A mix between snowboarding and waterskiing, wakeboarding has emerged as one of the most exciting new sports of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Featuring flips, spins and skate-park style obstacles, it is undeniably a sport which requires a great deal of skill and agility, yet it has never been a part of a mainstream event. The X Games has intermittently hosted the sport, giving wakeboarding some of its better known names such as Parks Bonifay. As of 2015, however, it once again is not on the programme of sports for the Olympic games. I personally have competition experience in the sport, and know for a fact that while it creates a great atmosphere and spectacle for spectators, it has its pitfalls too. Various factors suggest that this sport has Olympic potential, but in its application it continues to fall down at the final hurdle.
The judging system is, in my view, the primary factor holding the sport back. It’s horribly subjective, leaving room for dispute and for judges’ preferences to influence the result. Tricks are judged on three main categories: technicality (difficulty of the manoeuvre), diversity of trick performed (for example two moderate sized spins would score lower than a smaller spin and a basic flip), and how well each trick is performed. Each of these is split pretty much evenly and then a score out of 100 is given, combining the opinions of the judges. At lower levels it is usually pretty clear-cut where people rank – small spins dominate in the younger age categories, with one flip usually guaranteeing a podium position, yet higher up the ladder, at professional level, the victory line is hazy, and the contentious nature of the judging system is on full display. It would be easy to argue that awarding different tricks a unique point allocation would resolve this issue, and this was the way the sport was originally judged when it first emerged, but this led to the same tricks being performed at competitions, and innovation being limited. Why change a ‘perfect’ run? Creativity was stifled. Whilst objectivity has its merits as well as its weaknesses, without a hard and fast guide to superiority on the water, the sport can never compete with the clarity of sports that have a clear winner, sprinting, for example. However, the Winter Olympics offers several events like half-pipe snowboarding, where a judge’s opinion determines the winner as opposed to scientific fact, yet it is universally accepted at this event. So why is wakeboarding not?
The sport is still a small community, but it is growing all the time. In the UK alone there are many different competition series for beginners and professionals alike, such as the AoD tour, Riders League, the various Nationals that are held every year for boat wakeboarders alone, showing that it is not for lack of competitive spirit in the wakeboard community that prevents its Olympic inclusion. It is perhaps the still relatively unknown nature of the sport that also holds it back, as it could perhaps not generate enough spectator interest to make it a viable option, yet the impressive nature of the aerial tricks performed means it is undoubtedly a spectator sport. Despite the small, tight-knit community in the UK, it is not for lack of international diversity populating the upper echelons of the sport either. The sport’s home is deep in the Orlando lakes, with Americans dominant in the international scene, with Australians, Thais, New Zealanders and a whole host of other countries filling up the top spots. The international competition for the top spots would, surely, leave more for countries than, for example, Basketball does at the Olympics, with the USA having won all but three times since 1936, and making the top three every time.
Conditions can vary for each competitor also. The wind is different for every competitor, as only one is out on the water at any one time, and the chop of the wake can greatly affect the height of a rider or indeed their balance. Weighting of the boat also varies the wake size – the heavier boat, the larger the wake, and as the petrol in the boat is used up the boat becomes lighter, and so it creates an unequal environment for the riders to perform in. Riders also choose their boat speed and rope length, also affecting wake size and quality, demonstrating that there are undoubtedly issues in the
consistency of environment in boat wakeboarding competition. Economic factors certainly play a role in denying Olympic entry, with the sport being an expensive one to be a part of. Board and boots combined can easily come to upwards of £500, with a boat membership and time on the water all leading to an expensive pastime. It’s expensive for the owners too – a good boat costs upwards of £50,000, and a cable park even more. Therefore the sport makes itself inherently exclusive to the privileged few who are able to financially support such an activity.
However, wakeboarding could certainly make itself eligible for Olympic inclusion if it made some changes. With the judging system as it is, the sport cannot hope to gain entry into the summer Olympics anytime soon, despite its similarities with Winter Olympic events and their judging criteria. It would hinder the sport as a whole to assign tricks the same point score and roll this out across all events; to apply this thinking to just the Olympics would and could be a viable option for the sport’s inclusion. It is hard to believe that all smaller competitions would follow this, however, narrowing the margin for creativity in wakeboarding itself, with the desire to further the sport and devise new tricks at the core of what the sport is about. Perhaps with this issue, it comes down to the Olympics’ narrow-mindedness in the way they wish to determine victors – I mean when you think how figure skating is judged in the Winter Games you can see their willingness for inclusion. The sport needs to lay out its plan for how the games would run – two riders from each country should be allowed entry into the competition to allow for international diversity on the podium, which nevertheless would be USA and Australia dominated. In order to account for the differences in the environment, the most consistent method of wakeboarding would be cable wakeboarding, whereby the rider is towed round the lake by a mechanical system, eliminating human error while making for a different style of wakeboarding and an almost different sport entirely. At the end of this article I will include links to two wakeboarding videos, one boat, one cable, so you can see the difference, but both are undeniably exciting sports to watch that would inject some youth and vibrancy into the stagnant Olympic programme, which has, in all fairness, stood the test of time.
Therefore it couldn’t be argued that the sport’s current state leaves itself a viable option to be in the Olympics – too many factors make the sport inaccessible to the masses, a key point for Olympic sports; anyone can take up sprinting. Wakeboarding is expensive and therefore exclusive. It would have to be hotly contested which brand of wakeboarding participated too – as the top cable riders are extremely rarely the top boat riders or vice versa, leaving one huge section of the sport neglected whichever way they go. But the sport is global. With competitions and competitors all around the globe, wakeboarding has an international unifying factor, and is incredible to watch without any prior knowledge. So whilst wakeboarding is not Olympic material right now, it certainly has Olympic potential.
If you’re interested in Wakeboarding, here’s some links to some footage of it! Feature image courtesy of Jaime Martinez.
Cable Wakeboarding 2014 World Championship: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-5-d2ml2cA
Pro Wakeboard Tour 2015 Round 3: http://www.Wakeboardingmag.com/blog/videos/2015/07/12/video-harley-cliffords-pwt-3-winning-run