/ 29 January 2020

Jordy Smith: South Africa’s surfing Olympic gold medal hope

Jordy Smith at the World Surfing Games
Jordy Smith competes in the repechage heats of the World Surfing Games at Kisakihama Beach in Miyazaki, Japan. ( Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Jordy Smith is a pretty big deal in the surfing world. It’s necessary to point that out because if you’re a South African reading this there’s a high chance that name means nothing to you. His is a sport that rarely will get more than a cursory mention in a country where frankly only a tiny few could give a damn.

Why bring him up now then? Simply, he’s the newest – and perhaps one of the most realistic – chance of a medal at Tokyo 2020.

Back in 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted unanimously to include surfing – along with skateboarding, karate, baseball and climbing –  into the programme from this year. With much of the recent noise being around bringing more eyeballs to the games, the idea is, according to the event’s website, to introduce “more youthful and vibrant events and culture”. 

How the surfing world and its competitors will respond to its inclusion is not immediately clear. For millions of athletes around the globe, the Olympic Games have and always will be the pinnacle of competition. It’s a hefty historical precedent that those on shortboards simply won’t carry in with them this July.

“It’s the first one and anything first everyone wants to be a part of it. I think it will really tell what kind of prestige it has to it afterwards depending on how much airtime it gets,” Smith says, before revealing his own motivation since qualifying back in October.

“It’s better for you to win a gold for your country. Especially for me – somebody that is a surfer and your country doesn’t know too much about you and your sport. You win a gold and they know now because a gold medal is a gold medal. Across all boards it is amazing.” 

Envision a surfer stereotype and it’s probably not far off the physical appearance of Jordy Smith. He’s extremely tall and tanned, regularly flashes a friendly white grin, and has his long dark-blonde hair covered by a Red Bull cap. Still, he maintains a presence about him that belies that base perception.

The lifestyle aspect of surfing is also not his concern – to him it’s pure competition. On a board since the age of three, by 11 his talent would convince his parents to sell every meaningful possession they owned to enter him into a major overseas competition; one he fortunately ended up winning. His stock would rise so fast that as a teenager he received personal calls from Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan selling him on the merits of signing on with Nike. (He eventually went with Red Bull and O’Neill, brands more in keeping with the ethos of his environment.)

Now, at 31, he’s unarguably one of the best in the world. He finished last season’s World Surf League (WSL) Championship Tour – the equivalent of what the PGA is to golf – in third. Competing in that alone netted him $285 200 in winnings for a few months work.

But, again, chances are you’ve never cared.

“It’s hard for somebody that’s never really been around it or involved with it,” Smith says. “I think that’s why they say only a surfer knows the feeling. As cheesy as it sounds it really is true. A lot of the time, surfing is mistaken for this ‘Yeah bro’, weed-smoking, dope kind of thing – let’s hang out on the beach. That potentially came from the lifestyle perspective of it. But the professional side of it, these guys are making upwards of 50-million. It’s very lucrative. That’s probably been the biggest thing that people, especially in our country, don’t know.”

Smith’s frustration is not necessarily South African apathy towards his sport but rather the misconceptions he routinely bats away. It’s partly why he mentions the money, to him this is a high-reward career-path that would make sense to encourage in schools, just like we do rugby and cricket. On top of that it’s sustainable: he’s been earning well since he was 14 and points out that it’s possible to remain competitive well into his late forties – an age range largely unseen anywhere in sport outside of golf.

“You’re either 100% or nothing,” like any other professional sport, he says. “You indulge something completely with no fear and everything you have. I feel like balance is for normal people. To be great in sport you have to be extremely selfish. There’s definitely been moments when I’ve been scared, when the injuries come about, sharks … there’s a lot of stuff that flashes right between the eyes and you think, ‘Fuck, this is me. Is this my time?’ But you just have to relax and go with it.”

For any pro surfer, that hard work and sacrifice is committed with one goal in mind: becoming the WSL world champion. Now, relatively out of the blue, 20 men and 20 women find themselves in contention for one of sport’s highest marks of achievement: an Olympic gold medal.

On top of that comes the added pressure of being the canaries sent into this unknown. Unlike any other code at the Games, surfing relies on the weather to not only behave but to provide ideal conditions. If the waves remain low, no one is putting on a show.

Then there’s the challenge organisers face of ensuring the battle at the coast doesn’t feel disconnected from the rest of the competition. Luckily, there’s a suitable beach less than 20km from Tokyo; 2024 hosts Paris are not so fortunate – surfers will instead head to Tahiti for their contest. The French Polynesian island offers some of the best waves in the world, but will be far removed from the Olympic Village and their respective compatriots.

It’s not unprecedented for sports to fall out of the Olympics: if Smith’s generation doesn’t make it work, surfers might be lost to the Olympic community for good.

“I think the governing body knows that,” he assures. “So they probably want to put on a good show, or the best they can. But, gosh, at the end of the day it’s all up to Mother Nature. Whether the waves come or not it’s out of their control. You just have to go with the show and if it’s going to be it’s going to be.”

It may take time for the new event to build up the prestige of the WSL, but there’s little denying Smith’s logic that it will place him and his sport further to the fore of the South African mind. For as little as the average citizen might care for surfing, we sure do love us a shiny gold medal.

South Africa only got two last time out in Rio. The athletes responsible – Caster Semenya and Wayde van Niekerk – now have giant question marks hanging over them. At least half of the six silver medallists, too, are either retired or declining. The less said about the 2019 World Champs, meanwhile, the better.

In Tokyo our frustrations will intersect with Smith’s. Surfing will not become as widely popular as it is in Brazil or Hawaii overnight, no matter what he does, but it may very well start to be taken a little more seriously outside of its niche community. South Africa needs medal getters and no one is going to begrudge where they come from. 

As far as the Olympics goes, it’s almost always these personalities that you catch onto,” he adds. “Like, I would never watch somebody sweeping the ice [referring to curling]. But if I found somebody that was a really cool person and had a big backstory about them … you almost latch onto the people and then go ‘I’m going to support that guy, he’s rad. I don’t care if he’s showjumping.’ So there possibly could be some really cool stories.”