A board is all you get to rule the waves!

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), on August 3 last year, voted in favour of including surfing for the 2020 Tokyo Games. According to the International Surfing Association (ISA), the sport’s global body, the qualification system for the quadrennial event as well as the rules and regulations are yet to be finalised, but 20 men and 20 women will compete in different categories. Most of India’s top surfers are aware of this development and wish to win an Olympic medal in surfing. But is this possible so soon?

Sekar Patchai and Tanvi Jagdish (pic, below) are the only surfers from India to participate in a global event, that too in Stand-Up Paddling.

There’s a bit of a buzz at Kovalam (a.k.a. Covelong), a sleepy little fishing village, located about 40 kilometres south of Chennai, on the East Coast Road en route to Mahabalipuram. At the Covelong Surfing Point — a two-storey building to stay, dine and surf — people, of different colours — black, brown and white, from different parts of the world, speaking different languages, gather for the second day of the ‘Covelong Point 2017: Surf, Music, Yoga Festival’ held from August 25 to 27.

READ: Addicted to surfing

The building, on this moderately cloudy afternoon, is surrounded by a delightful disturbance. From the first floor here, one could see: an indie band performing on a stage; stalls selling roasted corn, ice lollies, fried chilly fish, chicken biriyani, organic laddoos, T-shirts, surf gear et al.; several kids and adults falling while trying to slackline and people meditating and doing sirsasana (headstand) at a makeshift Yoga centre. The frolic isn’t limited to the shore; many in the sea, on their colourful surfboards, ride the waves, fall and laugh. But a few surfers, as they get ready for the Masters category surfing competition, look determined. For, they don’t enter the sea for just fun; they’re going in to compete, to win. And, pepped up by loud cheering and the increasing tempo of drumbeat, they, with their surfboards tucked under their arms, approach the dancing waves of Kovalam.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), on August 3 last year, voted in favour of including surfing, along with skateboarding, baseball, karate, and climbing for the 2020 Tokyo Games. According to the International Surfing Association (ISA), the sport’s global body, the qualification system for the quadrennial event as well as the rules and regulations are yet to be finalised, but 20 men and 20 women will compete in different categories. Most of India’s top surfers, who participated in the Covelong fest, are aware of this development and wish to win an Olympic medal in surfing.

On the timeline of modern surfing, which begins around the start of the 20th century, India’s mark appears in the 1960s. When surfing was introduced to India is difficult to ascertain due to lack of evidence. According to Matt Warshaw’s The Encyclopedia of Surfing, Lithuanian-born Jerry Bujakowski represented India in the 1966 and ’68 World Surfing Championships, “but he was likely an Indian citizen living overseas.” The book also tells us that Claude Codgen, as the reigning East Coast champion in ’68, along with Marylou McGinnis and Bob Purvey, who “rode some gentle beachbreak waves at a place they called Seventh Pagoda, near the city of Madras,” were considered the first to surf in India.

The surfing movement in India — which has over 7,000 km of coastline — perked up after Jack Hebner (popularly known as ‘Surfing Swamy’), a wandering surfer from Florida, set up the country’s first surfing school — Mantra Surf Club — in Mangalore in 2004. There were hardly any surfers in the country then, says Kiran Kumar, a surfing instructor of the school. Five years ago, the number of people who visited the club to surf was about 200-250. Now, the place annually attracts 600-700 people — tourists and locals — who want to surf. Of these, he says, at least 30 of them, including many kids, want to become professional surfers.

Murthy Meghavan, the main motivator of the surfing set-up in Kovalam, near Chennai.

 

During Hebner’s surfing sojourn on the shores of Kovalam in 2001, he inspired Murthy Meghavan, a local fisherman’s son, to take up surfing. Eleven years later, funded by TT Group’s Arun Vasu and EarthSync’s Yotam Agam, Murthy started Covelong Surfing Point, which has grown remarkably. Overcoming resistance from his villagers — they’d complained about surfboards hampering fishing boats, accidents and bikini-clad female students corrupting the village’s traditional values — Murthy and his little band of surfers now teach 20 people (many of them kids) to surf every weekend. These numbers don’t include the nearly 1000 visitors, including international cricketers (Jonty Rhodes, Matthew Hayden and Murali Vijay) and film stars, to the place every year. 

