Why is America blind to Slater's supreme dominance?
Why does the world's greatest surfer get no love?
Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 9 December, 2010 : - - Last month Andy Irons died suddenly at the age of 32. Four days later longtime rival Kelly Slater won in Puerto Rico and clinched his 10th world championship. The surfing world, waiting giddily for Slater to hit this landmark, didn't know whether to cry or break open the champagne. So, like Slater, it did both.
This cruel consummation of the Slater-Irons rivalry was the ideal backdrop for American sports journalists to savor both the rivalry itself and the 38-year-old Slater's own achievements, which are so unprecedented that the precedents they transcend are all Kelly Slater's. Yet Slater has nowhere near the fame of Lance Armstrong and Michael Phelps and Shaun White, other legends of the wider, weirder world of sports.
Instead, despite his professional dominance and personal magnetism, Slater has settled into a state of permanent semianonymity. This situation is both lamentable and seemingly easy to understand. Steve Pezman, editor of the wonderful Surfer's Journal, told me: "Slater's mainstream recognition is proportional to the amount and nature of the TV exposure he gets. Snowboarding and skateboarding being more broadly aired in easily understandable formats, their top stars (Shaun White, Tony Hawk) are nationally known."
While Pezman's sociology surely explains much, I can't help treating it as a starting point for my own curiosity, because there are a couple of things about it that don't quite fit. The first is surfing, and the second is Kelly Slater.
As a spectator sport, surfing doesn't work, at least in America. But as a conveniently vague signifier for healthful and/or beautiful living, mystical communion with nature, radical dropping-out, reactionary self-assertion, and the maddening inscrutability of teenagers, surfing is ubiquitous. If you believed television advertisements, you'd think that the No. 1 destination for drivers of compact SUVs is a deserted surf break. (That it's deserted is how you know it's just a commercial, or a dream.)
Just as he could make an awesome Sports Illustrated cover boy, Kelly Slater could be the perfect guy to embody these shapeless aspirations. Eerily handsome as a bald near-fortysomething, Slater was such a heartthrob as a black-haired 20-year-old that Baywatch brought him on to play a surfer (a career move Slater has the good taste to cringe at). He's dated supermodels and actresses. He's articulate and charismatic. Yet none of the women I surveyed for this piece quite recognized his name. (Though all of them, when shown pictures from the Internet, said some variation of "Oh, my.")
Slater won his first world title in 1992, at age 20, making him surfing's youngest champion. When he retired in 1998, after a string of five more titles, he was already a singular figure in the sport, widely recognized as the greatest surfer of all time.
Given surfing's vague and powerful evocation of things we wish we could do but can't, Slater's utterly transcendent status in that sport should offer him somewhere higher to transcend to. But contest surfing sucks on television and will never fit into a multisport mega-event like the Olympics. Unfortunately, surfing's TV problem is bound up with Slater's coolest attribute—his spooky dominance in a vast range of unreliable conditions: big waves and small waves, slow rampy walls and slabby, spitting barrels, perfect glassy peaks and windblown junk.
If one person bolsters the case that television is responsible for Slater's limited appeal, it's snowboarding god Shaun White, whose sport is both on TV and in the Olympics. White is indeed a singular figure in his sport, and a thrilling performer, but his sport lacks both surfing's competitive history and its innate competitive intensity.
Slater's dominance means more, as I see it, because his sport is characterized by a wicked scarcity problem—one surfer per wave; not enough waves at too few breaks for too many surfers—and this problem is "solved" through an ongoing contest of status and skill, in which better surfers get more respect and are allowed to claim more waves at better spots
The closer an outsider gets to surfing's real culture, then, as opposed to the SUV commercials and smiling sales jobs like the film Step Into Liquid, the more likely he or she is to appreciate the inclusive democratic spirit of polo or yachting. So maybe the final limit to Slater's fame is that he's the dashing and deific king of a sport that is, in the wider world of athletic pursuits, something of a rogue nation. Surfing may seek attention, on occasion, but mainly so that it can invite that wider world to kiss its ass.
Read the full article at Slate.com
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