Well then. Just when I thought I’d seen it all, the WSL went and cancelled the world tour event at Margaret River, citing shark risk as the reason (see HERE) —again. Except this time there were no mid-heat attacks to justify the decision. Let the conspiracy theories and heated debates begin.
Rumors had been circulating over the past 24 hours that this might happen, after a pair of run-ins at breaks in the nearby Gracetown brought attention to the fact that there are sharks in Western Australia. But no one thought that they’d actually go through with it, especially not with both the men’s and women’s events nearing the halfway point.
This decision will certainly prove to be a controversial one. People are already chiming in on both sides of the debate, some supporting the decision to keep the athlete’s safety in mind, others arguing that sharks are part and parcel of the surfing experience, especially in places like WA (and South Africa, for that matter—another stop on the world tour scheduled for a few months from now).
You will recall that Mick Fanning was famously brushed by a shark on live TV while in a heat at J-Bay, and that the event was cancelled in the middle of the final. Sort of ironic that this should happen again a week after Mick retires, at a venue that he hates and has sworn never to surf again.
It was once famously said that if the water is salty, then there are sharks in it—and this is something that most surfers inherently understand. But apparently the shark threat level near Margaret River has now exceeded what the WSL is willing to tolerate.
“The WSL puts the highest premium on safety,” said CEO Sophie Goldschmidt. “This cannot be just talk, and it cannot be compromised. Surfing is a sport that carries various forms of risk, and is unique in that wild animals inhabit our performance environment. Sharks are an occasional reality of WSL competitions, and of surfing in general. Everyone associated with our sport knows that. There have been incidents in the past—and it's possible that there will be incidents in the future—which did not (and will not) result in the cancellation of an event. However, current circumstances are very unusual and troubling, and we have decided that the elevated risk during this season's Margaret River Pro has crossed the threshold for what is acceptable.
“On April 16th (local time), two separate shark attacks occurred at nearby Gracetown—approximately six kms away from the primary event site at Main Break. The presence of beached whales in the area has attracted sharks and contributed to the aggression of their behaviour, which, experts agree, has increased the possibility of further attacks. These findings have resulted in nearby locations being closed to surfing and swimming.
“We are committed to being as prepared as possible for what nature throws at us. The WSL maintains strong and constantly-improving safety, monitoring and support infrastructure and protocols, and we would normally have a high degree of confidence in our ability to protect our athletes. However, the threshold has been crossed for the organisation and if we decided to continue the event under the current circumstances, and something terrible were to take place, we would never forgive ourselves.”
So what we are looking at is a situation wherein points will be split between all athletes remaining in the events, based on a clause in the WSL rulebook. Except maybe not. According to Goldschmidt, the WSL is looking at possibly completing the event at some other time in the future—except it’s all a little vague. “Our competitive structure allows for points distribution in the event of a cancellation,” Goldschmidt said. “However, we are not giving up yet on somehow completing both men's and women's competition this year, and will communicate our thoughts on that when we know more.”
Whatever ends up happening, this is a decision that will certainly affect the year-end ratings, and that will be debated over the coming months. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts.