The Case for Hawaii Having Its Own Olympic Surf Team

By on

The other morning, I spent some time talking to Cliff Kapono about narratives—how important they are for the preservation of culture and how easily they can be coopted and shifted to support foreign agendas. This is something that is pervasive in surfing, and that lies at the very heart of our “surfing culture.” For instance, the idea that surfing has been portrayed as “the sport of kings”—an idea that has been used to sell surfing to the masses for over 100 years—isn’t accurate. While it is true that surfing was a sport of Hawaiian kings, it was also a sport for women, children, and anyone else who wanted to get in the ocean. But that part of the culture has been largely ignored by the mainstream because a sport of kings is more glamorous than a “sport of everyone.”

Another example is the idea of Duke Kahanamoku as surfing’s “father” and original evangelist. Kahanamoku did indeed share surfing with the world—perhaps more so than anyone else—and no one wants to take that away from him. But the commonly held idea that he was the first person to bring surfing from Hawaii to the US and other countries is actually incorrect, as three Hawaiian princes performed a surfing exhibition in Santa Cruz in the late 1800s, and subsequently traveled to the UK, where they also introduced surfing.

Many people may wonder why these distinctions are necessary. After all, what does it matter if Kahanamoku wasn’t the first person to bring surfing to the mainland? He was still an important part of our history, and that’s all that matters, right?

Not exactly.

The fact is, when narratives are shifted to serve foreign agendas, history gets lost. After all, how many people looking at this page knew that three Hawaiian princes’ visit to Santa Cruz (nearly three decades before Kahanamoku began his world tour) before reading about it a minute ago? All of us know about Duke, but would he have become a household name, or even gone on tour to give surf demonstrations, if not for his international celebrity status as a gold medalist and the world’s fastest swimmer? Or would he have faded into obscurity like the majority of surfing’s diverse historical figures that haven’t fit into the agenda or aesthetic of the surf media—a media that is largely curated not by Hawaiians, but rather by a bunch of people in California?

Cliff Kapano.

Cliff Kapano.

This is what concerns Cliff Kapono, particularly right now and around the Duke Kahanamoku narrative. The popular catch phrase from the Olympics week is that surfing’s debut is the culmination of the work that Kahanamoku started in 1912, when he began publicly advocating for surfing’s inclusion in the Olympics. This is “Duke’s dream come true,” if you are to believe all the hype. But Cliff wonders if that’s actually the case. Was it actually Kahanmoku’s dream for Hawaiian surfers to compete not under the Hawaiian flag, but instead for the US?

Now this is obviously a complicated topic that can easily descend into political debate, and that isn’t necessarily Cliff’s intention with the short film he recently produced. The fact that Hawaii was illegally annexed is another discussion for another time.

What Cliff Kapono wants people to ask themselves right now is “why shouldn’t Hawaii get to send its own athletes to the Olympics?” Throughout surfing’s competitive history, Hawaiian surfers have surfed under the Hawaiian flag—a public acknowledgement of Hawaii’s culture and history. But in the 2020 Tokyo Games, athletes were required to surf for the US.

Now before you make the argument that Hawaiians are legally Americans and thus should have to surf for the US, consider a few things. First of all, nearly a third of the field in the Olympic surfing event are not competing under their home countries’ flags.

The Duke, well reported to wanting surfing in the Olympics.

The Duke, well reported to wanting surfing in the Olympics.

Instead, they have cleverly leveraged their dual citizenship in order to earn spots on teams that still had availability. And the countries that they signed up with don’t seem to be bothered by the fact that these athletes don’t actually live there. Instead, they were more than happy to add a few extra Olympic athletes to their roster and increase their chances of winning an extra medal.

“But that’s a different issue,” you might argue. “Letting someone compete for a country that isn’t their home country due to their dual citizenship isn’t the same as letting people compete under their state flag rather than their country’s flag.” The aforementioned argument about Hawaiian sovereignty notwithstanding, there is arguably a justification for that as well. After all, Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa all have their own Olympic teams, despite the fact that they are all US territories.

As it turns out, there are three general criteria that you have to meet to qualify a team for the Olympics, and none of them relate to countryhood. So if that’s the case, why not field a team from Hawaii in the Olympics—especially this year, during surfing’s debut? If the IOC is going to talk about the legacy of the Hawaiian who started the push toward surfing’s inclusion in the Olympics back in 1912, then why not honour him and his culture by letting Hawaiian surfers compete under their own flag. It’s not like Hawaii would have had trouble qualifying for the Olympics. Between John John, Carissa, Tatiana, Brissa, and Mahina, one eighth of the surfers who qualified for this years Olympic Games are Hawaii residents (not to mention a native Hawaiian, in Carissa’s case). Surfing is one of the few parts of Hawaiiana that has endured throughout history, through all of the monarchies, republics, annexations, statehoods, and everything else that has happened in the islands.

This is Cliff’s argument, and he’s decided to spread the word through the animation embedded in this article. He told me that he doesn’t really care if a Hawaiian wins a medal—his goal here isn’t to bring glory or medals back to Hawaii. Instead, it is simply for surfing’s Hawaiian heritage to be acknowledge, and for the Hawaiians who are frustrated by what they see as the coopting their culture to be heard.

Surfing is one of the few parts of Hawaiiana that has endured throughout history, through all of the monarchies, republics, annexations, statehoods, and everything else that has happened in the islands. (All that talk about how Hawaiians had stopped surfing for 100 years after the missionaries came to Hawaii? Also a false narrative. Surfing was made illegal in certain areas, but surfing in Hawaii never actually completely stopped). To forget this fact would cause surfing to lose its soul—and once that happens, it’s just another Olympic sport, like metal balls and riding horses in weird outfits.

Those who agree with Cliff can sign a petition at mohothemovie.com to allow a Hawaiian team at the 2024 Olympic surfing event in Tahiti. And the people behind the Moho film don’t see any reason to stop there. French Polynesia, Rapa Nui, Puerto Rico—the way they see it, pretty much any place that has been colonised should arguably be able to have their own team. Imagine that for a second: a Tahitian home team surfing for Olympic gold at Teahupoo against the best surfers from Australia, Brazil, Europe, the US, and Hawaii—all of the regional centres of the surfing community, plus the sport’s spiritual home. It’s pretty hard to argue with that prospect.

Watch the film, here and spend a moment today remembering where surfing started.