Olympic surfing is on! What to look out for when watching the competition at the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021

Your guide to watching the best surfers on the planet compete in the sport's debut, from the competition format, scoring, and top moves to look out for.

Picture by 2021 World Surf League

Surfing is about to have it's day in the sun at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in Japan.

The action sport is making its Olympic Games debut, over a century after Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku first asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to add the sport to the Olympic programme.

Now if surfing is new to you, or maybe you've never watched a competition, don't worry, because we've got you covered.

Here's your simple guide to watching surfing, to give you a better insight into what you're about to see when the world's best surfers take to the water.

Athletes: Surfers to look our for at the Olympics

20 men and 20 women will compete to claim the first ever Olympic gold medals in surfing.

After a rigorous qualifying process, 40 athletes will line up to compete at Tsurigasaki beach. Each country is only allowed a maximum two people per gender.

Here are the names and faces to keep an eye on.

Brazil's men will be hard to beat. Reigning world champion Italo Ferreira is a weapon when it comes to agility and aerial maneuvers, and he claimed victory in the first ever heat of Olympic surfing on Sunday, but his fellow countryman Gabriel Medina has been the man of the hour this season. The two-time world champion has been in fine form, dominating the field in the 2021 World Surf League (WSL) Championship Tour. The 28-year-old has reached 5 out of 6 finals this season, winning two competitions.

Japan's very own Kanoa Igarashi has been poised for this moment for a long time. In fact, many have said he was born for this, with his father helping his son pave his professional path in a dream he was unable to realise.

Meanwhile, Team USA have Kolohe Andino and two-time world champion John John Florence. Both are returning from injuries and surgeries, but at his best, Florence is capable of anything. Defying gravity is his specialty. But it'll be a case of how well he has rehabbed and recovered from knee surgery in May.

The American women will also be fierce, with four-time world champion Carissa Moore constantly leading the way and proving time and time again that she can push the boundaries on what is possible for women on a surfboard. Fellow American, rising star Caroline Marks will also be looking to prove her ability. The 19-year-old surfs beyond her years and has a youthful fearlessness on her side.

Australia's Sally Fitzgibbons has been in fine form recently, winning the Rottnest Search in May and then the 2021 ISA World Surfing Games in El Salvador. She'll be hoping her momentum continues while seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore could very well add more silverware to her extensive collection. She has both the experience and skill to get the job done.

Olympic surf scoring and judging explained

Surfers compete in heats. These last approx 30-minutes depending on conditions and each surfer can catch as many waves as possible.

Only a surfers top two highest- scoring waves are combined for their final overall total.

Each time a surfer rides a wave, a five person panel scores it using a scale from 0.1 to 10.0.

The wave score is calculated by discarding the highest and lowest judges scores. The surfer is given an average using the three middle scores.

In the end, the surfers two best scoring waves are added together to gain their heat total. This is out of a possible 20 points, ie, a 10 point ride is a perfect score.

The scoring system is based on five criteria that reflect the core elements of the sport.

1. Commitment and degree of difficulty

2. Innovative and progressive manoeuvres

3. Variety of manoeuvres

4. Combination of major manoeuvres

5. Speed, power, and flow

If you're keen to learn more, dive into the a more detailed explanation of the judging here.

Surfing competition format at Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021

Surfing is incredibly dependant on weather and wave conditions, so the competition will go ahead when forecasters think they can get the best conditions for surfers to perform well.

The surfing competition got the green light to begin on Sunday 25th July 2021 at 07:00 JST. The whole event will then be completed within a specific timeframe, with competition paused if the weather worsens.

The first Olympic Champions will need to progress through 6 rounds.

Round 1: 20 surfers - Non-elimination. Five heats with four surfers in each heat. The top two go straight to round 3. The bottom two go to round 2.

Round 2: 10 surfers - The second round is a repechage round and has two heats, with five surfers in each heat. The bottom two surfers are eliminated

Round 3: 16 surfers - Surfers are seeded into eight heats with two surfers each. The surfer who wins the heat advances, the other is eliminated.

Quarterfinals: 8 surfers - Four heats with two surfers. The top surfer of each heat advances, the other is eliminated.

Semifinals: 4 surfers - Two heats with just two surfers. The two that win advance to the final, while the other two will go to the Bronze heat and compete for the bronze medal.

Gold final: Two-person heat where winner takes gold and the other wins silver.


If surfing isn't a sport you're familiar with, then expect to learn some new words at this Olympic Games.

To get you started, we've compiled a list of words that may be useful to help you understand what you're watching.

Aerial: Getting airborne. Where a surfer launches themselves and their board out of the water, into the air, and over the top of a wave, they then land back down into the same wave.

Beach Break: Waves created by a shallow sandy ocean floor.

Choppy: Rough and bumpy wave conditions often caused by strong winds and ocean currents.

Clean: Ideal surfing conditions. Waves have power and are smooth with a glassy surface. Offshore winds that blow toward the ocean usually created groomed conditions.

Cutback: A typical surfing move for changing direction and making a strong turn back towards where the wave is breaking. Surfers do cutbacks to get themselves closer to the power of the wave.

Fin: Similar to a rudder on a boat, fins on the bottom of the board help the surfer to have stability, direction, and drive.

Goofy: A surfer who puts their right foot forward when standing on their board.

Regular: A surfer who put left foot forward on their board.

Shortboard: A performance surfboard which is short in length and designed for speed.

Swell: Waves created by distant weather systems out at sea, often due to a storm.


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