Surfing explained: How the new Olympic sport is judged 

Surfing has an undeniable beauty and a powerful appeal.

The progressive and evolving nature of the sport means it’s been included in the programme at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Yes surfing will make it’s Olympic debut.

Globally it’s recognised for being a lifestyle and sport that oozes cool factor, but for many, it’s a sport not entirely understood.

If you’re not up with the play on how the sport works don’t worry, here’s our beginners guide with all the ins and out’s of how surfing works and how it’s judged.

The scoring

  • A judging panel consists of five judges who analyse performances.
  • They score each wave on a scale of one to ten, with two decimal places.
  • For each wave, the judges highest and lowest scores are discarded. The surfer is given the average of the three scores remaining.
  • A surfer’s two highest-scoring waves are combined for an overall total.
  • There is no limits to the number of waves a rider can catch.
  • The duration of each heat can vary between 20 and 35 minutes – depending on conditions.
  • A perfect ride is 10 points and therefore a perfect heat is a total score of 20 points.

Judging criteria

The judging panel are usually siting at an elevated level in order to see the whole competition area.

The scoring system is based on five criteria that reflect the core elements of the sport.

1. Commitment and degree of difficulty

2. Innovative and progressive manoeuvres

3. Variety of manoeuvres

4. Combination of major manoeuvres

5. Speed, power, and flow

It’s not about how many waves one surfer can catch, but rather the combined total of their highest two scores.

Wave selection can be crucial, especially given the unpredictable nature of waves and the ocean.

As with any sport tactics also play a big part.

Here’s a break down on each part of the criteria.

1. Commitment and degree of difficulty

This is about the types of movements that an athlete performs and how difficult the moves are to perform.

Athletes are rewarded for higher risk manoeuvres. The judges are also looking at how committed a surfer is to maximising the waves potential.

2. Innovative and progressive maneuvers

What the judges are looking for here is whether the surfer is pushing the boundaries and doing innovative maneuvers such as aerials and tail slides.

International Surfing Association (ISA) technical director Erik Krammer tells Olympic Channel, ” This is where we see athletes taking surfing to a higher level.”

3. Variety of maneuvers

Judges want to see if a rider is doing all different kinds of manoeuvres or doing a similar manoeuvre repetitively.

”The bottom line is quality, but obviously if you are doing quality turns and they are all different, it’s spontaneous and that looks better to the judges,” says Krammer.”

4. Combination of major maneuvers

This is about how well a surfer connects big high scoring manoeuvres together.

5. Speed, power, and flow

Speed is about how fast a surfer is going on the wave, but also about adapting how quickly they are adapting to the waves. Judges want to see if athletes are surfing with proper speed to achieve critical manoeuvres.

Flow is the way in which a surfer seamlessly connects their moves from one to the next. Krammer says, ”For me and a lot of the judges, it’s the art, it’s the nature in surfing.”

The last element is power, and judges are looking at how much power an athlete is putting into their manoeuvres and how they’re pushing.

Krammer says, ”Everything is really connected , together all the elements of the criteria just reflect what the general public thinks is good surfing. That’s what they judges want to see, what the athletes want to see and that’s what the contest wants to see.”

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