Finding a Balance in the Bullring at the 2014 Billabong Pro Tahiti

Words by Mat Arney / Images courtesy of ASPWorldTour.com

It’s Teahupoo time again, that period that comes around each year when social media feeds are flooded with visions of the world’s best surfers standing tall in monstrous cyan barrels.  Or going over the falls.  

Owen Wright standing tall at the 2014 Billabong Pro Tahiti.Above: Owen Wright standing tall at the 2014 Billabong Pro Tahiti.

This year life vests have been offered to competitors (for the first time ever) and around a quarter of surfers opted to wear one, with many being glad that they did when staring down the face of a 12 foot plus set wave.  This acknowledgement of competitor safety by the newly revitalized ASP does, however, raise the question of to what extent a sport’s governing body can control the safety of it’s competitors when operating in a dynamic natural environment whilst still providing the sort of spectacle that viewers log-on for.  

Taumata Puhetini suffering the wipeout that put him out the competition and into hospital.Above: Taumata Puhetini suffering the wipeout that put him out the competition and into hospital.

It’s not for nothing that nouns such as “gladiators”, “matadors” and “warriors” are bandied around during this event as Teahupoo surely provides the greatest combined test of ability and bravery on the World Tour schedule.

Sure, many of the top 34 would paddle out and charge Teahupoo anyway, however the addition of competition and the massed ranks of media sitting in the channel changes things slightly and could cause people to question the motives of some entrants.

Kelly Slater in the channel at the 2014 Billabong Pro Tahiti. Photo: www.aspworldtour.comAbove: Kelly Slater in the channel at the 2014 Billabong Pro Tahiti.

Do we as digital spectators also perhaps harbor an unspoken bloodlust akin to the audiences at ancient Roman amphitheaters or Spanish bullrings?  I mean, there’s a highlight reel of wipeouts for goodness sakes.  It’s car crash TV best illustrated this year when local Tahitian wildcard Taumata Puhetini was rushed ashore by the water patrol after an awkward fall in round 2, immobilized by the lifeguards due to a suspected spinal injury.  Nobody wants to see a surfer snap their neck in the name of competition.  


Above: Taumata Puhetini’s wipout.

Below: Rosie Hodge updates us on his condition.

As the ASP remodels itself to offer a uniform broadcast across all events (regardless of the event’s lead sponsor) and attempts to catch up with mainstream sporting leagues in order to grow their audience to a level that can sustain professional surfing’s WCT, the scenario that they are currently facing was somewhat inevitable.  Few other professional sports pose the sorts of risks to competitors that surfing does at locations such as Teahupoo and Pipeline – waves that have claimed the lives of surfers outside of competitions in the past.  Motor racing is probably the closest, and just look at the safety measures and controls in place in each facet of that sport to ensure that the drivers cross the finish line in one piece.  But, racing car drivers aren’t competing against the track as well as each other.  Surfing is different; at Teahupoo competitors are asked to place themselves literally inside the collision of the ocean and the land (read: reef) at the point of impact.  Competitors have control over their choice of equipment but no control over the variation in each individual wave, and event organizers can hire the best lifeguards on the planet to pluck any unfortunate surfers from the maelstrom of whitewater on the inside but they can’t predict or prevent the wipeout.  And if they could, would we watch?  

The Tahitian Water Patrol on stand by. Matt Wilkinson in the tube.Above: The Tahitian Water Patrol on stand by. Matt Wilkinson in the tube.

The truth is that we, the audience, want to have our cake and eat it.  We want to sit back and watch a high quality webcast with real time and expert commentary, live scores and instant slow-motion replays – all the benefits of a professional sports broadcast.  But don’t, whatever you do, sanitize the surfing because of your insurances.  We ask the worlds best surfers to walk the line and test themselves in the most challenging conditions, and we want it live in high definition.  Are we maybe asking for too much?

Joel Parkinson contemplates the possibilities and consequences.

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