Tokyo 2020 surfing test event re-cap: what you need to know about surfing at the Olympics

Get a taste for what surfing will look like when the sport makes it's Olympic debut next year.

By Ashlee Tulloch

The water has officially been tested for surfing at Tokyo 2020.

Some 90 kilometres south-east of Tokyo, Games organisers and the International Surfing Association (ISA) made history, successfully holding their first ever Olympic test of the sport.

Hiroto Ohhara claimed the men's title and Minami Nonaka the women's at the ''Ready Steady Tokyo'' surfing event.

The all-Japanese competition took place from 18–21 July at Tsurigasaki Beach, the same venue for the 2020 Games.

The event was a rehearsal for the Olympic competition which has a four-day window scheduled between 26 July–2 August 2020.

ISA Executive Director Robert Fasulo told Olympic Channel:

''We had the opportunity to test a lot of different elements. We're very satisfied first of all with the level of conditions we experienced here because there’s been a lot of perception that the waves and the conditions wouldn’t be sufficient. But we had some excellent waves and in particular the men’s final.''

Surfing is one of five new sports to debut at the Games next year, making this test crucial for all involved.

We break down the essentials from this first glimpse at Tokyo 2020 surfing.

The Competition

This event involved 20 male and 20 female Japanese athletes competing, and replicated the same format that will be followed at Tokyo 2020.

Round one had four athletes per heat while round two had five athletes per heat.

From round three onward, it's head-to-head competing.

The athletes with the highest two scores out of 10, as awarded by the judges, continued to the next round, with each heat taking 30 minutes.

Surfing’s ‘Ready Steady Tokyo’ schedule originally looked liked this, but due to fog, the decision was made to complete the bronze and final competitions on Saturday 20 July. The victory ceremony remained on Sunday 21 July.

  • 18 July 2019 Men’s Round 1 / Women’s Round 1 / Men’s Round 2 / Women’s Round 2
  • 19 July 2019 Women’s Round 3 / Men’s Round 3
  • 20 July 2019 Men’s Quarterfinals / Women’s Quarterfinals / Men’s Semifinals / Women’s Semifinals
  • 21 July 2019 Women’s Bronze medal / Men’s Bronze medal / Women’s Finals / Men’s Finals / Women’s Victory Ceremony / Men’s Victory Ceremony

Speaking to Olympic Channel, Fasulo said:

''At the end of the day we are thinking about the best conditions for the athletes and the best way to promote and showcase the sport which is why and how we took the decision to finish today.''

Test Event Heat information

What have we learned?

Everything from technology, format, scoring, live scoring and results, sport presentation and the key organisational elements including security and medical facilities were tested.

So what were the biggest takeaways?

''For me, the biggest three lessons were that, the event format works, that the waves are absolutely up to standard to run a high quality world class event, and that we can innovate a little bit in the way we present the sport.'' - Fasulo to Olympic Channel.

It gave Tokyo 2020 organisers and the ISA an opportunity to examine the conditions for the Olympics and test operations.

''We’ve seen that the surf breaks pretty much across this entire beach so we had some heats that were contested in the far southern side and some of them were right against the jetty and others closer to the other side of the jetty, so we have to be flexible and be ready to cover the entire beach,'' Fasulo said after after the competition.

First glimpse at surfing at Tokyo 2020.

Innovation and new ways of operating

Presentation-wise, several new things were tried at this test event.

The ISA have previously only had a beach announcer who communicates with the athletes in the water.

The surfers rely on speakers on the beach to hear crucial information, like how many minutes they have left in the heat, who has priority and what their previous wave scores are, so they know what they need in order to win.

In addition the organisers have added a sports presentation announcer for the benefit of beach spectators, giving more colour and commentary and information to enhance their experience.

Traditionally, the surfers make their own way down to the water to start a heat, but during the test event they walked the athletes down together, and presented them individually before starting each heat. This new addition to surfing added extra hype and energy to the start of each new heat.

Athletes prepare to compete at the Ready Steady Tokyo surfing event

Co-operation from the ocean is undoubtedly going to be needed, but organisers say they will adjust to mother nature.

Plans are also in place for an Olympic surfing festival within the event site to accompany the competition.

It will celebrate surf culture with yoga, art, music, food trucks, activities, coaching, and environmental discussions. The festival will no doubt play a big part if the conditions are unfavourable and fans are waiting for action.

Spectators will otherwise get a front row seat on the waters edge to enjoy the world's best competing for the first Olympic surfing medals.

Nature and wave size

The sport of surfing is unpredictable and that's what makes it so appealing to many, but it can also present big challenges.

Day 1 of the test event was delayed an hour due to small surf and low fog.

Waves averaged between 1–1.5 metres during the test event and Fasulo said this would be acceptable, if replicated next year.

Tsurigasaki beach, on the Chiba Prefecture coastline, was chosen for its consistency and forecaster Kurt Korte says he and the team at Surfline (the ISA's chosen surf forecasters) have been studying the beach site for the past five years. From the research they've done, they're confident there's potential for some good waves during Tokyo 2020.

''Surfline has been studying this site specifically for the Olympics and the ISA to test the feasibility of running a competition here during the potential window during the Olympics in 2020," says Korte.

"So we've utilised a 39 year swell database where we can go back and look at historical conditions for the beach here and can tell how the surf will be at that time."

The competition also has an eight-day waiting period. This means there's a window for Korte to help advise when the biggest surf and best conditions are likely come.

July also marks the start of typhoon season in Japan and therefore they're expecting that could improve the wave size throughout the Olympic period.

''In an ideal scenario what we would have, is low tides in the morning, rising up through the middle part of the day. A south-east swell from a typhoon or a tropical system and that with a south west or westerly winds which are ideal here,'' Korte told the Olympic Channel.

Sea turtles also laid eggs in front of the judges' tower during the test event, creating another small obstacle.

Who will be there at Tokyo 2020?

Qualification for surfing at Tokyo 2020 has already begun, with 20 places available for both men and women.

The hierarchical order of qualification is:

  1. 2019 World Surf League Championship Tour: First eight eligible women and first 10 eligible men.
  2. 2020 ISA World Surfing Games: First six eligible women and four eligible men.
  3. 2019 ISA World Surfing Games: Four women and four men. Spots chosen based on continent, going to the top eligible surfer of each gender from Africa, Asia, Europe and Oceania.
  4. 2019 Pan American Games: First eligible woman and first eligible man.
  5. Host nation slot: Japan is guaranteed one spot for a women and one for a man, unless already filled through the above hierarchies.


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