Including Covelong Surfing Point and Mantra Surf Club, which are the breeding grounds of Indian surfing talent, there are 12-15 surf schools in the country, according to Rammohan Paranjape, the vice-president of the Surfing Federation of India (SFI), the Indian body for surfing.

Rammohan Paranjape, the vice-president of the Surfing Federation of India is doing his bit to propagate the sport.

 

Several kids, Murthy says, are passionate about surfing. He talks about a 12-year-old who wept, wanting to surf, when he was bedridden with dengue. Addiction is the word several surfers in the country — Sekar Patchai, Vilassini Sundar and Dharani Selvakumar — use to describe surfing. ‘How would it feel to balance myself on a board in the sea?’ is the question that led them to try surfing. And, once they did, they got a “feel”, which they say “can’t be described in words.” This addiction then begot an ambition in them to excel in the sport. These wave-riders harbour hopes of winning an Olympic medal for their country. But for this collective dream to materialise, it might take a while.

“It’s a totally far-fetched dream,” says Rammohan about India winning a medal for surfing in 2020. In 2004, when Hebner started Mantra Surf Club, Rammohan, with his childhood chums Kishore Kumar (who’s SFI’s president) and Kiran, surfed for the first time, and, like many, got addicted to the activity. The trio along with a few other surfers, seven years later, started SFI to “make surfing an acknowledged sport in India.” 

The increase in numbers of surfers, surf schools and surfing competitions points to the popularity of the sport in the country. And, SFI is a full-member of ISA, the international surfing body. But for Indian surfers to officially represent the country in global events and to enjoy the benefits and support from the government, SFI must become a National Sports Federation (NSF).

“That’s definitely on top of the list… to become a nationally recognised body by 2018,” says Rammohan. SFI is working with Law NK, a top law firm, which is helping it set up a structure that adheres to the various guidelines of the National Sports Development Code, which awaits a final notification from the Ministry of Sports & Youth Affairs. Law NK’s head Nandan Kamath is among the nine-member government panel formed to make recommendations for bringing out a comprehensive National Sports Development Code.

Arun Vasu, a Chennai businessman, has been sponsoring the Kovalam initiative in a big way.

 

“They (SFI) are in line with most of the requirements (to become a NSF),” says Seshank Shekar, a Law NK lawyer. But there are some requirements, like having “affiliated units in at least 2/3rd of total States/UTs (Union Territories) of India,” which the SFI wouldn’t be able to meet as surfing, as of now, only exists in pockets of a few coastal states. “So for that, they might have to apply for a temporary waiver from meeting those requirements and hope for the sports ministry to grant permission,” Seshank adds.

Even if the system’s ready before the Olympics, India’s surfers mightn’t be. Sekar Patchai and Tanvi Jagdish remain the only surfers from the country to participate in a global event, that too in Stand-Up Paddling (an offshoot of surfing in which the rider uses a long board and a paddle to propel herself through the water). The duo participated in the last two editions of the ISA World SUP and Paddleboard Championship. In shortboard surfing, which will be part of the Tokyo Games, Indian surfers are yet to experience the international stage. No Indian has ever participated in the World Surf League Championship Tour in which top surfers of the world compete in different places across the globe throughout the year.

The following for the sport in top surfing nations — Australia, USA, Brazil, South Africa and several European nations — is huge. According to a New York Times report, more than 6.2 million people tuned in live from their laptops, mobiles and tablets to watch the 2014 Billabong Pipe Masters (a WSL Championship Tour event). The numbers, the report says, exceeded the American television audience for the final game of the 2014 Stanley Cup hockey finals.

