Olympic surfing at Tokyo 2020: Top five things to know

Who are the top Olympic surfers at Tokyo 2020 in 2021? When and where will Olympic surfing take place? What is the history behind one of the Olympic programme’s newest sports? Find out here.

By Aidan McKevitt

Surfing is one of 33 sports that will take place at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. It is due to make its Olympic debut in July 2021 in Japan.

But who are the ones to watch? When will competition take place, and where will it be held? Here is our guide to the top things to know about Olympic surfing.

Top Olympic surfers at Tokyo 2020

Surfing’s debut at the Olympics includes a line-up of world champions, World Surf League (WSL) tour veterans, and rookie pros ready to make their mark on the sport.

As is the case in modern surfing history, the top surfers to watch will be coming mainly from Australia and the USA, but watch out too for Brazil.

Born in the same year and just miles away from each other in Honolulu, Hawaii, John John Florence and Carissa Moore represent the current pinnacle of American professional surfing.

Florence boasts two world championships and the coveted Pipeline Masters award, while Moore heads to Tokyo a reigning world champion, with three more titles under her belt to back it up.

The two pros' smooth and fearless style is emblematic of their upbringing at the iconic Banzai Pipeline, and their 12 years of world championship tour experience each will make them a force to be reckoned with.

With hundreds of kilometres of incredible coastline on all sides, it’s no secret that Australia produces some incredible surfers. However, one athlete donning the green and gold who should not be missed this summer is Stephanie Gilmore.

A seven-time world champion, Gilmore is one of the most decorated professional surfers ever. She is also a fierce competitor and a serious gold medal contender. Joining her will be Owen Wright, a 14-year tour veteran with a comeback story that is the stuff of legends.

After a near-death injury in 2015 Wright had to reteach himself how to surf and in 2017 burst back onto the scene, securing top 10 finishes overall in each of the next three seasons. Now, he’s looking to take his legend a step further with the addition of Olympic gold.

Historically, the USA and Australia have been the undisputed powerhouses of men’s professional surfing. In fact, 32 of the 37 previous world champions have been from one of the two countries.

But in 2014 Gabriel Medina made history by becoming the first Brazilian surfing world champion. Since then three out of the last five men’s world champions have been Brazilian. Now, the South American nation are sending two-time world champion Medina and reigning world champion Italo Ferreira to represent them in Tokyo.

The two have been a driving force for progressive aerials and represent a changing tide in the global power balance of professional surfing, but can they maintain their countries winning streak on the Olympic stage?

Igarashi Kanoa, representing hosts Japan, will be looking to upset the apple cart.

Olympic surfing schedule at Tokyo 2020

It comes to no surprise that the sport of surfing is as unpredictable as the ocean. Wave height, direction and strength of the wind, and several other factors dictate whether a surf competition can run, and because these conditions can change drastically from day-to-day, the events need to be just as flexible.

For this reason, the surfing competition at Tokyo 2020 will be held during the Olympic Surfing Festival from 25 July to 1 August 2021. This time frame is to ensure that the competition can be held during the days that have the best wave conditions possible.

The competition itself will take four days to complete. These four days could happen all one after the other or be spread out during multiple days within the OSF time period. Each competition day can last a maximum of nine hours and 40 minutes, how ever the exact timing is tentative and will depend on wave and visibility conditions.

Olympic surfing venue at Tokyo 2020

Surfing will be making its Olympic debut at Tsurigasaki Beach roughly 100 km away from the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo. The beach lies in Ichinomiya town on Chiba Prefecture’s Pacific coastline. It is one of the easternmost points of Japan making it particularly suited to any swell that comes from the north, east, or south, depending on the season.

It is known as one of the most consistent beaches for surfing in Japan and has been the site of many WSL world qualifying series competitions over the last few years, as well as the training ground for most of Japan’s top pro surfers.

The timing of the event should provide a good combination of sand bar conditions and mid-summer swells coming from the south with 1–1.5 m-high waves for the world’s best to make their debut on the Olympic stage.

Olympic surfing competition format at Tokyo 2020

The event will involve 20 male and 20 female athletes competing in three rounds, and three finals comprised of 30-minute heats.

Round one features four athletes per heat while round two will have five. From round three onwards the competition turns to a one-on-one format.

During the heats each surfer will have 30 minutes to catch as many waves as they can and receive a score from 0-10 for every wave surfed. However, only the top two waves from each surfer get calculated into their final score.

Due to the nature of the sport, surfers are judged on a slightly different criteria than other athletes. Waves are scored by a panel of experienced judges using a five-point system.

  1. Commitment and difficulty: This factor is the most important and judges the types, degree of difficulty, and risk of the moves performed. Additionally, because all waves are different, athletes are also judged on how high-risk the wave they have chosen is, and how committed that surfer is to maximise the potential scoring opportunities on each wave.
  2. Innovation and progression: In addition to the standard manoeuvres in a surfer’s repertoire, the judges will also award points for those who push the boundaries of modern surfing with progressive moves such as aerial or tail slide variations.
  3. Variety: While quality is the most important, judges are also looking out for athletes who incorporate many different types of manoeuvres into their surfing.
  4. Combination: This point considers how seamlessly a surfer can connect high scoring manoeuvres such as barrels, turns, and aerials on the same wave.
  5. Speed, power, and flow: This age-old surfing mantra refers to an athlete’s style on a wave, but also the subtle technical elements that separate good surfers from great surfers. The ability to react to shifting conditions on a wave and maintain proper speed to perform high scoring manoeuvres, the amount of power that is going into each move so that it can be displayed at it’s highest potential, and a flow in the way that a surfer connects each move from start to finish.

Olympic surfing history

On 3 August 2016, the International Olympic Committee voted to include surfing as one of the five new sports that would be included at Tokyo 2020. This will be surfing’s first appearance at the Olympics.

However, the art of riding waves on a surfboard has existed for hundreds of years. The Polynesians who lived on the Pacific island chains of Hawaii and Tahiti have had surfing at the core of their cultural identity for as long as it has been recorded, and recently archaeological records show that ancient pre-Incan cultures along the Peruvian coastline have used wave-riding crafts as early as 200 CE.

In the modern era surfing was popularised by famed waterman, and Olympian, Duke Kahanamoku, from Hawaii. Kahanamoku won three gold medals in swimming at the Stockholm 1912 and Antwerp 1920 Games for the USA. Not only is he considered the ‘father of modern surfing’, but he planted the seed for surfing’s future Olympic inclusion by suggesting it while accepting his gold medal at Stockholm 1912.


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