Olympic Surfing 101: Everything You Need to Know

The waiting period for surfing in the Olympics is July 25th-August 1st. Stay tuned to our daily forecast. To watch live heats, download either the NBC Sports app or the official Olympics app (or both) and follow surfing. International fans can check this link. (Keep in mind that Japan is 16 hours ahead of California, meaning heats will run in the late afternoon/evening.) Here’s live results/heat draw. Here’s more Olympics coverage.


Like David Bowie once sang: “Turn and face the strange.”

After all, surfing and the Olympics is a pretty strange pairing, is it not? New, different, historic, exciting, perhaps even a bit frightening. Factor in the the pandemic making these particular Games a logistical anomaly, and the strange has only gotten stranger. There’s nothing left to do but turn and face surfing’s official debut in the 2020… sorry, make that 2021 Tokyo Games.

And although we may not completely understand this historic development, we can get comfortable by familiarizing ourselves with exactly how it will all work: from the competition format and the judging criteria to the contest venue and the broadcast. So, consider this your Olympic surfing cheatsheet — a list of frequently asked questions answered as clearly and simply as possible. Read it, absorb it, then tune in next week and embrace the ch-ch-ch-changes.

What’s the format?

This is where the Olympics really strays from the typical surfing competition we’re all used to: In Round One, there will be four surfers in each of the five heats. The top two surfers in each heat will advance to Round Three. The bottom two surfers in each heat will go to Round Two, which will consist of five surfers in each of the two heats. The top three surfers in each of those heats will move on to Round Three, while the bottom two are eliminated. After Round Three, the Quarterfinal and Semifinal heats will be man-on-man/woman-on-woman. The two winners of the Semifinals will advance to the Final, where they will compete for Gold and Silver. The two losers of the Semifinals will surf a separate heat, where they will compete for Bronze.

What’s the scoring criteria?

Here’s where things will feel a bit more familiar. An international panel of five judges will score each surfer’s ride on a scale from 0.1 to 10. Only a surfer’s top two rides will count towards their heat total.

What about COVID-19?

The Olympics were canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19 — the first time a cancelation has happened since the 1944 Summer Olympics, which never ran because of WWII. This time, though, it wasn’t really a cancelation, but rather a yearlong postponement. However, due to the ongoing pandemic and spiking cases in Japan, the 2021 Games will look a bit different.

The main difference is spectators are banned. Additionally, athletes will be mostly confined to their accommodations. They must also social distance, wear masks, and be regularly tested. And here’s the kicker: they must all leave Japan within 48 hours of the event’s conclusion.

Where’s it going down?

The Olympic surfing venue of Shidashita Beach is about 40 minutes outside of Tokyo. “Shida”, as it’s commonly called, is one of the most popular surfing destinations on the Chiba Peninsula. During the event, however, no other surfers will be allowed in the water, aside from the 40 competitors.

WATCH LIVE: Shidashita Beach Surf Cam

The break itself is a sand-bottom beachbreak indented by a series of groins that, during optimal conditions, can produce peaky, punchy wedges suitable for airs, hard turns, and occasionally, tubes.

How’s the forecast looking?

Right from the start, Shida will see swell generated by a tropical cyclone. It might be 3-4-foot, it might be 6-8-foot, but it definitely won’t be flat during the first few days of the competition window. However, there is the potential for onshore winds and challenging conditions due to large tidal swings.

READ MORE: Mechanics of Shidashita, Japan

As Surfline Forecaster Kurt Korte explains in his latest outlook: “A tropical cyclone is expected to form in the next 24-48 hours around 700nm (1,300km) south of Shidashita before tracking northward over the weekend. We expect SE/ESE swell generated by the tropical system, which will be named Nepartak, to fill in on Sunday, July 25th, biggest late in the day. As the system approaches we should see our winds increase, resulting in deteriorating conditions through the day.”

How and when can we watch?

Throughout the competition window — July 25th-August 1st — heats will run when the best conditions appear. The event could realistically run in two and a half days, but ideally, it will be spread out over four days. For more information on tuning in live in the USA, check out NBC’s competition schedule. And for international viewers, the ISA has provided this handy guide.

