Slater warms to Olympic surf challenge

Kelly Slater (Getty Images)
Kelly Slater (Getty Images)

Miyazaki - At the ripe old age of 47, surfing icon Kelly Slater is old enough to be the father of some of his chiselled, tousle-haired rivals.

But when the shaven-headed American strolled up the beach after pulling off a string of gnarly moves at the World Surfing Games in Miyazaki at the weekend, it was his name that young Japanese fans squealed as they jostled for autographs.

A record 11-time world champion, Slater is pushing to compete at Tokyo 2020, when surfing makes its Olympic debut, despite previously expressing reservations about the hipster sport joining the mainstream.

"I've definitely had my questions about how it would fit in, just based on the DNA of our sport, our lifestyle," Slater told AFP.

"It's more of a lifestyle than a sport in so many ways - 99.9 percent of people will never compete.

"But the (Olympics) is obviously something more elite, more special, more rare," he added.

"It comes down to a one-off event and there will be a little bit of luck playing into the skill level also."

Slater, who failed to make Sunday's final, is widely regarded as the greatest surfer of all time.

Frequently compared to basketball's Michael Jordan in how he has transcended his sport, Slater has appeared in dozens of films and starred in the hit nineties TV show Baywatch.

After initially being cool on the Olympics, he has warmed to the idea after making the trip to Miyazaki, southern Japan - something he needed to do to stay eligible for Olympic qualifying.

"I've had my doubts about surfing being in the Games," explained Slater, who has questioned the qualifying process and location. 

"But seeing everyone's excitement, and how well it's been received, I think it will fit in pretty good.

"There's always detractors," added the American, who triggered the biggest cheer of the weekend after flying out of a deep barrel.

"Because all action sports have been created from within themselves without a governing body, kind of from the grassroots - surfers, skaters and BMX guys.

"People who grew up in that are probably worried it will be watered down or something, but I'm a lot more excited and hopeful about what it's going to be now that I've been here."

With the top two Americans finishers in this season's World Surf League set to qualify for the Olympics, Slater has his work cut out with Kolohe Andino and Hawaiians John John Florence and Seth Moniz looking to squeeze him out.

But for Slater, who grew up in the surfing town of Cocoa Beach, Florida, and whose fearlessness and grace swept him to a first world title at just 20, getting to Tokyo would be an astonishing achievement after two years blighted by injuries.

And with high-flying Brazilians Filipe Toledo, Gabriel Medina and Italo Ferreira - who stormed to gold at the World Surfing Games - among a handful of explosive talent ranked higher, he handles questions about his age with good nature.

"I'm not 48 yet - I'm fine," joked Slater, who in addition to being surfing's youngest world champion also became the sport's oldest at 39.

"But I need to put some results on the board."

Slater paid tribute to International Surfing Association president Fernando Aguerre, who fought for 25 years to get the sport into the Olympics.

"We've disagreed on a few things along the way," said Slater. "But no one's put in more hours than Fernando to make this happen."

Aguerre believes the inclusion of sports such as surfing and skateboarding at Tokyo 2020 will freshen up what he called the "stale" image of the Olympics.

"If you don't make room for new sports, you get left behind," the Argentine told AFP.

"The problem was in order to bring in new sports you have to kick somebody out. That's like in order to get a beer, you've got to kick somebody out of the bar - you're not going to get a beer ever, because nobody's going to leave the bar."

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