How to Turn a Circus into a Riot

Tom Curren was never a flag-waver. Asked by a reporter in 1986 how national pride fit into his recent world-title win, Curren answered that he was “basically doing this for myself.” He married a French woman in 1983, and moved to the Basque coast, near Biarritz, where he spent nearly five years as a de facto American expat.

Curren was an exception, however. In the 1980s, surfers across the United States let loose with celebrations trumpeting their long-awaited return to international surf com...

The surfing on display at the new "parking lot contests" was by and large a hobbled, even comical version of elite-level sportcraft – like Olympic fencers dueling with cardboard tubes.