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Centuries of U.S. imperialism made surfing an Olympic sport

With an eye toward U.S. power, Americans spread the sport making its Olympic debut

Carissa Moore of the United States rides a wave during an Olympics training session on July 22 at Japan's Shidashita Beach. (Francisco Seco/AP)
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For the first time, surfing will be an Olympic sport. Beginning on Sunday, 40 surfers from 17 nations will ride the waves at Shidashita Beach as part of the Tokyo Games. While traditional surfing powers such as the United States, Australia and South Africa are well represented among the competitors, countries such as Morocco, Peru and Germany have also sent surfers.

Surfing can be thrilling to watch. But the sport has gained a global presence not only because of the pleasures of wave riding.

Surfing became a global sport because of the exercise of American power on the world stage. From 19th-century missionaries to 20th-century cold warriors, Americans have used surfing to accomplish the nation’s diplomatic goals. The fact that surfing only now joins the ranks of Olympic events belies the sport’s centuries-long international history.

When an expedition led by British Captain James Cook arrived in Hawaii in the late 18th century, its members were astonished by Hawaiian board riders. By then Polynesian people had practiced wave riding in some form for millennia. After watching the aquatic spectacle, a surgeon aboard Cook’s ship, the Resolution, wrote he “could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea.”

Within a few decades, however, American missionaries arriving in Hawaii would view this “supreme pleasure” as an impediment to their drive to Christianize the world.

Missionaries constituted one of the largest groups of Americans to travel abroad in the 19th century. Protestant missionaries established footholds in Africa, Asia and the Pacific islands to spread Christianity along with American power and influence. Often, missionaries served as forerunners to American economic and political penetration.

American missionaries first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in the 1820s. They sought to impose their morality and values while stamping out practices viewed as sinful and licentious. Missionaries helped pass laws that banned hula dancing and discouraged the wearing of leis. While surfing remained legal, practices associated with the sport, including nudity and gambling were not. As surfing historian Matt Warshaw concluded, “take away the sex and wagering and all of a sudden the whole thing was a lot less attractive.”

The missionary emphasis on Calvinist ethics such as hard work and enterprise left little time for surfing. Missionary Hiram Bingham noted this relationship: “The decline and discontinuance of the use of the surf-board, as civilization advances, may be accounted for by the increase in modesty, industry, and religion.”

By the turn of the 20th century, however, some Americans began to see surfing not as a sinful activity to be restrained but a tool to extend American power in the Pacific. During the second half of the 19th century, Hawaii became a destination for American investment in the island’s burgeoning sugar industry. While ostensibly a monarchy under the control of native leaders, Hawaii came under the indirect control of American business executives, many of whom were the children of missionaries. This cadre of powerful Americans orchestrated a coup with the assistance of the Marines and pushed for annexation to the United States in 1898.

Some White citizens of Hawaii, principally Alexander Hume Ford, turned to surfing to secure Hawaii as an outpost of the American empire. As historian Scott Laderman argues, “when [Ford] found surfing and the incomparable thrill it represented, Ford found a lure for drawing white immigrants to Hawai’i” to strengthen America’s imperial grasp.

To attract fellow White Americans to the islands, Ford published dozens of articles extolling the pleasure and value of surfing. In Collier’s magazine, for instance, he observed “there is a thrill like none other in all the world as you stand upon [a wave’s] crest.” Ford became one of the most prominent boosters of the sport, teaching Jack London to surf and founding the elite Outrigger Canoe Club in Honolulu. All of this was done not just in the pursuit of pleasure, but to enhance American power abroad.

As Ford promoted surfing to White Americans, native Hawaiians brought the sport directly to international audiences. George Freeth traveled to California to perform surfing demonstrations for audiences from San Francisco to San Diego as part of Ford’s plan to use surfing to sell Hawaii. During the first half of the 20th century, the most famous surfer in the world was Duke Kahanamoku. He sparked the development of surfing in Australia and New Zealand after an exhibition tour in 1914 and 1915. Also an accomplished swimmer, Kahanamoku represented the United States at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm; the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium; the 1924 Olympics in Paris and the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, tallying five medals in all.

World War II and the subsequent Cold War dramatically changed the position of the United States in the world. As the American military fanned out across the globe during the 1940s and 1950s to fight the war and, as Washington saw it, defend the peace, they brought surfing with them. Surfing and U.S. military involvement went hand in hand, bringing wave riding to places such as Japan, Vietnam and Central America.

American tourists, too, did much to bring surfing to the wider world through travel. From France to Peru, South Africa to Indonesia, surfers spread what was stoking. Traveling surfers also engaged in the kind of small-scale, person-to-person diplomacy that became a central part of America’s use of soft power to win hearts and minds during the Cold War.

Illustrative of surfing’s place in America’s Cold War soft-power arsenal was the 1966 surf travel documentary “The Endless Summer.” Directed by Bruce Brown, the film followed two White all-American teens from Southern California as they chased waves from Ghana to South Africa to Tahiti. The State Department even planned to screen the film at the Moscow Film Festival in 1967 to, as Laderman argues, illustrate “the pleasurable lifestyle promised by the capitalist system that made such leisure possible … [and] painted a portrait of the United States as a benevolent and sympathetic power.”

American soft power was on display again at the Japan World Exposition in Osaka in 1970. Organizers of the U.S. pavilion at the exposition treated the event as a de facto competition with the Soviet Union. They turned to surfing to showcase the best of the United States. Just beyond displays of spacecraft and a moon rock, American exhibitioners featured 13 American-made boards and footage of surfers donated by Bruce Brown. After the conclusion of the exposition, a Japanese surf club eagerly purchased 10 of the boards to continue spreading the sport in that country.

Some 50 years later, surfing will, once again, be part of an international competition in Japan. International sporting events are often touted as world unifying. But the Olympics also showcase international inequities. And the Olympic movement has faced criticism for corruption, scandals and the tacit endorsement of governments that regularly violate the human rights of their citizens.

The history of surfing similarly shows that the sport is embedded in a history of imperialism. Surfing, much like the Olympics itself, would not exist as it does independent of how nations use sports as a tool of international relations. Americans brought surfing to the world, doing so in a way that buttressed American power around the globe — and while we may marvel at the athletes riding waves at the Games, this history will also be on display.