As surfing made its Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games on Sunday, native Hawaiians are hoping the global spotlight on the competition will draw attention to what they call the laundering of their national sport and the exploitation of their homeland.
For the past three years in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, activists for the sovereignty of the college and surfing communities have called for the Games to allow surfers of Hawaiian nationality – anyone who can trace their roots back to the kingdom of ‘Hawaii before its overthrow in 1893. – compete for the Kingdom of Hawaii instead of the United States. The request is largely an effort to reclaim the cultural and spiritual significance of sport in the place of its birth. While the petition has been ignored by the International Olympic Committee, activists say it lays the groundwork for future requests.
“The Olympics have often been a site where sport clashes with politics,” said Willy Kauai, vice president of the National Olympic Committee of the Kingdom of Hawaii, who submitted the bid in 2018. “It always has been. a platform for questions of international and social relations. 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. At the start of the 20th century, native Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, five-time Olympic champion and considered the godfather of modern surfing, popularized the sport in the Americas and Australia by hosting exhibitions.
“We know who we are and where we come from,” said Brian Keaulana, president of the Hawaiian Surfing Federation and descendant of Hawaiian surfing royalty. “We just want to make sure the rest of the world understands that we are not invisible.”
Beyond recreational purposes, surfing has also offered ethnic Hawaiians a way to escape geopolitical and economic struggles on earth.
“Surfing still has this place of autonomy because colonization did not happen in the water,” said Isaiah Walker, a native Hawaiian historian and professor at Brigham Young University in Hawaii, who has also helped to mobilize support for the petition. “The ocean has become a sanctuary, so surfing is linked to this story of successful preservation of culture and identity.”
Surfing for Hawaii at the Olympics “is more than just representing where you live,” he said. “It dives deep into the story of ‘We were never run over in the ocean. This is where we have independence.
But when professional surfing took off in the 1960s and 1970s, Walker said, the sport became more commercialized, paving the way for retail giants like Quiksilver and Billabong to build a $ 10 billion industry. which has largely lost touch with its Hawaiian roots.
The International Olympic Committee, which ignored Hawaii’s request to form a team separate from the United States, defines a “country” as an “independent state recognized by the international community.” The IOC recognized a number of American territories, including American Samoa, Guam, and Puerto Rico, which became an Olympic nation in 1948.
Outside of the Olympics, Hawaii is almost universally accepted as an independent surfing entity by the international community. John John Florence and Carissa Moore, the two Hawaii athletes who made the four-person US Olympic team, surf under the Hawaii state flag in major competitions around the world. (These competitions have different rules for who can compete for Hawaii.)
Moore is the only ethnic Hawaiian on the US Olympic list.
For sovereignty activists, the petition is also a form of legal activism that challenges the legitimacy of US jurisdiction in Hawaii. In 1893, a group of white sugar planters overthrew Hawaiian Queen Liliuokalani, paving the way for the islands to be annexed by the United States five years later. But the annexation treaty, signed by President William McKinley, was never ratified by Congress.
Hawaiian nationality is not based solely on race or ethnicity. Both natives and non-natives of the islands could claim nationality as long as they had an ancestor who lived in the Kingdom of Hawaii before 1893. before the occupation was considered a “Hawaiian,” Kauai said.
Federico Lenzerini, an expert on international law who submitted the petition to the IOC as an attorney representing the National Olympic Committee of the Kingdom of Hawaii, said the transfer of sovereignty between two independent authorities is “usually done by treaty.” Otherwise, it must be done “on prescription”, or without protest from the population of the occupied territory. The Kingdom of Hawaii has never accepted occupation by the United States
“Therefore, our argument is that Hawaii’s sovereignty has never been relinquished in a way that is valid under international law,” he said.
The app, activists say, is also an attempt to regain access to the waves, as soaring house prices have made oceanfront properties – and the beach – elusive to locals. In Oahu, whose north coast is widely regarded as the world’s surfing mecca, native Hawaiians make up half of the homeless population, but only a fifth of the general population. Today, more ethnic Hawaiians live in the Americas than in Hawaii.
“Our displacement of the land translates into our displacement of the ocean and our displacement of our national sport,” Kauai said. “We are in this never-ending circle of dispossession resulting from more than 120 years of occupation. We continue to be overrepresented in all social inequalities in Hawaii. ”
Community leaders have launched many other efforts to amplify Native Hawaiian surf connections. The Hawaii Tourism Authority has formed a Surf Advisory Committee to raise awareness of Hawaii’s contribution to the sport. For the Olympics surfing contest, the group wanted to hold an opening ceremony that incorporated Hawaiian rituals, but the request was denied.
Kauai said there could be even more international attention to the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty in three years, given that Tahiti will host the surf competition at the Paris 2024 Olympics. Colony of France, Island also has a complicated history with European imperialism in the Pacific. The petition, while unsuccessful, set a precedent for future efforts that could pressure the IOC to commit, while also providing a blueprint for other sports teams in Hawaii.
“It got the community to start thinking about how to start putting in place the kind of infrastructure we need to have representation in basketball, boxing or swimming,” Kauai said.