How Olympic Surfing Is Trying to Ride the Machine Learning Wave

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As surfing completes its first-ever Olympic ride, the sport is poised for another sea change thanks to artificial intelligence and big data

TOKYO—South African surfer Bianca Buitendag uses some apps and websites to gauge wind and wave conditions before she competes, but she doesn’t consider surfing a high-tech sport. It’s mostly about trying to gauge the weather.

“That’s about it,” she said this week.

Carissa Moore, who on Tuesday faced off with Buitendag for the sport’s first-ever Olympic gold medal, takes a different approach. She loads up on performance analytics, wave pools and science. The American, who beat Buitendag by nearly 6.5 points to win the gold medal on Tuesday, has competed on artificial waves and uses technology such as a wearable ring that tracks her sleep and other vitals to help her coaches fine-tune her training and recovery.

Their different approaches go to the heart of a long-running tension in surfing: dueling images of the spiritual, naturalist wave rider versus the modern, techie athlete.

“There’s this illusion that you’re trying to sustain, even if you’re aware of all the stuff that’s gone into [surfing],” said Peter Westwick, a University of Southern California surfing historian. He’s talking about the use of advanced polymer chemistry-enabled products in surfboards and wetsuits and complex weather modeling that helps govern where and how competitions like this Olympic event are held. The tech has roots in military research and development, he said.

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