, ignoring him.
Surf Ranch gave us further glimpses into the curiosity that is Italo Ferreira’s personality. He appears to have a borderline psychotic disposition. Contrast his observed rage on waves and in private moments with his softly spoken public demeanour and you have an athlete that’s endlessly fascinating.
In its best form, sport is a theatre of humanity. Occasionally, the WSL stumble into this and ineptitude works in their favour. There are more people talking about Surf Ranch than ever before, and Brazilians baying for blood.
The very best athletes are those who carry a chip on their shoulder about the injustices of the world. Perceived bias and unfair treatment only makes them stronger. Right at this moment, Gabriel Medina and Italo Ferreira are in the gym, veins popping, rage spilling, muscle fibres ripping then fusing ever harder. They will not stop. They will not fail. Brazil owns the fucking WSL, and I’m here for it.