Priority Rules, OK?
It was the defining moment of yesterday's Quiksilver Pro final: Joel Parkinson, standing tall in a clean Kirra barrel, sticking his middle finger up at Kelly Slater who was just about to drop in on him.
Of course the photo has a back story. Two minutes earlier Parko took off on a potential high scoring wave with priority. Kelly watched from the shoulder unable to do anything but hope it closed out. As it happened the wave did close out and Parko dived through the back. The priority then shifted to Kelly while Parko paddled back out, deep up the point to where he thought better waves were coming through.
On the next good wave Parko took off without priority and raced toward where Kelly was sitting. Slater exercised his priority and paddled into the wave which, under the rules, was rightfully his to take.
Last night Swellnet ran the photo of the incident on Facebook where it received an incredible reaction: 9,000 people liked it, 1000 people shared it, and 400 people have commented on it.
It's the comments that are most telling.
The majority of them are either questioning why Kelly would do such a despicable thing or outright abusing him for acting contrary to the spirit of surfing. The thing these commenters overlook is that Parko and Kelly are professional athletes doing their job to rules which were made to improve the surfing spectacle. Thinking they would act the same way in a freesurfing situation – which is what many of the comments hint at - is naïve.
The priority rule - the allocation of which surfer has 'priority' for the next wave and how it alternates - first came into effect in 1983 when the ASP took over from the IPS. Before it existed surfers would engage in rough tactics while trying to hold the inside position or trying to keep competitors off potential heat-winning waves. At times it was anarchy in the surf and the act of wave riding – which is why the surfers where there in the first place – often succumbed to tactics and roughhousing. The winner wasn't necessarily the best surfer.
The priority rule helped keep the surfers apart so they could focus on surfing. Also, since it was introduced thirty years ago it's continually evolved, been fine tuned and improved to meet new standards. Like laws in society it sometimes gets challenged and then overhauled. This process occurs roughly every two years says long-time ASP administrator, Al Hunt.
In 1990 at the Coke Classic in Manly, Damien Hardman famously used the priority rule to knock Tom Carroll out in their Semi Final. While clearly leading the exchange Carroll caught a wave without priority. Hardman was paddling out fifty metres away so Carroll took off on the open face thinking he was safe. Unbeknownst to him, Hardman took off on the same wave, albeit half a football field away and in the broken, foamy whitewash.
Hardman was severely criticised by many in the surfing world yet he was acting within the rules and so he subsequently won the heat. The priority rule changed not long after that, with a provision introduced that surfers can ride the same wave but the surfer without priority will only be penalised if he 'hinders the scoring potential of the surfer with priority.'
A fair percentage of the people who commented on Swellnet last night made appeals to character and sportmanship. Their implication being that Parko, ever the easygoing wag, would never commit the same surfing crime.
That belief is wrong, Parko has done the same thing. In fact, Parko has even done it to Kelly, and he's done it when there was something far more important at stake – the World Title.
Let's rewind the clock back a decade: The 2003 Pipeline Masters final is in progress with Kelly Slater, Andy Irons, Joel Parkinson and Phil McDonald in the water. Kelly and Andy are vying for the world title; whoever wins this final becomes the 2003 world champion.
It's small Pipe with a weak north swell hitting the reef throwing more rights than lefts. Toward the end of the final a good looking wave approaches the reef with Kelly sitting in prime position. It's a heat winning wave, which, under this scenario, means a world title winning wave. The only other person who could possibly catch it is Parko, sitting north of Kelly, though he appears too deep to actually make the wave.
Parko takes the wave knowing he may not make it and also knowing he's got nothing to gain. However, the more important matter is that if Kelly doesn't catch the wave then Andy - Parko's friend and Billabong stablemate - wins the World Title. It was a purely tactical ploy and a Swellnet commenter summed it up well: "Joel was the third wheel in a Title shootout he had no direct interest in other than helping his good mate AI get one over Kelly."
That episode from ten years ago puts yesterday's drop in into context. Revenge? No doubt. Although Kelly would've gone no matter who was riding it must've been awfully sweet when he reflected upon it last night.
The 2003 Pipeline Masters final also shows how the surfer sitting inside with priority can block the surfer sitting outside from catching a winning wave. It may not be as obvious as dropping in but outside of competition surfers who continually take off too deep on the peak could also be accused of 'not acting in the spirit of surfing.'
But that's just the thing: All this happened in competition where the motivations, pleasures, and the rules are much different to the freesurfing you and I do. It's important not to confuse the two.
PS: At present the ASP is fine-tuning the priority rule in relation to how it is enforced during the three-man, no-knockout heats.