Cultural considerations on Indonesian surfing as a national & international sport

Indonesia can get as sports mad as any country—consider how the country came to a standstill when the Indonesian football team played in the final the 2010 Suzuki Cup last December. Why, so many people were glued to their televisions that one could drive full pedal-to-metal from Seminyak to the airport (dodging drunk tourists). And this was just a minor cup.

It’s been like this for a long time. Listen to this, from a non-fiction book published written in 1964 on Sukarno’s Indonesia (FIVE JOURNEYS FROM DJAKARTA, Maslyn Williams). The author is in a banjar meeting hall in Bali, when somebody turns on the short wave radio to listen to a much anticipated badminton tournament in Djakarta. This this particular doubles match between Indonesia and Pakistan will determine the championship (I’ve slightly altered the original text to make this excerpt more understandable):

The play went against Indonesia from the beginning—it seemed that the volatile Indonesian favorite was off his game, making spectacular mistakes and errors of judgment. The people of the bandjar were quiet. The officers looked disappointed and moody. My guide scowled, and the serving girls looked frightened…the radio announcer had lost his professional heartiness and now sounded confused and full genuine despair, inventing unlikely farfetched excuses for the Indonesian players, snatching at imagined moments of hope, begging them to be careful, calling their shots for them, groaning when they missed…This was no longer a sporting contest, a badminton match, but a matter of national pride in which victory was an essential need, an urgency, a necessary reassurance that Indonesia and its people are of some account, able to hold their won, to be accounted superior in at least one twentieth century activity.

When it seemed that the match might be lost the announcer began to shout hysterically, “Pray, pray, pray,” and immediately a young man of the bandjar stood up and began to address the gods in a loud voice. Others joined him, even some of the officers; and from that moment on the game changed and the Indonesian players made no more mistakes but won every point so that even I became excited and though it almost a miracle.

When victory came the announcer was weeping loudly into the the microphone and shouting incoherent apostrophes, invoking the President, the people, God, and the Republic. The band played the national anthem and everybody in the badjar stood…The officers stopped cheering and beating each other on the back, and when I looked at my guide he was smiling and crying.

Surfing is a twentieth-century, now 21st century, activity. If an Indonesian surfer were somehow to challenge for the world title at Pipeline, coming down to one final matchup in the water, would Indonesia come to a similar standstill?

Nah. Not really. Here in Indonesia, surfing is a fringe sport, as it is globally (apart maybe from Australia, but when it comes to sports Aussies are from another planet anyhow). It’s promoted as a fun-in-the-sun sport (or a dare-devil one when the waves are huge), and since everybody wants fun-in-the-sun, the surfing clothing companies can make a killing in Middle American and on the stock market. In the public eye, Kelly Slater is mostly known as that surfer dude who went out with Pamela Anderson for a while.

In fact, in Indonesia, for the general population, I’d say that surfing (and beach going in general) really isn’t as popular an activity as elsewhere in the world because Indonesians are generally pretty sensitive to the color of their skin. The whiter it is, the more high class you are. Please don’t accuse me of perpetuating an unhealthy stereotype here–I’m just saying it as it is. You don’t see many Indonesians sun-tanning themselves in the bright sun. Local beaches are deserted at high noon, but come the cool of the afternoon, that’s when they’ll get packed with frolicking locals. So maybe I should modify my statement and say beach-going is indeed popular here (and has become more so over the years), it’s just the time of beach-going that is culturally different.

Anyway, I haven’t gotten around to my main points (like surf competitions in frigid water, competitive aggression in heats and mind-games), but this post is already long enough. Continued next week.

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2 Responses to Cultural considerations on Indonesian surfing as a national & international sport

  1. Gus Longman says:

    As an Australian who has spent a bit of time in Bali/Indo, I have always looked on with interest at the cultural approach to sport. I remember when Indonesia won a Gold Medal at the Olympics for Badminton, nets went across many village roads. It was a shortlived phenomenon. Life went back to normal relatively quickly.

    It also amazes me that there are so few Indonesian world champions given th epopulation. I suppose it does come down to cultural factors, diet, availability of quality coaches and competition etc. Given the number of children kicking soccer balls around and the games on low tide Kuta Beach in the afternoon, there would be few more players on the world scene.

    Surfing is far from a main stream sport in Australia too. The majority of people would have little clue of who Mick Fanning is. Some have a higher profile through either their charity work or partners, ie Layne Beachley is better known for hanging out with the saxophone player from INXS than 7 World Titles…

    • Thanks for chiming in, Gus. In Bali one sees a sports divide among the Australians, those who follow the footy and those who are rugby union fans, and never the two shall drink at the same sports bar. It seems to me that most Australian surfers I know are footy fans.

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