Nick Carroll: How the Surfing World’s Responding to COVID-19

12 Mar 2020 5 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Bells is a go... for now. Photo: WSL/Cestari

Bells is a go... for now. Photo: WSL/Cestari


Part One: The Tour 

“Nobody knows what’s down the track with this.”

The world seethes in the grip of a pandemic.

Major events are cancelled all over the place. Facebook’s Global Marketing Summit. All the Dalai Lama’s engagements. Japan’s Azalea Festival. F1 GPs in China and Dubai. Green Day’s Asian tour. English Premier League fixtures. Six Nations Rugby. Here in Australia, there’s talk of AFL and NRL games being played in empty stadia. In the US, the NBA is bracing itself to do just that. In the middle distance, the Olympics hangs in mid-air.

Just like the virus that’s got us all spinning, anything and everything involving any kind of international travel and large crowds is suddenly under a microscope.

But the World Surf League? It’s all business as usual. At least for now, according to WSL’s AsiaPac CEO Andrew Stark.

“We can’t make unilateral decisions on the whole year, because frankly nobody knows what’s down the track with this,” Andrew told CW yesterday. “So we’re just focusing on one tour leg at a time, and right now, that’s the Australian leg. And it’s all go.”

That means the three Aussie CTs and the Challenger events in Sydney and NZ are cleared to run (the Sydney Surf Pro is in its third round right now).


While the WSL hasn’t made a public statement as yet, Andrew says the organisation is being guided on a day to day basis by advice and information from Federal and State health and travel authorities, and is keeping all its event partners and competitors fully informed. CW has confirmed this separately with a number of said partners, and with a few of the surfers, though not all of them were paying much attention to the emails from HQ.

“It’s what we do (travel),” one surfer told us. “We can’t really make those decisions. We’ll just keep going till they tell us we can’t.”

The WSL tour is hugely reliant on freedom of movement. Countries visited by QS and CT pros this year by the end of April will have included China, Morocco, Israel, Barbados, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, Hawaii, French Polynesia, South Africa, the Canaries, the US and Spain.

At least one of those countries — China — is now on the Australian Government’s do-not-travel list. Others are already being marked as “exercise extreme caution”.

The economic background of a possible global recession is a secondary concern. If international travel seizes up any further and top gun competitors — not to mention judges, WSL crew, tech gear, etc — can’t come and go with ease, the events themselves won’t be able to run.

Just today, seemingly out of nowhere, US President Donald Trump announced a 30-day ban on travel to the US from Europe. It's an illustration of how swiftly things can change in a pandemic -- and how one decision could derail the entire tour.

The tour culture knows this, and as a result, wacky rumours are flying. Several people, including surfers, told us they’d heard 2020 would see less CTs run than in 2001, the last time international travel was stopped in its tracks.

Back then the ASP wrote off the European leg of the tour, and only five events were run.

Starky says no such thoughts were being entertained by the WSL. “We’re just making sure we get the best advice we can and acting on that,” he told us. As for spectator crowds: “Surfing events aren’t like some other sports events, they’re public events. We’re not in a stadium, where you can just lock the gates. Anyone can come past here at Manly and take a look. Unless the Government decides it has to lock down public gatherings. They’re a long way from that.”

Some events, not WSL in origin, are being put off. Rip Curl’s Neil Ridgway says the annual Gromsearch finals, which are traditionally held around the Bells event at Easter, have been cancelled. “A lot of kids would have to travel to get there,” Neil told CW. “Some would have to come from halfway round the world. We didn’t want to put kids in a position of being stuck in a foreign country because of some sudden travel restriction.”

As for the Olympics, well, who knows. But the International Surfing Association’s pre-Olympic final qualifying event, the World Surfing Games, is in El Salvador in May. El Salvador is already listed on as a risky proposition, partly due to lack of basic medical care. By May, who knows what that advice might be.

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