Everything You Need to Know to Watch Surfing at the Olympics

Surfing is making its (extremely complicated) Olympic debut.

John John Florence. | Tony Heff/Getty Images
John John Florence. | Tony Heff/Getty Images

After getting postponed for nearly a year, the Tokyo Olympics are here, and surfing finally gets to make its Olympic debut.

In 2016, the Olympic Committee unanimously voted to add surfing to the Olympic Games, which means that from July 25 to August 1 we all get to watch some of the best professional rippers in the world carve up the waters off Chiba, Japan. Though every wave will surely be fun to watch, viewing and understanding how Olympic surfing works takes a bit of education. Here’s everything you need to know about who is competing, how the scoring works, and when you need to tune in to watch Olympic surfing for the very first time. 

How did surfing become an Olympic sport? 

To say surfing has had a long journey to the Olympics would be an understatement. According to Hawaii Public Radio, The International Surfing Association has lobbied the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the sport’s inclusion since 1995. (The publication also notes that surfing icon Duke Kahanamok—a three-time gold medalist in swimming—attempted to get surfing into the Summer Games in Stockholm way back in 1912.)

But, just because people wanted surfing in the Games didn’t mean it met their qualifying standards. Despite the IOC recognizing the International Surfing Association (ISA) as the International Federation for surfing and bodyboarding in 1995, it wouldn’t consider the sport for Sydney in 2000, or later in Beijing in 2008, because the ISA had yet to reach 75 national governing bodies, Surfer Today explains. 

Finally, in 2015, it took the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee to suggest the sport’s addition for the IOC to say yes.

"We want to take the sport to the youth... youth-focused events that are popular in Japan and will add to the legacy of the Tokyo Games," Thomas Bach, the IOC president, said of the decision. 

Which countries are competing?

In total, 20 men and 20 women will compete for gold, silver, and bronze medals. Each country competing is represented by a maximum of two surfers per nation per gender. Brazil, the United States, Australia, France, Japan, South Africa, Germany, Peru, Chile, Indonesia, Portugal, New Zealand, Morocco, Argentina, Costa Rica, and Ecuador all have at least one male or female competing. 

How does the scoring work in Olympic surfing?

Scoring in surfing has always been both a little complicated and controversial, simply because so much of it is subjective. However, both these factors are nothing new for Olympic judging, considering how complicated and controversial scoring is in sports like gymnastics and figure skating

According to the Olympics’ official page, round one will feature four athletes per heat, and round two will have five. From round three on, the competition turns to a one-on-one format.

“During the heats, each surfer will have 30 minutes to catch as many waves as they can and receive a score from 0-10 for every wave surfed,” the Olympics explain. “However, only the top two waves from each surfer get calculated into their final score.” 

Each wave will be scored by a panel of “experienced judges” using the five-point system:

1. Commitment and difficulty: “This factor is the most important and judges the types, degree of difficulty, and risk of the moves performed,” the Olympics says. And, because “all waves are different,” athletes will also be judged and gain points on “how high-risk the wave they have chosen is, and how committed that surfer is to maximize the potential scoring opportunities on each wave.”

2. Innovation and progression: In the competition, surfers are encouraged to go beyond the basics of catching waves and doing a few cut-backs. The Olympics notes, “the judges will also award points for those who push the boundaries of modern surfing with progressive moves such as aerial or tail slide variations.”

3. Variety: The panel of judges will also be looking for surfers who bring a bit of spice to the waves and those who “incorporate many different types of maneuvers into their surfing.”

4. Combination: This point will be judged on how “seamlessly a surfer can connect high-scoring maneuvers” together. This includes turns, aerials, and barrels (if Mother Nature provides big enough waves for such a thing, that is).

5. Speed, power, and flow: “This age-old surfing mantra refers to an athlete’s style on a wave, but also the subtle technical elements that separate good surfers from great ones,” the Olympics says. It all comes down to just how well and how quickly a surfer can react to a wave, how they maintain speed, and how much “oomph” they add to each move.  

Surfers to watch

In the men’s grouping, it will likely come down to Gabriel Medina and Italo Ferreira, both from Brazil. While American surfers John John Florence and Kolohe Andino are favorites, both are coming off of injuries that could affect their performance. One more interesting surfer to keep an eye on is Australian Julian Wilson, who announced his plans to retire from professional surfing following the Olympics.  

As for the women’s side, Carissa Moore is a favorite. As a four-time World Champion, she’s a pretty tough competitor to beat. Australian Stephanie Gilmore is also another surfer that always shows up with her best, and Johanne Defay from France is ranked number two on the World Tour in 2021, making her another one to bet on. 

What about Kelly Slater? 

As the most famous and well-decorated surfer in the world, you’d think Kelly Slater would be at surfing’s premiere Olympic Games. However, Slater lost out on his qualifying spot via the World Surf League to John John Florence, after coming in third place. He is up as an alternate after Florence had surgery on his ACL a few months back, but with each passing day, Slater’s chances of entering the Games gets slimmer and slimmer. 

Get to know the wave at Tsurigasaki Beach 

When the IOC announced surfing’s addition to the Games fans quickly began to speculate if the competition would take place in a wave pool or at a beach. While the wave pool would give each competitor an even playing field, it goes against the heart of the sport, which relies on a surfer’s ability to read waves. Eventually, it was announced that the competition will take place at Tsurigasaki Beach. 

Though the beach has hosted competitions in the past, surf publications don’t seem particularly enthused about the choice. Of the wave, Wavelength wrote, “the venue is home to decidedly average quality waves and the timing is a touch early for typhoon season. Expect 1-3ft beach break peaks in warm water, not totally dissimilar to well-known event venues such as Huntington Beach.” The Inertia was a touch nicer, describing it as “decidedly less-than-good.”

While the pros are also skeptical, they appear to be getting on board (no pun intended). Gilmore told Reuters, “I know Japan has beautiful beaches and they really want to show surfing in its most authentic form... Once I thought about it that way, I like the idea of having surfing in the ocean.”

Surfing’s Olympic schedule

The Tokyo Olympics surfing competition will take from July 25 to July 28, with reserve days slated from July 29 to August 1, just in case the weather and the ocean don’t cooperate. Both men and women are scheduled to compete on the same wave throughout each day. See the full schedule and times for each heat on the Tokyo Olympics page here

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Stacey Leasca is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Trip Advisor, Departures, Expedia, Men’s Health, and Glamour, among other publications.