As surfing made its Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games on Sunday, Native Hawaiians are hoping the global spotlight on the contest will bring attention to what they call the whitewashing of their national sport and the exploitation of their homeland.
For the past three years in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, sovereignty activists from the academic and surfing communities have petitioned the Games to allow surfers who are Hawaiian nationals — anyone who can trace their roots to the Hawaiian Kingdom before its overthrow in 1893 — to compete for the Hawaiian Kingdom instead of the United States. The request is largely an effort to reclaim the sport’s cultural and spiritual importance in the place of its birth. While the petition was ignored by the International Olympic Committee, activists say it lays the groundwork for future requests.
“The Olympics has often been a site at which sports collide with politics,” said Willy Kauai, vice president of the Hawaiian Kingdom National Olympic Committee, which submitted the application in 2018. “It’s always been a platform for issues of international relations and social justice.”
For Hawaiians, surfing is both a national pastime and an ancient cultural art form spanning a millennium. A museum exhibit in Honolulu featured surfboards once used by kings and queens. In the early 20th century, Native Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, a five-time Olympic champion and considered the godfather of modern surfing, popularized the sport in the U.S. mainland and Australia by hosting exhibitions.
“We know who we are and where we came from,” said Brian Keaulana, president of the Hawaiian Surfing Federation and a descendant of Hawaiian surfing royalty. “We just want to make sure the rest of the world understands we’re not invisible.”
Beyond recreational purposes, surfing has also offered ethnic Hawaiians a path to escape from geopolitical and economic struggles on land.
“Surfing still has this place of autonomy to it because colonization did not happen in the water,” said Isaiah Walker, a Native Hawaiian historian and professor at the Brigham Young University–Hawaii, who also helped rally support for the petition. “The ocean became a sanctuary, so surfing’s connected to this history of successful preservation of culture and identity.”
Surfing for Hawaii at the Olympics “is much more than just repping where you live,” he said. “It goes deep into the history of, ‘We were never overthrown in the ocean. This is where we have independence.’”
But when professional surfing took off in the 1960s and the 1970s, Walker said, the sport became more commercialized, paving the way for retail giants such as Quiksilver and Billabong to build a $10 billion industry that has largely lost touch with its Hawaiian roots.
The International Olympic Committee, which ignored Hawaii’s application to form a separate team from the U.S., defines a “country” as an “independent state recognized by the international community.” The IOC has recognized a number of U.S. territories, including American Samoa, Guam and Puerto Rico, which became an Olympic nation in 1948.
Outside of the Olympics, Hawaii is nearly universally accepted as an independent surfing entity by the international community. John John Florence and Carissa Moore, the two athletes from Hawaii who made the four-person U.S. Olympic squad, surf under the Hawaiian state flag in major competitions around the world. (Those competitions have different rules for who can compete for Hawaii.)
Moore, who won gold Tuesday, is the lone ethnic Hawaiian on the U.S. Olympic roster.
For sovereignty activists, the petition is also a form of legal activism that challenges the legitimacy of U.S. jurisdiction in Hawaii. In 1893, a group of white sugar planters overthrew Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani, paving way for the U.S. to annex the islands five years later. But the treaty of annexation, signed by President William McKinley, was never ratified by Congress.
Hawaiian nationality isn’t solely based on race or ethnicity. Both natives and nonnatives of the islands could qualify for nationality as long as they have an ancestor who lived in the Hawaiian Kingdom before 1893. “Anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, who can trace their genealogy to a direct descendant who was a Hawaiian national before the occupation is considered a ‘Hawaiian,’” Kauai said.
Federico Lenzerini, an international law expert who submitted the petition to the IOC as an attorney representing the Hawaiian Kingdom National Olympic Committee, said the transfer of sovereignty between two independent authorities is “typically realized by treaty.” Otherwise, it has to be done “by prescription,” or without protest from the people of the occupied territory. The Hawaiian Kingdom has never agreed to the occupation by the U.S.
“Consequently, our argument is that Hawaii’s sovereignty has never been surrendered in a way that is valid under international law,” he said.
The application, activists say, is also an attempt to reclaim access to the waves, as soaring home prices have made beachfront properties — and the beach — elusive to natives. In Oahu, whose North Shore is widely considered the surfing mecca of the world, Native Hawaiians comprise half of the homeless population but only a fifth of the general population. Today, more ethnic Hawaiians live in the U.S. mainland than in Hawaii.
“Our displacement from the land translates into our displacement from the ocean, and our displacement from our national sport,” Kauai said. “We’re in this never-ending circle of dispossession that’s come as a result of more than 120 years of occupation. We continue to be overrepresented in all social inequities in Hawaii.”
Community leaders have launched numerous other efforts to amplify surfing’s Native Hawaiian ties. The Hawaii Tourism Authority formed a surfing advisory committee to raise awareness about Hawaii’s contribution to the sport. For the Olympics surfing contest, the group wanted to organize an opening ceremony that incorporates Hawaiian rituals, but the request was denied.
Kauai said there may be even more international attention on the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty in three years, given that Tahiti will be hosting the surfing competition at the 2024 Paris Olympics. A colony of France, the island also has a complicated history with European imperialism in the Pacific. The petition, while unsuccessful, has set a precedent for future efforts that could pressure the IOC to engage, while also providing a blueprint for Hawaii’s other sports teams.
“It’s got the community to start thinking about how to begin to put together the kind of infrastructure we need to have representation in basketball, boxing or swimming,” Kauai said.