Surfing at Tokyo 2020: the new Olympic event rules and when to watch
More than a century after Duke Kahanamoku first asked the International Olympic Committee to consider including the sport, surfing makes its Olympic bow, in the form of shortboard events.
In surfing, athletes have to successfully judge the shape of each wave in the ocean, the strength and direction of the wind, height of the tide, current and many other variables. The higher the difficulty, the higher the risk, but equally the higher the reward in judges scores.
Organisers have opted against using a wave pool which would guarantee conditions but critics have expressed concern over potentially smaller waves traditionally found at the venue over the summer.
Tokyo Olympics 2020 surfing events
Sunday, July 25 – men’s and women’s round 1 and 2 (23:00-08:20)
Monday, July 26 – women’s and men’s round 3 (23:00-08:40)
Tuesday, July 27 – men’s and women’s quarter-finals and semi-finals (23:00-06:20)
Wednesday, July 28 – women’s and men’s bronze and gold medal matches (00:00-03:35)
*Competition schedule is subjected to change depending on the wave conditions. If conditions allow, the competition can be completed in four days, but it is possible that more time could be required. Because of this, the actual competition days for the surfing events will be held with four days schedule from July 25 to August 1.
Where is it?
Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach
Located about 40 miles east of Tokyo in the town of Ichinomiya, Chiba Prefecture, the location has been chosen for its consistency in surf conditions. It is the training ground for most of Japan’s top pros and could offer some of the Games’ most scenic moments.
What is the competition format?
A total of 40 athletes (20 men and 20 women) will compete, broken down into multiple rounds, eventually leading to gold and bronze medal finals.
The initial rounds will have four and five-person heats, and the main rounds (round 3 onwards) will have two-person heats, where the winner advances to the next round and the loser is eliminated.
The top two surfers from each heat in round 1 will advance directly to round 3. The bottom two surfers will move onto round 2, which acts as essentially as a ‘repechage’ or ‘second chance’ round. The top three surfers in each heat will advance to round 3, where surfers are seeded into a bracket using their results from the first two rounds, as well as their world ranking.
The eight winners in round 3 advance to the quarter-final round and then four winners progress to the semi-final round. The two winners compete for gold with the two losers battling it out for bronze.
Each heat can last up to 35 minutes, while a wave limit for each surfer per heat will also be set at the start of each day’s competition. The surfing schedule is dependent on expected wave conditions and competition might be postponed if better conditions are expected later.
How does the scoring work?
A judging panel consists of five judges who analyse performances, scoring each wave on a scale of 1-10, with two decimal places. For each wave, the highest and lowest scores are discarded, with the surfer given an average of the three scores remaining. A surfer’s two highest-scoring waves are then combined for an overall total. A perfect ride is 10 points and therefore a perfect heat is a total score of 20 points.
The scoring system is based on five criteria that reflect the core elements of the sport:
1. Commitment and degree of difficulty
This factor is the most important and judges the types, degree of difficulty, and risk of the moves performed. 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. Innovative and progressive manoeuvres
On top of standard manoeuvres, 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 of manoeuvres
Quality is the most important but athletes will also be rewarded for incorporating many different types of manoeuvres into their surfing.
4. Combination of major manoeuvres
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
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.
Any Brits in action?
With the qualification process drawing to a close after the ISA World Surfing Games, Team GB were not able to secure any representation. Young skateboarder Sky Brown is a talented surfer but any Olympic ambitions in the latter have been delayed for now, with Paris 2024 a possibility.
Other names to watch out for
Historically, the USA and Australia have been the undisputed powerhouses of men’s professional surfing. For the former, two-time world surfing champion John John Florence will compete in Tokyo, despite suffering a knee injury in early May. For Australia, Owen Wright continues his remarkable story, having taught himself how to surf again after a near-death injury and traumatic brain injury in 2015.
In 2014 Gabriel Medina made history by becoming the first Brazilian surfing world champion. The now two-time world champion will be in Tokyo alongside reigning world champion Italo Ferreira.
Carissa Moore became the first American female to qualify for surfing’s Olympic debut while clinching her fourth surfing world title in Hawaii. She will be joined on the US roster by Caroline Marks who finished second in the end of year rankings.
Pushing Moore for the title will be Australia’s seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore who will be joined in the national green and gold colours by Sally Fitzgibbons.
Brazilians Tatiana Weston-Webb and Silvana Lima are expected to relish the Japanese wave conditions with the chance to show off their best aerial manoeuvres.
Other competitors include Peru’s Daniella Rosas, South Africa’s Bianca Buitendag, New Zealand’s Ella Williams, and Israel’s Anat Lelior.
A surfer launches from the top of the wave to take air before dropping back down into the same wave.
A classic surfing move used to change direction when streaking ahead of the curl of a wave with a powerful turn back towards the breaking part of the wave.
As they’re paddling out to catch a wave, the surfer will dip the nose of their board underwater to dive underneath a wave rather than choosing to ride it.
A series of waves approaching the lineup. Waves almost always arrive in sets, and the periods in between sets are called lulls.