The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women’s tennis is standing up to China. Doing so rides a wave of surfer activism.

Surfers have long been among the most political of athletes

Japanese American surfer Kanoa Igarashi rides a wave on the fourth day of the World Surf League Haleiwa Challenger series in Haleiwa, Hawaii, on Dec. 5. (Brian Bielmann/AFP/Getty Images)

On Dec. 1, concerned about the effective disappearance from public life of tennis player Peng Shuai, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announced that it was suspending all tournaments in China. Peng had accused a former Chinese vice premier of sexual assault — a claim immediately censored by Chinese authorities — and had not been seen without the presence of government officials since.

“If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded — equality for women — would suffer an immense setback,” said Steve Simon, its chief executive. “I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”

Then, on Dec. 6, in explicit disapproval of China’s human rights abuses, the Biden administration announced that the United States will not send government representatives to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Australia, Canada and Britain quickly followed suit.

These were bold and, particularly with respect to the WTA, courageous moves. Withdrawing from China is likely to cost the WTA hundreds of millions of dollars. Indeed, the China market is so lucrative that many athletes and athletic organizations, such as the NBA, have made it clear that they will not jeopardize profits to trumpet humanitarian concerns.

Yet not all in the athletic community have been so craven. Some have long jumped headfirst into denouncing ghastly human rights records, withdrawing from competitions or using their public profiles to focus global attention on such issues. Among the boldest athlete activists? Surfers. While surfers were long celebrated as an apolitical bunch who wanted to do nothing but ride waves, that changed in the 1980s as it dawned on them that the pastime they saw as an escape from the world’s troubles was, in fact, embedded in its social realities.

South Africa’s violent white supremacy, in particular, forced this realization.

The international pro surfing circuit formed in 1976. From its early years, competitive surfers put their careers on the line to send a statement. In 1985, three of the sport’s most distinguished professionals — Australian Tom Carroll, South Africa-raised British national Martin Potter and Californian Tom Curren, each of them a past or future world champion — announced that they would forgo all surfing contests in South Africa until its government dismantled the racist system of apartheid. Their boycott came at considerable personal cost. At a time when prize winnings were only a fraction of what they are today, the surfers were not only forfeiting potential earnings and ratings points, but they also faced fines from the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) for skipping the South African events.

Their example nevertheless proved powerful. By 1989, despite the ASP’s opposition to the boycott, 25 of the top 30 ranked surfers on the men’s professional tour elected not to compete in South Africa. While their actions undermined the stereotype of surfers as Jeff Spicoli-like figures who cared only about “tasty waves [and] a cool buzz,” as the famous “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982) character put it, the response of the ASP underscored the crass capitalist logic of most corporations and corporate-minded organizations.

The surfers’ boycott was unusual in that they lacked support from their sport’s governing body. But when these individuals declared their participation in the boycott, they inspired others, such as golfer Greg Norman, rugby player Glen Ella and several Australian cricketers.

Surfers’ activism continued after the fall of apartheid. Recognizing the importance of clean water and coastal access to the enjoyment of their pastime, surfers in recent decades have become deeply involved in the environmental movement, with a number of surfing-based organizations — the Surfrider Foundation, the U.K.-based Surfers Against Sewage and others — providing the sport’s grass roots with a positive outlet for their concerns.

China’s human rights record has become a more recent target of surfing activism. In 2011, Californian Cori Schumacher, the three-time women’s world longboard champion, drew global attention when she announced her boycott of the surfing world tour after the scheduling of an event on Hainan Island.

“I have deep political and personal reservations with being a part of any sort of benefit to a country that actively engages in human rights violations, specifically those in violation of women,” she said.

The ASP noted its “respect” for Schumacher’s “personal decision” but forged ahead with its Chinese expansion. It viewed the world’s most populous country like the empire builders of centuries past: a vast market begging to be tapped.

“The action sports scene is growing in China and a women’s World Longboard Tour event is a great opportunity [to] integrate surfing into the world of Chinese action sports,” the ASP told Surfer magazine.

The tour has long been guided by the whims of the industry’s major players, with surf-wear companies foremost among these. Such brands made substantial profits by exploiting cheap Asian labor, and they saw a massive potential customer base in the growing Chinese middle class. Yet, as Schumacher demonstrated, not all athletes were willing to follow their lead. The Californian became an outspoken critic of the industry’s reliance on sweatshop conditions and on what she called “big surfing’s” deviation from the organic, nature-based commitment that originally lay at the heart of the wave-riding tradition.

Surfers also assumed a prominent role on issues of gender equity and pay, challenging the sexism that has long afflicted surfing (and other sports). For decades, female surfers were more often valued as “babes” on the beach than as serious competitors and athletes, and this sense carried over to contest earnings. By 2018, it produced a major global embarrassment: a viral photo featuring the male and female winners of a pro junior event in South Africa holding up cardboard checks, with hers half as much as his.

Female surfers had formed the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing and, in the run-up to a big-wave event in Northern California, requested “action to prohibit gender-based discrimination” from the California Coastal Commission. Perhaps surprisingly, the World Surf League (WSL), which inherited the world tour from the ASP in 2015, finally acceded to the surfers’ demand for gender equality. In 2018, it became, according to its news release, the “first and only U.S.-based global sports league, and among the first internationally,” to provide equal prize money for men and women.

More recently, everyday surfers have taken to protesting racial injustice, with beachside protests and public paddle-outs in California, New York and elsewhere around the world. This is probably not surprising. While most surfers today are White, the pastime originated with the brown-skinned people of Hawaii, and Hawaiians remain among its most talented and influential riders.

Such racial justice protests also have taken hold in surfing’s professional ranks. For example, two-time world champion Tyler Wright, who in December 2020 became the first person to compete with a Pride flag on her jersey, garnered international headlines when she took a knee for 439 seconds last year — one second for each Australian First Nations person who had died in police custody since 1991 — before entering the water at the Tweed Coast Pro south of Brisbane. Doing so consumed more than seven valuable minutes of her 30-minute heat.

And Wright’s actions revealed that surfing activism is slowly bringing the WSL along. Unlike with the boycott of South Africa decades before, the sport’s governing body publicly backed her: “Surfing is for everyone and the WSL stands in solidarity to proactively work against racism and fight for true equality.”

Surfers have hardly been alone in using the platform they’ve been afforded to speak out on issues of concern. But they have been remarkably active and vocal compared with athletes in other sports. Schumacher demonstrated this commitment in 2011, when she took a lonely stand in boycotting China a full decade before women’s tennis announced it was doing the same. It remains to be seen whether the WSL — or the Association of Tennis Professionals, which sponsors the men’s tour — will find the courage to follow Schumacher’s and the WTA’s lead.