NBC holds broadcast rights to the Olympics in the USA, and it can be watched on any of the streaming giant’s TV, Internet and mobile platforms. Something to remember, however: Tokyo is 16 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time (PST). So, if you’re in the U.S. West Coast time zone, 2pm for you will be 6am the following day in Japan; and if competition were to commence on July 25th (the start of the event window), the live broadcast would begin in the afternoon on July 24th.

And since surfing is unique in that it will run only when the waves are best, how will we know when heats will be in the water? Here’s a helpful trick: download either the NBC Sports app or the official Olympics app (or both). From there, you’ll be prompted to pick which sports you want to follow (ahem, select surfing), and enable notifications. Then, whenever the event runs, you’ll get a little ding on your phone to tune in and watch live.

Who is competing?

Following the 2021 ISA World Surfing Games in El Salvador, we received our full list of confirmed competitors in the Tokyo Olympics. As a refresher, here are all 40 competitors (20 men, 20 women) who will go for the Gold in Tokyo, and how they qualified:


Via the 2019 WSL season…

Sally Fitzgibbons (AUS) Stephanie Gilmore (AUS) Johanne Defay (FRA) Tatiana Weston-Webb (BRA) Silvana Lima (BRA) Carissa Moore (USA) Caroline Marks (USA) Brisa Hennessy (CRC)

Via the 2021 ISA World Surfing Games…

Pauline Ado (FRA) Yolanda Hopkins (POR) Teresa Bonvalot (POR) Mahina Maeda (JPN) Amuro Tsuzuki (JPN) Daniella Rosas (PER) Leilani McGonagle (CRC)

Via the 2019 ISA World Surfing Games…

Sofia Mulanovich (PER) Anat Lelior (ISR) Bianca Buitendag (RSA) Ella Williams (NZL)

Via the 2019 ISA Pan American Games…

Dominic Barona (ECU)


Via the 2019 WSL season…

Leonardo Fioravanti (ITA) Kolohe Andino (USA) John John Florence (USA) Kanoa Igarashi (JPN) Jeremy Flores (FRA) Michel Bourez (FRA) Gabriel Medina (BRA) Italo Ferreira (BRA) Owen Wright (AUS) Julian Wilson (AUS)

Via the 2021 ISA World Surfing Games…

Leon Glatzer (GER) Lucca Mesinas (PER) Miguel Tudela (PER) Manuel Selman (CHI) Hiroto Ohhara (JPN)

Via the 2019 ISA World Surfing Games…

Rio Waida (INA) Ramzi Boukhiam (MAR) Billy Stairmand (NZL) Frederico Morais (POR)

Via the 2019 ISA Pan American Games…

Leandro Usuna (ARG)

Where are the stickers?

Every competitor will have their finest beachbreak boards dialed in for the waves at Shida, just like any contest, with one noticeable difference: no stickers from sponsors. Expect fresh, clean sticks from the competitors on land and in the water with no brand representation. Them’s the rules.

Who’s ripping?

Of course, the CT pros, particularly the World Champion CT pros, are the favorites: Gabriel Medina, Steph Gilmore, John John Florence, Carissa Moore, Italo Ferreira… And obviously, the shifty beachbreak of Shidashita Beach suits the uber- stacked Brazilian team, as the waves are eerily similar to what they grew up surfing (right down to the water color).

But maybe, just maybe, a darkhorse underdog could come out of nowhere, upset everyone, win gold, and make history for them and their country. Perhaps someone like Anat Lelior of Israel, or Leon Glatzer of Germany.

Nick Carroll recently mused on the subject of potential upsets: “My dream was that some young maniac from Costa Rica or Indo would charge forth in Japan and storm the Citadel — blow away all the CT stars who’ve managed to smuggle themselves under various guises into the Olympics. Teach those superheroes a lesson, and cover their grommet selves in glory in the process.”

Wouldn’t that be something? Stranger things have happened.

Related Posts