A quick guide to sport climbing, new in the Olympics – and who to watch out for.
- Japan has a long history of surfing, with a Californian twist from US soldiers stationed there after WWII.
- Olympic surfers will converge on Tsurigasaki beach from July 26 until August 2.
- Australia’s four contenders are all medals chances – they’re among the best in the world.
For the first time in Olympic history, the world’s best surfers will compete for gold. The decision to hold the competition at Tsurigasaki beach, about 65 kilometres from Tokyo, was controversial. The beach is not known for its swell, and typhoon season has only just begun, meaning the waves will most likely be significantly smaller than most competitions and peak atless than a metre.
Smaller waves can make it harder for surfers to show the breadth of their talent. They may be forced to focus on aerial moves and avoid barrels (see below) and big turns. Still, many agree competing in the ocean is both superior to a mechanical wave pool and honours the essence of the sport. So how will Olympic surfing work and does Australia have a chance at gold?
A surfer cycles past an Olympic banner in Fujisawa in June. Credit:Getty Images
Where did surfing come from?
Polynesian cave paintings of surfing predate European contact; the first European reference to wave riding was from botanist Joseph Banks after he saw Tahitians surfing as he stood on the deck of HMS Endeavour, during James Cook’s first voyage to the South Pacific in 1768. “They swam out as far as the outermost breach,” he wrote, “then one or two would get into it and opposing the blunt end to the breaking wave, were hurried in with incredible swiftness.”
In 1885, three Hawaiian princes took their boards, and the art of surfing, to California, which quickly became a Surf City. It wasn’t until 1915 that the “father” of surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, introduced the sport to Australia, wowing crowds with his prowess. While surfing wasn’t an option to compete in, the Hawaiian was multi-talented in the water, actually snagging a gold medal for the US in the 100-metre freestyle at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden and again in the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium.
Competition surfing as we know it kicked off in July 1928 in Corona del Mar, California. “Surfboard artists” took to the waves on boards that were a whopping 4.8 metres long. The release of Hollywood film Gidget in 1959 turned California’s underground surfing subculture mainstream, a shift amplified by the The Beach Boys’ hits Surfin’ USA and Surfin’ Safari in the early 1960s. In 1964, the International Surfing Association was born, paving the way for a “world champion surfer” and the world’s first championship tour in 1976 that made an international ranking system possible.
Sally Fitzgibbons, Steph Gilmore and Julian Wilson will surf for Australia at Tokyo.Credit:Australian Olympic surfing team
Japan’s traditional wave-riding culture or “itako-nori” dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868). The earliest written record of Japanese surfing was at Yamagata prefecture in 1821 when haiku poet Dokurakuan Kanri described a beach scene where children skim along the waves on “itago”, removable floorboards that lined the bottom of fishing boats.
During the US occupation after World War II, American soldiers would make and surf longboards at Kamakuru, Karatsu and other beaches near their military bases. According to 83-year-old historian Yoshitsugu Naito, the soldiers would teach surfing to local communities and when they were away the locals would sneak the soldiers’ boards from the military huts to practise surfing on fibreglass.
It wasn’t until the sport truly boomed in the 1960s that Japan held its first surfing competition.
Why is surfing in the Olympics?
Surfing is one of five new sports added to the 2021 Olympic Games to bring more “youthful and vibrant events and culture” to the program. “We want to take sport to the youth … youth-focused events that are popular in Japan and will add to the legacy of the Tokyo Games,” said IOC president Thomas Bach. Sharing the 2021 debut are skateboarding, sports climbing, three-on-three basketball and karate. (Skateboarding was actually invented by bored surfers in California.) Just as Japan chose karate for 2021, France has chosen breakdancing as its special, one-off sport for 2024.
Softball and baseball are back, having featured at Olympics before. Baseball had an unofficial debut at the Missouri Olympics in 1904 and was part of the program from 1992’s games in Barcelona until London in 2012. Softball didn’t come on the scene until the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and was played until 2008’s games in China.
The two sports are the only ones in the Olympics that have only men (baseball) or only women (softball).
How do you win a medal?
Twenty men and 20 women will vie for medals – with a maximum of two athletes per country per event – riding on short, fibreglass boards. Initially, the rounds will have four- and five-person heats and the main rounds will have two-person heats. Heats are decided by the technical director and normally run for 30 minutes, depending on the surf conditions. During a heat, athletes may ride a maximum of 25 waves, choosing the ones that will best show off their manoeuvres, and their two highest-scoring waves counting towards their heat total.
Stephanie Gilmour inside a barrell in 2018.Credit:World Surf League
Five judges will work as a panel to score each ride based on the athlete’s level of commitment and degrees of difficulty as well as types, combinations and variety of manoeuvres, speed, power and flow. They will score each wave ride on a scale of one to 10, with two decimal places.
The judges will discard the highest and lowest score given by the panel, and average the three remaining scores. A surfer’s two highest-scoring waves are combined for an overall total. Rather than prescribed scores for particular moves, accumulating points depends on applying the criteria to the overall ride.
Often, more than one surfer will compete for a wave. When this happens, the right of way is given to the athlete closest to the steepest part of the wave, the “peak”. Despite the less-than-desirable conditions at Tsurigasaki you can expect to see surfers attempt the barrel manoeuvre, as it’s considered to be the ultimate competition move. It’s when a surfer enters the hollow part of a wave – also known as a tube – briefly disappearing from view, before emerging as the wave breaks.
Are we in with a chance?
Yes! Australia has dominated female and male surfing for decades, along with the US and more recently Brazil. Seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore and the talented Sally Fitzgibbons (pictured above) will be donning the green and gold, putting Australia in a good position. They’ll be up against the current world champion, Hawaii’s Clarissa Moore, and other top US surfer Caroline Marks as well as Brazil’s Tatiana Weston-Webb and Silvana Lima.
As for the males, Australia’s also in with a shot for gold with Julian Wilson and Owen Wright representing the country. They’ll be competing with US former world champion John John Florence and Kolohe Andino and Brazil’s former world No.1 Italo Ferreira and 2018 world champion Gabriel Medina.
Other talents to watch out for include Japan’s Kanoa Igarashi and Jordy Smith from South Africa.
Sally Fitzgibbons, Julian Wilson and Stephanie Gilmore will surf for Australia, along with Owen Wright.Credit:Getty Images
Who’s the best?
Because the Olympics allows just two representatives, per event, per country, there are notable absences from some of the world’s best names in surfing. Surfing GOAT (greatest of all time) and 11-time world champion Kelly Slater did not qualify for the US team. Many also expected Australia to see world champs Mick Fanning and Tyler Wright at the Games, but they missed out on qualifying.
Still, the Australian Olympic line-up “packs a punch”, says Surfing Australia CEO Chris Mater. Australia’s four Olympic surfing contenders are among the best in the world.
More quick guides to the other new Olympic sports …
- Rock stars: How do you win gold in climbing?
- Ka-pow! How do you win gold in karate?
- Coming up … Ollies and grinds: How do you win gold in skateboarding?
- Coming up … How do you win gold in 3×3 basketball?
- Why is breakdancing in the Paris Olympics?
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