Forty surfers are about to make Olympic history by debuting the wave-riding sport for the first time in front of millions of spectators.
More than most of the other 41 sports at the Summer Games, surfers will have the added drama of relying on Mother Nature to bring a wave of action to athletes in the water.
The unpredictability of the ocean could be a factor that makes or breaks a podium finish for athletes, who are already warming up to the waters at Tsurigasaki Beach in Japan where surf competitions are expected to begin this weekend.
In Southern California, surfing is a popular pastime and sport, but even the most experienced surfers may need a guide to get to the Tokyo Games.
Here’s a bit of Olympic Surfing 101 to get you excited for the start of the sport:
One of the most important elements to surfers will be whether or not nature will actually deliver the waves to ride.
The beach, which is held on Tsurigasaki Beach, about 45 miles southeast of the Olympic Stadium, is known for being small and waterless at this time of year – and there is concern for the event to feature surfers. There will be fewer waves’ skills.
It is now very close to the event at which forecasters surfline.com, a Huntington Beach operation that is the official forecaster for the event, is seeing the possibility of a tropical cyclone on the horizon for the opening weekend.
“Believe it or not, we have a thunderstorm,” Fernando Aguirre, President of the International Surfing Association Said standing on the sand of the competition site on Thursday morning. “The only thing we couldn’t plan for was the surf, the waves. The waves are coming. It’s awesome.”
Swelling brought on by the tropical system is expected to fill the coast of Japan on Sunday, July 25, starting in the 3 to 4 foot range and reaching 5 feet to 7 feet by the end of the day.
Solid head-high to overhead surf is expected to continue on Monday, with the occasional 5-foot on Tuesday, dropping to nearly 4-foot surf, and filling in more shape by noon. A more favorable tropical system could bring more waves for the second half of next week, a buffet of waves that is good news for surfers ready to battle it out for gold.
Ideally, the shape of the waves will have enough punch so that athletes can carve large into the face of the wave or punt into the sky to perform progressive aerials over the lip of the wave, or to allow surfers to tuck into barrels You can also make hollow waves. Forecasters are also watching winds carefully, because even if swell, bad weather can create choppy, messy conditions that could force them to wait for a better day.
The competition requires a maximum of four days of competition, but this can be narrowed down to two and a half days if necessary.
Who to see?
Will Team USA with two Hawaiian surfers and two guys from San Clemente stand a chance of winning gold? Or will the Brazilian Hurricanes go on to win the medal? Or maybe one of the underdogs upsets the best people in the world.
Like the US Open of Surfing held in Huntington Beach, the 40 surfers are made up of some of the world’s top surfers who have claimed international titles and others who are hungry to make a name for themselves.
For the men’s competition, Team USA’s Kolohe Andino of San Clemente and John John Florence of Hawaii are going to have a lot of local supporters cheering them on. Both are recovering from recent injuries that could affect their surfing if not fully recovered.
No one will argue the strength of the Brazilian team with two world champions, Gabriel Medina and Italo Ferreira, who are among the best aerialists in pro surfing with their ability to soar above the waves, but also in their power surfing are strong.
Team Japan will be one to watch, not just because Kano Igarashi is a beloved Huntington Beach native. Igarashi, whose parents are from Japan, is a rock star in Japan and will be supported by the locals there, as will teammate Hiroto Ohhara, who, like Igarashi, won the US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach.
On the women’s side, Hawaii’s Carissa Moore of USA Surfing, and Caroline Marks, a Florida transplant who has been calling San Clemente home for many years, are powerhouse surfers; Moore won four World Championships and Marx won several World Tour events within a few years, ranking him among the best in the world.
Australia’s Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons will be a team to watch, with Gilmore claiming more world titles – seven in total – than any other female surfer in history.
But here’s the thing about the Olympics: Anyone can take home the gold.
Add to the unpredictability of the ocean, any surfer has a fighting chance when known to deliver waves when scores are most needed or surfers in need of a big score.
What is the schedule?
The event has an 8-day window for competitions to be held on the best days of that time period.
The men’s and women’s rounds 1 and 2 in a preliminary event begin Saturday, July 24 at 3 p.m. PDT (Sunday morning in Japan), with round 3 resuming on Sunday, July 25.
From the initial schedule listed on NBC’s website, which will have live web coverage of all heats, it looks like Surfing runs straight through to the final day on July 28.
That schedule could change as the event draws closer and surf forecasts become clearer. The competition is held on the best days of the waiting period, which lasts until August 1.
It is unknown what kind of live television coverage Surfing will receive, but NBC will be the station to check locally for broadcasts and highlights. To watch live online or to see changes to the schedule as the surf competition draws near, visit nbcolympics.com/surfing.
What is the format?
Even seasoned surf fans may need a primer to the format, which is going to be different from traditional World Surf League events.
For the Olympics, there will be six rounds of 30-minute heats, with a mix of five- and four-surfer heats and one round each to narrow the field to 20 men and 20 women.
here is the breakdown International Surfing Association, the governing body for Olympic surfing:
The first round is non-elimination with four surfers in five heats. The top two surfers advance to Round 3, while the bottom two surfers advance to Round 2, the first elimination round.
In Round 2, there will be two heats with five surfers in each, while the top three advance and the bottom two will finish.
Round 3 will see two surfers face off, with the surfer who advances through the bracket first. The surfer who finished second is eliminated.
The surfers will face off again in the quarterfinals, with the top surfer advancing and the second surfer eliminated. The semi-finals will play the same format, with only the bottom two surfers going to the bronze medal match, where the winner earns the third leg on the podium.
For the final, a two-man heat will decide the winner of the gold medal, with the second placed surfer earning the silver medal.
How are they judged?
Scores are based on a combination of wave size and key maneuvers performed – with decision-making criteria based on “speed, power and fluency”.
For each scoring ride, the highest and lowest scores of the five judges are discarded and the surfer receives the average of the remaining three. The two best scoring waves are added together to form the surfer’s heat total.
This is where Mother Nature can play a big role in the outcome of the competition. In surfing, some heats could see a greater number of waves for surfers to choose and score, while others had fewer opportunities for the sea to go flat and catch the wave, leaving a surfer looking out to the horizon. I wanted a wave. Like the clock counts.
Surf competitors wear different colored jerseys to help judges differentiate surfers. A colour-coded electronic board indicates to surfers which color jersey has the first right to take the wave of their choice.
Want to join the watch party? Nomad Cantina, located at 102 Avenida Cabrillo in San Clemente, plans to start streaming the surf competition on Saturday, July 24, if the competition begins that day.