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Everything You Need to Know About Surfing at the Tokyo Games 2020

The 2020 Tokyo Games are set to be an historic edition of the oldest active sporting tournament on the planet. For starters, they will be held in 2021, but more importantly it will also be the first Olympics in history in which surfing will be included as an event. It only took about 2,800 years but at long last it has made the cut, and in July of this year we’ll get to watch the world’s best take a break from the relentless Championship Tour schedule to compete for the first ever Gold Medal of surfing.

Where will it be held?

The Tokyo Olympics are, of course, to be held in Tokyo, but unfortunately the bay on which that city sits is not exactly renowned for its huge swells and quality waves. And while Japan on the whole is also not known for its waves, it does have an entire coastline facing directly towards the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean, so there are certainly some to be found.

One of those is at Tsurigasaki Beach, and it’s here that the world’s best will try to etch their names in the history books as the inaugural Olympic champion. Tsurigasaki Beach lies a little under 100 kilometres east of Tokyo on the coastline of the prefecture known as Chiba. Its location on Japan’s east coast means it is receptive to swells from a variety of directions, and as a result is home to fairly consistent surf throughout the year. It’s this which made it such an attractive option to event organisers, and is also why it has been host to numerous high-quality competitions in the past.

With so many different potential swell directions, the type of wave dished up can obviously vary. At its best, however, the sandbar will form a barrelling beach break which peels off thereafter, making it suitable for all types of surfers, from barrel hunters like Michel Bourez to classy carvers like Jordy Smith and speed demons like Gabriel Medina.

Who will be competing?

The qualification format for surfing at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics is a little convoluted, but the end result is that the majority of the world’s best will be competing. In total, there will be 20 competitors on both the men’s and the women’s side, though how those spots are filled differs slightly.

For the men, the top ten according to the world rankings at the conclusion of the 2019 season qualified, with the caveat that each nation can only have two representatives. This means that Filipe Toledo misses out despite having finished fourth that year, while so does Kelly Slater, who finished eighth. The surfers who qualified through this route are Julian Wilson and Owen Wright (Australia), Italo Ferreira and Gabriel Medina (Brazil), Michel Bourez and Jeremy Flores (France), Kanoa Igarashi (Japan), Jordy Smith (South Africa), and Kolohe Andino and John John Florence (USA). 

For the women, only eight places were awarded based on the 2019 world rankings. As with the men, each nation can have just two representatives, which meant that the 12th-ranked Silvana Lima earned a call up courtesy of the fact that the quotas were already full for the home countries of Courtney Conlogue in seventh, as well as all the surfers who finished ninth to eleventh. The female surfers who qualified through this route are Sally Fitzgibbons and Steph Gilmore (Australia), Silvana Lima and Tatiana Weston-Webb (Brazil), Brisa Hennessey (Costa Rica), Johanne Defay (France), and Caroline Marks and Carissa Moore (USA).

The remaining ten spots on the men’s side and 12 spots on the women’s side were decided through a variety of different competitions. The winners of the 2019 Pan American Games earned a spot (Lucca Mesinas and Daniella Rosses, both from Peru), as did the winners of the 2019 ISA World Surfing Games in each of Africa, Asia, Europe and Oceania. The qualifiers from Africa were Ramzi Boukhiam (Morocco) and Bianca Buitendag (South Africa), those from Asia were Shun Murakami and Shino Matsuda (both from Japan), the European winners were Frederico Morais (Portugal) and Anat Leilor (Israel), while the qualifiers from Oceania were Billy Stairmand and Ella Williams (both from New Zealand).

The five spots left on the men’s side and seven spots on the women’s side will go to the top finishers at the ISA World Surfing Games, which will finish in early June.

With winners from a variety of competitions around the world all earning entry, and roughly half coming through performance on the World Surf League’s Championship Tour, it’s an eclectic bunch who will come together to compete at the Olympics. With a few unlucky exceptions like Toledo, the vast majority of the world’s best will be there, while nations which are typically not represented at the top level like Israel, New Zealand and Morocco also get a couple of participants.

What is the format?

Both the men’s and women’s competition will follow exactly the same format, and each will kick off with five Round 1 heats consisting of four surfers. Each of these heats on the men’s side will have two qualifiers from the Championship Tour (one heat will have the highest ranked and the lowest ranked, the next will have the second-highest ranked and second-lowest ranked, and so on) and two from the other competitions. For the women, the same format is followed except not all heats will have two CT qualifiers (because only eight of them were awarded spots, remember?). 

The surfers who finish in first and second in each heat will jump straight through to the third round, while the third and fourth-place finishers will head to the second round. In the second round, both the men and women draws will have two five-person heats – the top three from each heat advance to Round 3, while the bottom two will be eliminated.

From there onwards, the competitions will follow the same format as the Championship Tour, with two-person heats in which the winner advances and the loser is knocked out. Round 3 will see eight heats, before the quarterfinals, semifinals and final determine the winner.

As is the case on the Championship Tour, competitors’ scores in each heat will be based on their two highest scoring waves, and heats will run for a total of 30 minutes. As always, waves will be scored out of ten, with the standard criteria of commitment and difficulty, innovation and progression, variety, combination and speed all being taken into account. 

So while a lot of the inaugural Olympic surfing competition will resemble what we see on the Championship Tour, there are a few details which differ as well. Roughly half of the surfers in both the men’s and women’s side of the draw will be names that you’re likely very familiar with, and will probably make up the bulk of the surfers left in the final few rounds as well. There will, however, be a few unknowns competing as well, each of whom gets a chance to make their proverbial mark in an event in which they will have more eyes on them than perhaps ever before. 

Whether surfing at the Olympics will be a success remains to be seen – how much the top athletes and the fans will care, at least relative to the Championship Tour, is unclear given that this is, after all, a world first. Based on the fact that all CT surfers granted with qualification have opted in to the event, however, as well as the intent many of them have signalled publicly to take home the Gold, it seems as though the desire to make history is well and truly there.



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