Surfing at the Olympics: Schedule, rules, athletes and what if there are no waves for new Tokyo 2020 sport

Surfing will make its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020 and so as athletes hit the waves in their bid for gold, as an audience it is time to brush up on priority, bottom turns and barrels.

Along with sport climbing, skateboarding and karate, surfing is a new sport on the Olympic programme for the Games in Tokyo after their inclusion was confirmed back in 2016.

Athletes will be out to make history when paddling out into the Pacific Ocean off Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach, with the Olympics giving the sport a level of exposure like never before.

“It’s not going to be a breathtaking spectacle in terms of what nature delivers, but that will be at odds with what the athletes deliver,” Ed Leigh, who will commentate on surfing for the BBC at Tokyo 2020, tells i.

“It’s the oldest of the action sports, and the most refined. These athletes are immense specimens, so fit, you have to have flexibility, strength and stamina to succeed.”

Surfing at Tokyo 2020 explained

The schedule (see below) outlines how there will be four days of action at Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach, with 20 male and 20 female competitors taking to the ocean.

The initial rounds will feature heats of four or five surfers, and then from the quarter-final stages it is straight knockout, with two-person heats meaning the winner progresses and the loser is eliminated. In the semi-final the losers will compete in the bronze medal match.

Each round/heat lasts 30 minutes, with a technical director on hand to judge conditions and potentially allow for more time.

ICHINOMIYA, JAPAN - JULY 06: Tsurigasaki Beach, the Tokyo Olympics surfing venue, is pictured on July 6, 2021 in Ichinomiya, Japan. Surfing is making its debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and will take place on Japans Pacific coast. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Tsurigasaki Beach, the Tokyo Olympics surfing venue (Photo: Getty)

What if there are no waves?

The Olympics website has outlined that the schedule is subject to change depending on the wave conditions. The plan is to run from 25 July to 28 July, but it could run as late as 1 August if waves are not suitable for competition on any given day.

“If they get a big typhoon it could be epic waves but it’s likely to be European beach break style waves. Small and technical,” Leigh said.

How does the scoring system work?

It is about quality not quantity. For each surfer, their two highest scoring waves count towards their heat total. Scores for each wave will be on a scale from one to 10, including two decimal places.

There will be five judges on the panel. The highest and lowest scores are discarded, leaving the surfer to score the average of the three remaining scores.

The changeable conditions give competitors plenty to consider, and specifically the panel will be looking at: the key elements of commitment and degree of difficulty, innovative and progressive manoeuvres, combinations of major manoeuvres, variety of manoeuvres, and speed, power and flow.

Each athlete must therefore decide whether the wave will allow for a high-quality manoeuvre that could go down well with the judges.

Key terms and what to look out for

Leigh gave i the lowdown on what we can expect to hear him say while he commentates on surfing at Tokyo 2020:

“There’s a lot of lexicon to look out for, but the main one to start with is priority, which refers to whoever makes it out to the take-off spot first – that’s where you catch the waves.

“Whoever paddles back out from the last wave gets priority, and it’s their decision whether to take a wave or not, and if another surfer gets in their way that’s an interference and you could be docked scores if the judges see it as on purpose and not an accident.

“You have the take-off, which is as you get into the wave. The equivalent of the serve in tennis is a surfer’s bottom turn – which is how much power they can generate as they turn and start to move across the wave. This is one of the key elements.

“If you have a great, powerful bottom turn, then that’s going to set you up for an explosive ‘off the top’ – and you have moves including hooks, tail-slides, floaters, and then in the last 20 years surfing has gone airborne.

“You can imagine how difficult it is to get a surfboard out the water, but they’re doing 360s, backflips, 540s, and attempts at two full spins too. If a surfer gets out in front of the wave they need to do a cut back, which is a giant ‘infinity eight’, sort of looping into the flats then cut back to the critical point of the wave.

“Essentially the closer you can stay to the critical point of the wave, where it’s breaking – where the white water and the open face of the wave meet – is where the more points you’ll score. That is where the wave is the most powerful and surfing is the most dynamic.

“For anyone who has seen Point Break, the Holy Grail of surfing is the barrel, but it’ll depend massively on conditions whether that’s something we see. It’s the highest scoring, if you can get inside the tube created in the milliseconds as a wave breaks, that is the most valued manoeuvre in surfing, where your points really rack up.”

LEMOORE, CA, UNITED STATES - JUNE 18: Seven-time WSL Champion Stephanie Gilmore of Australia surfing in Heat 1 of the Qualifying Round of the Surf Ranch Pro presented by Adobe on JUNE 18, 2021 in Lemoore, CA, United States. (Photo by Tony Heff/World Surf League League)
Seven-time WSL Champion Stephanie Gilmore surfs through a barrel (Photo: Getty)

Athletes going for gold

According to Leigh there will be three “powerhouse” nations to look out for – Australia, Brazil, and the USA – but with only two spots per nation there is a chance others could medal.

In the men’s half you have Gabriel Medina and Italo Ferreira (both Brazil) vying for gold against John John Florence (USA), with Kanoa Igarashi (Japan) – whose father discovered the wave these riders will be contesting – also in contention.

The women’s favourites include Carissa Moore, Caroline Marks (both USA) and Stephanie Gilmore (Australia).

Men: Gabriel Medina (BRA), Italo Ferreira (BRA), Kolohe Andino (USA), John John Florence (USA), Owen Wright (AUS), Julian Wilson (AUS), Jeremy Flores (FRA), Michel Bourez (FRA), Kanoa Igarashi (JPN), Jordy Smith (RSA), Leon Glatzer (GER), Miguel Tudela (PER), Lucca Mesinas (PER), Manuel Selman (CHI), Hiroto Ohhara (JPN), Rio Waida (INA), Frederico Morais (POR), Billy Stairmand (NZL), Ramzi Boukhiam (MAR), Leandro Usuna (ARG)

Women: Carissa Moore (USA), Caroline Marks (USA), Tatiana Weston-Webb (BRA), Silvana Lima (BRA), Brisa Hennessy (CRC), Sally Fitzgibbons (AUS), Stephanie Gilmore (AUS), Johanne Defay (FRA), Yolanda Sequeria (POR), Teresa Bonvalot (POR), Daniella Rosas (PER), Leilani McGonagle (CRC), Mahina Maeda (JPN), Amuro Tsuzuki (JPN), Pauline Ado (FRA), Anat Lelior (ISR), Bianca Buitendag (RSA), Ella Williams (NZL), Sofia Mulanovich (PER), Dominic Barona (ECU)

Surfing Tokyo 2020 schedule

All times BST

Sunday 25 July – 23:00 (Saturday) to 08:20

  • Men’s Round 1
  • Women’s Round 1
  • Men’s Round 2
  • Women’s Round 2

Monday 26 July – 23:00 (Sunday) to 08:40

  • Women’s Round 3
  • Men’s Round 3

Tuesday 27 July – 23:00 (Monday) to 06:20

  • Men’s Quarter-finals
  • Women’s Quarter-finals
  • Men’s Semi-finals
  • Women’s Semi-finals

Wednesday 28 July – Midnight to 03:35

  • Women’s Bronze medal match
  • Men’s Bronze medal match
  • Women’s Gold medal match
  • Men’s Gold medal match

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