In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the counterculture’s sport of choice. With the long hair and beach bum lifestyle came marijuana and LSD. However, surfing is set for a radical image change as its international governing body prepares to introduce comprehensive drug testing for professionals for the first time.
Amid growing evidence that the sport’s drug culture has gripped even some of its elite athletes, the Association of Surfing Professionals will this year roll out a policy for screening competitors and officials for performance-enhancing and recreational drugs.
The move comes after the death of the triple world champion Andy Irons in November 2010.
A postmortem found he died from a heart attack and “acute mixed drug ingestion.”
Traces of methadone, methamphetamine, also known as crystal meth, and a metabolite of cocaine were found in his bloodstream.
Another professional surfer, Anthony Ruffo, a 47-year-old pioneer of the Santa Cruz scene in the 1980s, is facing a possible jail sentence for selling methamphetamine after he was caught with about 28g of the drug.
“We believe this is a natural evolution in enhancing the professionalism of our sport,” said Dave Prodan, a spokesperson for the association. “This motion has the full support of the surfers on tour as they want to be taken more professionally and believe this is a step in the right direction.”
Professional surfers compete for prizes of up to US$100,000 and testing is already carried out at some European events, including in the UK and Ireland.
In 2005, the Brazilian surfer Neco Padaratz was suspended after he tested positive for performance-enhancing anabolic steroids at an event in Hossegor on the French Atlantic Ocean coast.
Peter Davi, a pioneering big wave surfer, was found to have high levels of methamphetaine in his blood after he died in December 2007 riding a 20m wave off California. He sustained head and chest injuries, probably from being smashed against jagged rocks.
Gerry Fitzgerald, a professional in Ireland, said that for most surfers, the idea of taking drugs before tackling dangerous waves was anathema.
“I have seen guys who are stoners and they drop off the scene because it is not sustainable,” he said. “Athletes are training hard. The way the contests are now, it will catch up with you.”
Ruffo, a recovering methamphetamine addict, was a friend of Irons.
“We always saw ourselves as misfits, like rebelling against that clean, preppy surfer thing that was going around then,” Ruffo said after his friend’s death.
Andy Martin, author of Stealing the Wave, said surfing was caught in a dilemma.
“Part of its appeal is that it is countercultural, marginal and in some way subversive and that’s where the association with drugs comes in, whether real or mythic, but the commercial imperatives require [surfers] to be straight,” Martin said. “How mainstream can surfing be before losing its soul?”