How surfing swapped spliffs for natural highs in pursuit of Olympic pipe dream

Hollywood depictions have been consigned to history to help acquire place on biggest stage, Alex Wade reports

It is round three of the Quiksilver Pro in Hossegor, France. In the sea, about to do battle in solid 6ft surf, are Hawaiian world championship contender John John Florence and upcoming Australian Ryan Callinan.

The crowd go wild as Florence, on his first ride, disappears behind the lip of the wave. Not to be outdone by Florence’s tube ride, Callinan quickly pulls a textbook backside air reverse. Florence counters with an astonishing frontside alley-oop and if there is anyone among the 15,000 onlookers who is not familiar with the jargon, it doesn’t matter. This is pro surfing at its best. Two exceptionally fit and agile athletes are putting on a show fit for Hollywood.

A drone hovers above, zipping above the waves, streaming live footage of the event. Watching from the shore, one wonders: what could possibly be as clean and pure as high-performance surfing on a sunny day in France? And yet Hollywood’s depiction of surfing is different. Take films such as Big Wednesday and Point Break. Their surfers are lean and bronzed, but know how to party, too. And clichéd though it may be, Hollywood’s treatment of surfing has not been, historically, miles from the truth.

“Drug use quickly became a popular and often celebrated part of surf culture,” writes Matt Warshaw, the leading authority on surfing, in The Encyclopaedia of Surfing.

A number of famous surfers have been embroiled in drug-related incidents, from California-born professional and co-founder of the surfwear clothing brand Quiksilver USA Jeff Hakman — who once travelled to Australia with cocaine hidden in the fin of a surfboard, and competed while high — to “Buttons” Kaluhiokalani, a legendary Hawaiian surfer who was clinically dead of overdoses on two occasions.

Rick Rasmussen, 1974 US champion, was killed in a drug deal in Harlem; more recently, America’s three-times world champion Andy Irons died of a drug-related cardiac arrest in 2010. Before Irons, there was Occy, the Australian surfer Mark Occhilupo who managed to turn round a life of excess to win the world title in 1999.

I’ve seen some of this first-hand. Sent by a surfing magazine to interview a leading surfer at a world championship event in Spain, he was so strung out that he couldn’t speak. Outside a bar frequented by professional surfers, I was offered “speed, coke, weed — whatever you want”. The stories of parties going wrong I had heard were enough to make my hair stand on end.

So in Hossegor in October, I’m wondering how much the party scene still prevails — all the more so since, on the eve of last summer’s Olympic Games in Rio, the International Olympic Committee announced that surfing will be a full medal sport in Tokyo 2020, alongside four other new sports: skateboarding, sports climbing, baseball and karate. The IOC hopes young people will tune in to the Olympics, as its president, Thomas Bach, made clear: “With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.”

The IOC’s Olympic Commission Report into the five new sports fleshes out surfing’s appeal. “Surfing has an incredible global youth following — infused with dynamic energy and youthful enthusiasm, [it] would attract a new wave of young fans to the Olympic Movement.” Moreover, “the ‘beach festival’ atmosphere would add a whole new dimension”. But given surfing’s roots in Sixties counter-culture, might the IOC get more than it bargained for?

Dave Prodan, spokesman for the World Surf League (WSL) — which, in 2012, acquired the rights to host various surfing world championships — tells me things have changed. “An anti-doping policy based on the World Anti-Doping Authority [Wada] framework has been in place since 2012,” he says. “Athletes are randomly tested at every event. Surfing has matured. You don’t see partying any more.” Prodan adds that there has not been a positive test over the past year.

Martin Potter, the 1989 world champion and now a commentator for the WSL, agrees. “There’s big money in surfing now,” he says. “Today’s pro surfers are top athletes. They’re super-fit and super healthy, with coaching and dietary regimes and six or seven-figure salaries. In the old days, the guys on tour couldn’t afford their own hotel room, now there are major sponsors. There’s a stringent anti-drug testing regime, both for recreational and performance-enhancing drugs.”

Florence is the 2016 world surfing championJoe Scarnici/Getty Images

Among surfing’s long-time Olympic lobbyists is Fernando Aguerre, the president of the International Surfing Association (ISA). Aguerre says “there is very little drug usage in surfing, and if there is any, it’s marijuana among recreational surfers. Andy Irons didn’t have drug problems because he was a surfer; he had them anyway. The Olympics will show what surfing really is.”

Aguerre says surfing’s arrival in the Olympics will have an educative effect on children, a view echoed by Kit McConnell, the IOC head of sport. “The ISA and WSL are Wada compliant, and all surfers participating in the Olympics will be subject to anti-doping tests,” McConnell says. “It will be a way of getting the message across to younger surfers that drugs are no longer part of the sport.” Or, as Aguerre puts it: “You can’t surf two to three-metre waves well and take drugs.”

In Hossegor, I watched as the world’s best competed. I checked out the usual haunts and asked what was happening on the party front. At most, I saw a couple of surfers, having been knocked out in early heats, sipping beers. And just under three weeks later, at the penultimate event on the men’s world tour in Portugal, Florence — on fire in France — became the first Hawaiian to be crowned world champion since Irons won the title, in 2004.

Chances are that Irons celebrated as he did everything in life: with no holding back. Florence and the rest of today’s elite surfers are unlikely to follow suit at the final event of the season, the Billabong Pipe Masters in Hawaii, this week. They, and their masters, know that reputations — and wealth — can be ruined by spliffs and lines of chop that once went with the territory. And with the Olympics on the horizon, partying is best left in the past.

All waves lead to Sgidashita at Tokyo 2020

Where will it take place?
Shidashita beach in the Chiba prefecture, 25 miles to the south-east of Tokyo

How many contestants?
Twenty men and twenty women. All will be riding shortboards — high performance, manoeuvrable craft suitable for cutting-edge moves

What are the judging criteria?
Judges assess commitment and degree of difficulty, innovation, the way moves are combined, their variety and their speed, power and flow. A tube ride — when the surfer rides inside a breaking wave — is traditionally the highest scoring manoeuvre, but “getting air” is now highly scored

How long before the first gold medal for surfing is awarded?
To accommodate nature’s unpredictability, there will be a waiting period of 16 days, during which organisers hope Shidashita will serve up waist to head-high waves. Come the right conditions, the contest should be wrapped up in two days

Could we see British surfers in the Olympics?
In theory, yes. But we’ve only had one surfer — Newquay’s Russell Winter — at modern-day elite world championship level. Winter beat 11-time world champion Kelly Slater, among others. Would-be British surfer-Olympians will need his talent and determination

What if there are no waves?
Embarrassment. Former world champion Martin Potter says Shidashita is unreliable, and wants a wave pool built