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If you’re wondering why a New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner wrote about surfing, the Olympics, and the Hawaiian flag, here is:
John Branch works in California and will cover his eighth Olympics this summer (assuming they aren’t canceled). He knows Hawaii well, and not just because he spent his honeymoon here 30 years ago. During some of the most intense years of the college football rivalry between Fresno State and Hawaii, Branch was a sports columnist for the Fresno Bee. I got to know him and love him because he’s a really nice guy, and I respect him because he’s a very serious journalist.
“A colleague of mine mentioned the idea to me…” said Branch. “He thought that was my kind of story. I did a lot of it by covering the Triple Crown and writing about John John (Florence) and Kelly Slater both trying to get an Olympic spot.
With the help of Jodi Wilmott – a journalist’s best friend for surf news and contacts – Branch interviewed around 30 people and researched at the Bishop Museum.
If you haven’t read it on our website yet, the history of the Branch can be found on page B1 today. When it first appeared in The New York Times, the headline was, “I’m not anti-anything. I am pro-Hawaii. “
This is a quote from Florence, keiki o ka aina of the North Shore who normally competes under the flag of Hawaii and not that of the United States. This is how it is in surfing. Hawaii and the United States are separate entities, partly because of the sheer amount of talent here and partly out of respect for the islands being the birthplace of the sport.
But, at the Olympics, there is no Hawaii team, so Florence and another Hawaii world champion, Carissa Moore, are members of the United States team.
It got me thinking about a lot of things.
The first is that the International Olympic Committee and international law begin with the same word; So, logically, could the IOC follow international law – which many scholars say recognizes Hawaii as a sovereign nation – and let Hawaii have its own Olympic team? The answer is no for the same reason that everything that international law says in theory has little or no bite; laws only make sense if there are consequences to breaking them.
In practical and real terms other than geography, Hawaii is not separate from the rest of the United States. The CIO is like the NCAA; despite the lofty ideals he can espouse, he does what his members want, especially the more powerful.
Then there is this idea that everything is black and white and that people – especially personalities – always have to choose sides. If you don’t, you are warned, you risk “being on the wrong side of history” or betraying your country, race or gender. Be careful, or you will be canceled! (Truth be told, I’ve never heard of half of the people who got canceled before social media told me to forget about them.)
I think the comments in Branch’s article from Florence and Moore are sincere and diplomatic… often a hard combo to find. Generally, however, for people raised in Hawaii, consideration and thoughtfulness comes naturally and does not need to be fabricated or scripted.
Of course, they feel in conflict, and for reasons other than surfing. With each passing generation, more young Hawaiians and others growing up here know the significance of the year 1893; many have deep emotions about it as their parents and grandparents might have for 1941 or 1959. And how can anyone spending time here remain unaware of ongoing demands for justice from native Hawaiians? ?
The year 1968 even comes to mind because it is one of the most eventful in American history. One of his most memorable images is of American sprinters John Carlos and Tommy Smith raising their gloved fists in a salute to black power on the victory stand at the Olympics.
There are parallels, but this situation is quite different. Can we expect a similar gesture from Hawaii’s Olympic surfers?
Maybe you are one of those people who want surfers to just ride the waves, not create them.
But it is up to them to decide whether they want to raise awareness of social justice issues. No outside pressure anyway.
Many prominent athletes decide to systematically follow the apolitical path like Michael Jordan, or the other way around like LeBron James.
“I understand,” Branch said. “Athletes have a lot to gain and lose. … I don’t know if they would be the ones who would take down the Hawaii flag. One thing is, maybe there aren’t any fans there (at the Olympics in Japan, because of COVID-19). The people supporting him may not be there. “
I hope there will be an Olympics this summer, and that John John Florence and Carissa Moore will perform on the stage they have won.
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