Surfing·CBC Explains

Surfing crashes Olympic shores with hope of years-long ripple effect

Surfing is making its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020. Here's everything you need to know about a sport crashing the shores of Japan.

Everything you should know about the sport's debut at Tokyo 2020

American John John Florence is among the contenders to land on the Olympics' first-ever surfing podium. (Brian Bielmann/AFP via Getty Images)

The Olympics will catch its first wave when surfing hits the shores of Tokyo 2020.

But it'll likely happen without the GOAT Kelly Slater, who just missed making the American team at 49 years old.

Here's everything you should know as surfing crashes the Olympics:

The basics

Because wave conditions must be perfect for surfers, the event is scheduled to take place over 16 days, even though the competition only lasts four.

While there are different disciplines in the world of surfing, only shortboard will be contested in Tokyo.

And if you were wondering where there's an ocean near Tokyo, the competition will take place about 100 km away at Tsurigasaki Beach, one of the easternmost points in Japan.

Twenty men and twenty women will compete.

In the first two rounds, five-person heats are run which determine the final 16. From there, it looks like an NCAA March Madness regional bracket — the top seed plays No. 16, No. 2 surfs against No. 15, and so on.

Eventually, the semifinal winners go for gold while the losers battle for bronze.

WATCH | Surfing, explained:

Sport Explainer: Surfing

11 months ago
Duration 1:53
Surfing is a new Olympic discipline at Tokyo 2020. Get to know the sport.

Each round lasts around 30 minutes until judges are satisfied they've seen enough. Though surfers could ride up to 25 waves in that time, the best two scores determine a winner.

Only one surfer is allowed to ride each wave. But instead of crashing into each other, there's a system whereby the competitor closest to the wave's peak is given right of way.

Waves are judged on five criteria: commitment and difficulty; innovation and progression; variety; combination; speed, power and flow.

There are two basic ways to attack a wave. Athletes either attempt an aerial jump off the water or ride through the wave like a tunnel, which is called a barrel or tube.

Riding a tube? That means you're just hanging out in the green room.

The participants

Slater, winner of a record 11 world surfing championship titles, will serve as an alternate on the American team.

In his place is John John Florence, a 28-year-old protégé named after former American president John F. Kennedy Jr.

Kolohe Andino, whose first name means 'little rascal' in Hawaiian, grabbed the other American spot.

However, both Florence, a two-time world champion, and Andino are currently fighting through injuries. If one is unable to compete in Tokyo, Slater would be the next man up.

Australia's Owen Wright stands in the way of American glory. Wright has three consecutive top-10 finishes in World Surf League action after a near-death injury in 2015 forced him to relearn the sport entirely.

Of the past 37 men's world champions, 32 were American or Australian.

But Gabriel Medina sparked a wave of Brazilian dominance — Medina was the first champion from his country, beginning a stretch of five years over which Brazilians took three titles.

Reigning champion Italo Ferreira, one of the new-age Brazilian competitors, is also eyeing the podium in Tokyo alongside Medina.

No Canadians qualified for surfing in either men's or women's action.

On the women's side, Carissa Moore of the U.S., a four-time world champion, is the likely favourite heading into Tokyo.

She's joined by Caroline Marks, a 19-year-old who was the youngest surfer to ever qualify for the women's championship tour in 2018.

Australia's entry features seven-time champion Stephanie Gilmore and former world No. 1 Sally Fitzgibbons.

Why now?

Though the International Surfing Federation was founded in 1964, it didn't make the Olympics a priority until the 1990s.

The recent surge of nations like Brazil, plus plenty others that were recently recognized by the ISF, combined to help make surfing's case to the IOC as a global sport.

But Japan may not make for the ideal launching point. The waves on the Tsurigasaki shores are known to be small, preventing Olympians from showing off their absolute best.

If the Olympics are meant to grow surfing, then small waves — combined with the likely absence of Slater, the biggest name in the sport — won't make for much of a showcase.

In that sense, surfing at Tokyo 2020 may be more test run than pinnacle. The sport is already on the programme for Paris 2024, when the competition will occur in Tahiti — over 150,000 km away from the host city.

It will be worth it. Tahiti hosts regular professional surfing competitions, complete with breathtaking views and massive waves.

Though it's not confirmed for Los Angeles 2028, surfing should stick around for those coastal Games as well.

First, though, surfing will be content to ride its swell of international attention in Tokyo.

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