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World Surf League: A Subjective Approach to Ranking Athletes



Soccer, basketball, baseball, hockey, football and tennis are all known the world over - but they are not free of controversies in their refereeing and adjudication. Yet still, they all have established rules and well-recognized points systems. This stands in contrast to the World Surf League.


In the world of sports, surfing is perhaps not the most well-recognised or represented. The sport has only truly begun growing in the past decade, creating more publicity, expanding its sponsorship, and generating more viewers and athletes - evolving to help grow the fan base. The sport originated in the Pacific Ocean and held its first competition in the 1960s. Still, it was only in 1983 that the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) was created and would prove to be the most successful organisation - ruling the surf world until 2013. In 2013, the ASP was acquired, and the name changed to World Surf League (WSL), creating the world’s new predominant surfing conglomeration.


The biggest and most prestigious competition within the WSL is the Championship Tour (CT). The trophy of this event is desired by the best surfers in the world, as it guarantees visibility, recognition and global acclaim. The championship now has an elite male and female competition, an Access Division Qualification Series (QS) and even the Pro Junior Longboard. It consists of ten different competitions on different beaches throughout the world, and your position in each gives you “punctuation” that adds up to your points. Until 2022, whoever has the most points is crowned the world champion. Now, only the five top punctuation competitors compete in the final - restarting their accumulation of points. 


At each stage, the surfers compete in groups of three at a time in what they call heats, where they take turns surfing waves and get points out of 10 given by a panel of judges. The winner is the one who gets the most points counting only the 2 best scores. Once they advance, the athletes compete in a one-on-one heat in a bracket-style playoff, just like in the champions league or the NFL playoffs. The heats last between 25 to 30 minutes, and it is the time for the surfers to show all their tricks and training.


Inherently, surfing is a very subjective sport as it depends a great deal on the conditions of the waves while the competition is running. A surfer can just have the bad luck of not getting any good waves during their heat, while another might be lucky enough to only have good waves. The athletes are already dependent on something out of their control that greatly influences their performance. Because of this unpredictable factor in the sport, each stage on the CT has a window to happen and not just one specific day - since they cannot predict wave conditions. This also happens because many of the beaches in the circuit are shark hotspots. They have to stop the competition if there are any sharks swimming around trying to take a peek at the competition. 


Although the environmental conditions are uncontrollable, the panel of judges, however, has been another point of controversy. The judges analyse commitment and degree of difficulty, innovative and progressive manoeuvres, the combination of major manoeuvres, variety of manoeuvres, speed, power and flow. Based on these criteria, the judges evaluate each surfer's entries in each wave and score the body of work in that exhibition. Despite the subjective evaluation, it is necessary to have versatility in the execution of manoeuvres and value the chosen wave.


Recently, Brazilian surfers were the ones in the spotlight of the WSL -  as their fan base, the Brazilian media, and the athletes themselves have been complaining of favouritism towards American & Australian surfers. It is not the first time that Brazilian athletes left a heat raging against the subjective judgement of the judges. Since 2014, there have been six world titles out of eight disputed: three by Medina, Adriano de Souza, Italo and Filipinho. Only Hawaiian John John Florence was able to break the Brazilian hegemony in the CT, winning twice. If the injuries don't take him out of the water again, he appears as the main threat to the Brazilian team in 2023. In all the titles, however, there were strong complaints about the bias of the judges supposedly giving greater points to inferior waves to non-Brazilian surfers, while Brazilian athletes have to work twice as hard to receive the same points.


The most recent controversy was during the Olympics in Japan, where Brazilian surfers made complaints that Medina had been injudiciously graded. In the semifinal played on Tsurigasaki beach in Japan, Medina was leading his heat when he saw his rival, the Japanese Kanoa Igarashi, do a difficult manoeuvre that earned him a high score (9.33). Medina had performed a similar manoeuvre and earned a lower score (8.43). The golden medal earned by Italo Ferreira was very much welcomed and celebrated, but the fanbase did not forget the Medina controversy. The semi-final victory frustrated Brazilian fans who had hoped to see both Brazilian surfers in the surfing's first-ever Olympic final.


At the end of the day, regardless of whether it is sharks, waves, judges or point systems, surfing is going to be a subjective sport. Inherently depending on third parties and not solely on the athletes' hard work and the WSL's current rules and points systems to determine winners.

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Tags: #Brazil #surfers #waves #surfleague #wsl


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