100 years ago, Duke Kahanamoku dreamt of surfing in the Olympic Games. He was a five-time Olympic medalist for swimming, but in between Olympic competitions and after his retirement, Kahanamoku, a Native Hawaiian and the “father of modern surfing,” traveled internationally to popularize the sport of surfing. Back in the early 1900s, it was known only to Hawaii, which had yet to become a US state.
Kahanamoku would be proud to know that in 2016, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) unanimously decided to include surfing in the Olympic Games for the first time. Surfing will debut at the Olympic Games in Japan. Keep reading for everything you need to know about the new Olympic sport.
How do athletes qualify to surf at the 2020 Olympics?
A total of 40 surfers (20 men and 20 women) will qualify for surfing at the 2020 Olympics. A maximum of four surfers (2 men and 2 women) can compete from each country’s National Olympic Committee — the governing body in each country that regulates athlete participation in the Olympics.
Athletes will qualify for the Olympics if they meet performance qualification criteria at one of the following events:
- 2019 World Surf League (WSL) Championship Tour (CT): 10 men and eight women
- 2019 ISA World Surfing Games: Four men and four women
- 2020 ISA World Surfing Games: Four men and six women
- Continental representation: With the exception of North and South America, the highest-placed eligible athlete from each continent at the 2019 ISA World Surfing Games (someone who didn’t yet qualify) gains one spot. For the Americas, continental representation comes from the highest-placed eligible athlete (who hasn’t already qualified through other events) at the 2019 Pan American Games.
- Host nation slot: The Olympic Games guarantees one male and one female place for the host nation, in this case Japan. If athletes from Japan qualify regularly (through one of the events above), the host nation slots will be reallocated to the highest-ranked eligible surfers from the 2020 World Surfing Games.
See the full qualification criteria for more details.
When and where is surfing happening?
The 2020 Olympic Games surfing program will take place at Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach in Chiba, Japan from July 25, 2021.
What will the events be like?
Surfing consists primarily of two disciplines: shortboard and longboard. At the 2020 Olympics, all athletes will surf shortboard. A shortboard refers to any board that’s shorter than seven feet in length. They usually have a pointed nose and are lightweight. They’re designed to be quick and accurate, and are more suited to fast and powerful waves than are longboards.
In heats of 20 to 30 minutes, Olympic judges will analyze four athletes at a time, with the top two scores advancing to the next round.
Because surfing conditions are so variable, the IOC has allowed for the surfing competition to take place over 16 days in the case that weather presents safety concerns or unfair circumstances.
How will the athletes be judged?
Judges will rate athletes on the type and difficulty of maneuvers performed. One example of an advanced surfing move is the aerial, where a surfer finds a ramp within a wave and launches off of the lip, gains air and lands back on the face of the wave. For even more jaw drops, a surfer would spin in a complete circle while in the air and still manage to land gracefully — a surfing move known as the 360.
The judges will also account for speed, power and flow. Like other Olympic events, judges will score surfers from 1 to 10 with two decimals, for example, 7.91.
Only one surfer may ride a wave at any given time, and athletes may lose points for failing to use common surfer etiquette, which rules that the surfer closest to the peak of a wave has right of way for that wave.