Picture this: It’s 2020, the first time surfing is included in the Olympics, and the waves are pumping at Shidashita Beach in Japan. An unknown young surfer strides across the sand with an odd-looking surfboard -- like a long bodyboard with fins -- tucked under her arm. Few people have seen it or her before, but later, when she stands atop the podium wearing a gold medal, the world is intrigued.
Snowboarder and surfer Brenton Woo hopes that one of those radical new surfboards, made by his company, Moda Surfboards, will help achieve gold for its rider.
As his startup seeks a foothold in the market, he’s looking to the Olympics for a bump. “My sense is that 2020 could push surfboard innovation in a big way,” Woo said.
In a nutshell, the Moda Surfboards design puts a snowboard at the core of a soft surfboard. This gives the board a variable rocker, which Woo thinks could be a game-changer over rigid surfboards with a fixed rocker.
Flat boards are fast but sacrifice maneuverability, while boards with rocker are slower but turn well. The Moda design marries speed and maneuverability with flex.
“Snowboard flex allows the board to change its shape to match the arc of the turn,” Woo explained, and then the board flattens out when speed is needed. His company found that the best way to incorporate flex into a surfboard is with a soft polyethylene exterior, which has an added safety benefit over a standard hard board.
“Variable rocker via flex could be a significant competitive advantage,” Woo believes, which is why he’s putting Moda demo boards in the hands of coaches who train potential Olympic competitors.
One of those coaches told Woo that he also thinks the drive for medals at Shidashita will fire surfboard innovation.
However, there are reasons to believe surfing's inclusion in the Olympics won't change the boards ridden by Team U.S.A.
When snowboarding became an Olympic sport in 1998, there was no appreciable effect on the boards competitors chose to ride.
Paul McGinty worked in snowboard development for Ride Snowboards and is currently a partner at Nightmare Snowboards. He said that almost all pro snowboarders want to stick with tried-and-true technology instead of chasing an edge with something new.
They have little time for testing new designs, and when they have a chance to ride innovative boards, they still resist change.
A professional snowboarder might say: “‘This proto is tenfold better,'” McGinty explained, “‘but no, I want last year’s board, the one we’ve been riding for five years.’ Although they may acknowledge the tech is better,” he said. “They have spent a career dialing in the nuances and subtleties of their muscle control and don't want to relearn anything on an unproven new design.”
A Burton insider agreed, noting Shaun White rides the same snowboard today as he did twelve years ago. While some have tried to convince White to try new designs, White has so far refused to mess with the formula that’s earned him medals so many times.
Woo is nevertheless optimistic about the Olympics’ effect on surfing, even if the pros can’t be tempted by new tech. He thinks perhaps “a country that isn’t normally competitive in surfing yet traditionally has strong Olympic presence, maybe China or Russia, would be very open to tech that could win them golds.” After all, China built a competitive snowboarding team from scratch.
Whether or not new designs end up under the feet of competitors at the next summer Olympics, it’s likely that average surfers will see innovative new boards in their local surf shops in the wake of the Games. That’s what happened with snowboards after the Nagano Olympics in 1998, the first time that sport was included.
“What the Olympics really did was attract attention -- lots of attention from consumers who would normally pass right by snowboarding without a second glance,” said McGinty.
This caused a small spike in retail revenue as more people purchased lift tickets, and rented or bought snowboarding gear. Those dollars flowed down to product development groups, and ideas they’d been sitting on for years got the green light with funding.
“These ideas make the sport: easier to start, quicker to learn, safer to progress and most importantly more fun,” he continued.
And those ideas -- snowboard rocker is a prime example -- increased the number of first-timers who converted to long-term snowboarding enthusiasts and then bought more gear.
“The Olympics indirectly and positively stimulate interest, which opens up product development budgets and enables muted innovations to be launched to market, causing advancements in tech that otherwise may be indefinitely on hold,”” McGinty said.
What this means for surfing remains to be seen over the next several years.
Are there pro surfers willing to take a chance on a new design that might give them an edge in Olympic competition? Or are there countries hungry enough for gold that they put their athletes on the latest in surfboard technology?
In any event, if the ocean sees fit to provide good waves for the 2020 Games in Japan, it seems probable that more people will be inspired to give surfing a try.
At least for a time, lineups may become more crowded with Wavestorms, Moda Surfboards, and whatever new designs are hatched from eggs now lying dormant in product development departments around the world.
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