A few months ago, the ISA sent out a press release announcing how surfers should go about qualifying for the 2020 Olympics. The newly-minted rules revealed that 20 women and 20 men would compete in the Games—a maximum of two individuals per gender, per nation—and 18 spots would be saved (10 men and eight women) World Tour surfers. The rest of the Olympians would be chosen via the ISA World Games and the Pan Am Games. According to the ISA, the new qualification process would ensure "participation of the world's best professional surfers as well as promoting universal opportunities for surfers from around the world at the Games."
This claim was brought into question recently during a conversation I had with aerial wizard/opinionated freesurfer Albee Layer, who admitted that although he's not currently on the 'CT, he'd like a chance at qualifying for the Olympics. And that got me wondering: Does the recently announced Olympic qualification system give freesurfers any kind of shot at competing in Tokyo 2020? Shouldn't guys like Dane Reynolds, Noa Deane and Albee—who are undeniably some of the best surfers in the world and, if we're being honest, more entertaining to watch than most of the current Top 10—have the opportunity at going for gold?
Well, if you look closer at the rules, guys like Albee or Dane or Noa could technically qualify for Olympics (if they wanted to, that is), but their chances of getting there are dependent upon how the 2019 'CT season plays out—and therefore could be pretty slim. Here's why: The routes of getting onto the Olympic team are hierarchical. First priority goes to the 10 'CT guys and 8 'CT women. Next priority goes to the first four eligible men and 6 eligible women finishing in the 2020 ISA World Games, next goes to the first four eligible men and women finishing in the 2019 ISA World Games (one per competing continent), and last but kind of least, two spots go to the top finishers of the Pan Am Games. The last two spots go to the host country of Japan.
For would-be Olympians from the freesurfing realm, the important part of this is that they do have a chance at qualifying through the ISA World Games. All they need to do is be invited by their national federation (USA Surfing, in the case of Dane or Albee) to compete in the 2019 and 2020 ISA Games. But even then, with a max of four surfers per nation and priority going to 'CT surfers, freesurfers from nations well-represented on Tour will have only slightly better chances than a snowball in hell.
Let's say the Olympic team was chosen from the current seeding. Only two men from each country will qualify, so you'd be looking at the following future Olympians on the men's side: Julian Wilson (AUS), Filipe Toledo (BRA), Italo Ferreira (BRA), Michel Bourez (Tahiti), Mikey Wright (AUS, although technically still a wildcard and not on the 'CT through qualification), Jordy Smith (South Africa), Kolohe Andino (USA), Griffin Colapinto (USA), Jeremy Flores (FRA) and Frederico Morais (Portugal). So even if someone like Dane Reynolds wanted to have a go at qualifying via the ISA World Games—and even he won the whole damn thing—his efforts would be in vain because the two male USA spots were already filled via the 'CT.
The thing that sucks for freesurfers from countries with a good representation on Tour is that there will almost always be at least two surfers from those countries in the top ranks—thereby leaving anyone not on the 'CT with very slight odds.
"I just think the whole way they are doing it isn't fair at all," said Albee, when I brought this scenario to his attention. "It should be based on where the Olympics are going to be held. It should be figuring who is the best in whatever type of wave it's going to be held in. What bothers me the most is it seems like everyone involved has kind of kept how to qualify a secret so people like me don't kick and scream about it. That being said, I personally can't think of a completely fair way so it's tough to say what the best way would be."
There's always the chance that, in Albee's or Noa's case, there'd be 9 or 10 eligible guys from other countries who outperform and outrank an American or an Australian. But looking at the results over the past 7-plus 'CT seasons, that likely won't happen.
Of course, this predicament doesn't apply to ALL freesurfers. Rippers from Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and beyond, whose fellow countrymen aren't already on the 'CT in droves, could have a fair shot at making it if they want to compete at the ISA World Games.
Whether the qualification process, which is claimed to ensure "participation of the world's best professional surfers," is fair or not, one thing is for certain: anyone with their sights set on the 2020 Olympics should be paying close attention to 2019 Jeep Leaderboard—because they've got first dibs.