“We can’t compare ourselves with countries like Australia,” Rammohan says, “They have already started spotting talent for the next Olympics. They have an excellent coach. They have high-performance centres and things like that.” India’s target, he says, should be to become a dominant surfing nation in South East Asia. For, according to him, even Sri Lanka, with its 1,340 km coastline, has better surfers. India’s surfing community must expand for it to get better. “A fest like Covelong — this is the fifth edition, it has brought a lot of attention on surfing and it will continue. So, similar things should happen in coastal cities like Vizag (Visakhapatnam). Through events like this, people will get to know about the sport, the lifestyle behind it.”

TT Group’s Arun Vasu, who, according to Rammohan, is the biggest sponsor of surfing events in India, believes surfing will be popular here as it’s “accessible to the people.” Arun, an avid surfer, sees a lot of potential in the Indian surfers and says, “Once you do a basic course (to surf) all you need is a surfboard… you don’t need big equipment. It’s easy for people to get hooked to this. I feel India can put someone in the Olympics — I don’t know if it’ll happen in the next Olympics but definitely in the next five to eight years, we can be there.

“We brought the Asian Surfing Circuit to India two years ago. It cost us about Rs. 25 lakh. To bring WSL will be Rs. 50 lakh… to bring the whole team, the setup, the judges. WSL are very keen to come to India. And, next year, we’re planning to send at least a surfer to participate in two-three events in the (WSL) circuit, ” Arun adds. 

The cost to surf, compared to playing many sports, might be less; but the cost to produce an Olympic champion isn’t. Coaches with expertise and experience, high-performance centres, training facilities, foreign tours — these things come with a price and as of now, Indian surfing can’t afford them. “We are, in our little way, trying to build a surf industry, build the sport,” says Arun, “But government is actually where the money is, clout is. The Karnataka government backed the surfing event (Indian Open of Surfing 2017) in Mangalore. I was pleasantly surprised by that. Other states should learn from that.” 

Compared to the top surfers in the world, most of whom start surfing as early as three, India’s first generation surfers started in their late-teens or early twenties. To match or surpass their international competitors, hence, has so far proved impossible for them. Which is why Rammohan pins his hopes on India’s second-generation surfers like Ajeesh Ali (14) and Tyain Arun (8). 

Meanwhile, the merriment at Covelong on the festival’s second day reaches a feverish pitch by evening: a band member from the stage asks the growing crowd to “make more noise”; a corn seller refills his coal sack after the supply runs out, the demand for roasted corn increases; slacklining pros spin 360-degrees in the air after bouncing themselves off the thick, flat, elastic webbing, enthralling their audience. But, as the golden orange rays of the evening sun rapidly darken, the surfers return ashore carrying their boards. Tomorrow, they know, it will be sunny again; then, they can run back to the waves, riding it, collapsing under it, and feel something “that can’t be described in words.”

Facebook pages with most likes:

World Surfing League: 6.4 million

FIFA: 3.3 million

ATP: 3.03 million

MLS: 2.6 million

 

5 Ws and a H

WHAT is this about?: Surfing, after almost a hundred-year-push, has officially become an Olympic sport.

WHEN will it be held?: The 2020 Tokyo Games are slated to be held from July 24 to August 9. The contest will feature a waiting period of 16 days. And once the event runs, it will take two days to finish the competition.

WHERE will it be held?: The event will take place at Shidashita Beach, or “Shida,” located about 40 miles from Tokyo in Chiba. 

WHO will be the participants?: There will be 20 men and 20 women, all shortboarders, from across the globe, competing in categories separated by sex.

WHY is surfing included in this Olympics?: In an attempt to revamp the Games program to attract a younger audience, all 90 members of the IOC, representing countries across the globe, voted in favour of including surfing in the 2020 Games — along with skateboarding, baseball, karate, and climbing.

HOW will the qualification system work?: The International Surfing Association confirmed to Sportstar that it’s “in the process of forming the qualification system and format. We will know more in March 2018.”