Drug screening of professional surfers could wipe out sport's alternative image
In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the counter culture's sport of choice. With the long hair and beach bum lifestyle came marijuana and LSD. But surfing is set for a radical image change as its international governing body prepares to introduce comprehensive drug testing for professionals for the first time.
Amid growing evidence that the sport's drug culture has gripped even some of its elite athletes, the Association of Surfing Professionals will in 2012 roll out a policy for screening competitors and officials for performance-enhancing and recreational drugs.
The move comes after the death of the triple world champion Andy Irons in November 2010. A postmortem found he died from a heart attack and "acute mixed drug ingestion". Traces of methadone, methamphetamine, also known as crystal meth, and a metabolite of cocaine were found in his bloodstream.
Another professional surfer, Anthony Ruffo, a 47-year-old pioneer of the Santa Cruz scene in the 1980s, is facing a possible jail sentence for selling methamphetamine after he was caught with an ounce of the drug.
"We believe this is a natural evolution in enhancing the professionalism of our sport," said Dave Prodan, a spokesman for the ASP. "This motion has the full support of the surfers on tour as they want to be taken more professionally, and believe this is a step in the right direction. We have been discussing and drafting a policy with the guidance of the World Anti Doping Agency for over two years and the budget, approved at the November board of directors meeting, has just allowed us the possibility of implementing it as soon as next year."
Professional surfers compete for prizes of up to $100,000 (£65,000) and testing is already carried out at some European events and in the UK and Ireland.
In 2005, the Brazilian surfer Neco Padaratz was suspended after he tested positive for performance-enhancing anabolic steroids at an event in Hossegor on the French Atlantic coast.
Peter Davi, a pioneering big wave surfer, was found to have high levels of methamphetaine in his blood after he died in December 2007 riding a 20m wave off California. He sustained head and chest injuries, probably from being dashed against jagged rocks.
Gerry Fitzgerald, a professional in Ireland, said that for most surfers, the idea of taking drugs before tackling dangerous waves was anathema.
"I have seen guys who are stoners and they drop off the scene because it is not sustainable," he said. "Athletes are training hard. The way the contests are now, it will catch up with you."
Pancho Sullivan, a professional surfer from Hawaii said he supported the new testing regime despite a tradition of recreational drug use in the sport.
"I think the surf culture has always been pretty festive," he said. "That being said I think the sport has evolved and surfers are now becoming athletes. They are eating right and cross training which leads me to believe that there is very little drug use amongst the elite level surfers on tour."
Ruffo, a recovering methamphetamine addict, was a friend of Irons.
"We always saw ourselves as misfits, like rebelling against that clean, preppy surfer thing that was going around then," he said after his friend's death.
Andy Martin, author of Stealing the Wave, said surfing was caught in a dilemma. "Part of its appeal is that it is counter cultural, marginal and in some way subversive and that's where the association with drugs comes in, whether real or mythic. But the commercial imperatives require [surfers] to be straight.
"How mainstream can surfing be before losing its soul?"
Martin said marijuana was a key part of community life when he lived among surfers in Hawaii around a decade ago.
"There was a view in Hawaii that marijuana smoking in particular was actually good for surfing because you increase your lung capacity with all that drawing in of the smoke," he said. "So it was good when there was a big hold down under the waves and you could stay down for longer. The more marijuana, the better the surfer."
Picture Caption:Andy Irons, a triple world surfing world champion, died from a heart attack with traces of several drugs in his bloodstream. Photograph: Pierre Tostee/ASP
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 1 January 2012