Surfing at Tokyo 2020: Events, schedule, athletes to watch

Olympic medal favourite Gabriel Medina of Brazil works out on a Surf Ranch wave during practice rounds for the upcoming Olympic Games. (Gary Kazanjian/AP)

Even beyond all the tumult in the lead-up, the actual events taking place at Tokyo 2020 figure to make this iteration of the Games one like none before. And among the handful of Olympic debuts in 2021, surfing will bring one of the world’s most fascinating, beautiful and unpredictable sports to the Olympic stage.

The path that carried the sport to this point in Tokyo officially started in 2015, when surfing was shortlisted among the rest of the 2020 debutants for potential inclusion. It was given the green light by the International Olympic Committee in 2016, and three years later the best wave-riders from around the globe began the trek to qualify for what will be a historic day in surfing’s history.

Forty surfers in total (20 women and 20 men) will paddle out in an attempt to earn the first medals ever awarded in Olympic surfing. The path they took to get to this point was trying, with those in Tokyo having won their spots through the 2019 World Surf League Championship Tour, the 2019 ISA World Surfing Games, the 2019 Pan American Games, or, for some, just last month at the 2021 ISA World Surfing Games.

But in truth, for all those set to make history in the water this summer, their path began in ancient Hawaii and Tahiti, where we can trace the sport’s roots. It continued on through famed Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, who first popularized surfing as a sport, and who thrived as an Olympian in his own right, winning three golds as a swimmer at the 1912 Stockholm Games and 1920 Antwerp Games.

During the first of those Olympic journeys, as Kahanamoku accepted his gold on the podium in Stockholm, he spoke of his desire to see his beloved surfing in the Olympics one day. Now, more than 100 years later, that day has arrived.

EVENTS

The inaugural Olympic surfing competition will consist of one women’s event and one men’s event, all taking place at Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach on the Chiba coastline.

Surfing as a sport is delineated by way of the length of board used — the longboard or the shortboard. The shortboard — which allows for quicker, more dynamic manoeuvres — will be the one used in Tokyo.

For both the women’s and men’s competitions, surfers will first compete in heats wherein four or five surfers will take on the waves at the same time, for about 25 to 30 minutes (depending on conditions), before final rounds in which two surfers will compete against each other.

How exactly will multiple surfers compete out on the waves? They’ll have to follow an established etiquette out on the water — while they’re free to take on any waves they see fit, should two riders come upon the same wave, the one who’s closer to the wave’s peak will have “right of way” to do their thing.

Surfers will be scored by a panel of five judges, who will score each wave on a scale of 1 to 10 (with two decimal points). For each wave, the judges’ highest and lowest scores are discarded and each surfer is given the average of the middle three scores. Their two highest-scoring waves are then combined for an overall total — a perfect ride would score a 10 from the judges, so a perfect total would be 20 points.

Judging the riders doesn’t come down to points awarded to specific moves — it’s about how each surfer represents the “core elements of the sport.”

Specifically, they’ll be judged based on five criteria:

1. Commitment and degree of difficulty
Athletes are awarded for higher-risk manoeuvres, and judges are looking at how willing surfers are to maximize wave potential.

2. Innovative and progressive manoeuvres
Judges are looking for surfers to push boundaries and be innovative with the manoeuvres they attempt.

3. Variety of manoeuvres
The judges want to see if surfers are trying different manoeuvres and showcasing different aspects of their skill-set, or simply being repetitive.

4. Combination of major manoeuvres
Judges want to see surfers string together high-scoring manoeuvres.

5. Speed, power and flow
This comes down to how fast a surfer is traveling on a wave, and how quickly they’re adapting to the waves; how surfers connect one move to the next; and how much power each athlete is pushing into their moves.

SCHEDULE

Scheduled times and days are subject to change, as all will depend on the conditions of the playing field — literally, the ocean.

But barring some untimely weather, the schedule should shake out like so:

Early Rounds (July 24–26)
The early rounds of heats for both the women’s and men’s competitions will begin on July 24 at 6:00 p.m. EDT, continuing through to the next day, and wrapping up in the early hours of July 26.

Quarterfinals and Semifinals (July 26)
The women’s and men’s quarterfinals will begin on the evening of July 26, followed by the semifinals.

Finals (July 27)
The bronze-medal and gold-medal matches will go down July 27. The women’s event will be at 8:30 p.m. EDT and the men’s at 9:15 p.m. EDT.

WHY YOU SHOULD TUNE IN

This one should be fairly self-explanatory.

At its core, surfing is unlike any other sport in the world, and that will be no different for its Olympic iteration. What happens when the competition begins will depend just as much on the athletes’ performance as it will on the ever-unpredictable nature of the ocean.

That’s a fundamental part of what makes surfing so exhilarating — the sport is grounded not only in riders competing against each other, but against natur. They’re working with a landscape that changes every moment, forcing them to react and adapt. And they’ll be judged just as much on that ability to adapt as anything else.

Past that, the competition will simply allow for some breathtaking sights of Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach. Just look at these scenes:

ATHLETES TO WATCH

Sadly, Canada won’t have a rider taking part in the inaugural surf competition. Still, there will be plenty of intriguing names to watch once the competition kicks off, particular among the top three nations: the United States, Australia and Brazil.

While the Americans play a prominent role in the sport given its deep roots in Hawaii, Australia has long dominated in international competition. In recent years, though, Brazil has emerged as a force in the sport, and will send some of the top names in the game to Tokyo.

Gabriel Medina and Italo Ferreira will head into the men’s competition as medal favourites, with the pair of Brazilians currently ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the World Surf League’s Championship Tour. Medina, a two-time WSL world champion, made four of five finals during the 2021 Championship Tour, emerging victorious in two of those. Meanwhile, Ferreira is the reigning men’s world champion after claiming the WSL title in 2019.

American Carissa Moore heads into the women’s event as one of the medal favourites, as the four-time WSL Women's World Tour champion is currently ranked No. 1 on the Champions Tour. But she’ll have stiff competition in Australians Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons. The latter is fresh off being crowned world champion at the 2021 ISA World Surfing Games last month — a golden finish that made her the first surfer to ever claim three ISA world titles.

Gilmore, meanwhile, is simply a legend in the sport. With seven WSL World Tour titles to her name (a historic sum that tied the most world championships ever won in women’s surfing), the 33-year-old has seemingly achieved everything surfing has to offer — aside from this newfound Olympic medal.

Now, she goes for that final bit of glory in the water.

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