The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo marked the first appearance of surfing. It is a sport that is popular all over the world and has an estimated 15 to 35 million participants, and so its inclusion was very well received.
But why did it take so long, was it considered as a potential event in the past, will it be included in the future, and how does Olympic surfing work?
Let’s take a look.
Surfing at Previous Olympics
The history of the Olympic games is a fascinating one and includes some tidbits that you probably didn’t know and can definitely use to impress (or bore, depending on how interested they are/how drunk you are) your friends.
The Olympic Games come from an ancient Greek tradition known as the Panhellenic Games, which were major sporting events held 6 times in every 4-year period.
The games would be hosted at Delphi, Nemea, Isthmia, and Olympia, four key locations on the Greek mainland. The 4-year period was actually known as an “Olympiad”, and it denoted a cycle that began with the games in Olympia and ended four years later with games in Nemea and Isthmia.
It meant that the Panhellenic Games were held at least once a year, but the Olympic Games were once every four years, and that tradition remains to this day.
The Greeks were master sailors and strong swimmers, but they weren’t surfers and there were no water events in the early Olympic games. The events were few and far between and they focused on shows of strength, skill, and agility, including combat, running, and equestrian events.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the Olympic games were revived and the very first event was held in Athens. 241 athletes entered from across 14 nations, and water events made an appearance, including sailing, rowing, and swimming.
In 1912, Duke Kahanamoku (a surfing legend and Olympic swimming gold medalist) expressed his desire for surfing to be included at a future Olympics. Unfortunately, Olympic surfing didn’t have any early momentum and was ignored for many decades.
In the 1990s, advocates of the sport began pushing for it to be included in the games. The gamechanger came in 2014 when it was positioned as one of the sports that could inject some youth and vibrancy into the games.
Two years later, the Olympic Committee voted to include surfing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and it was later announced that it would also be included in the 2024 Paris Games.
Why Was Surfing Included at Tokyo 2020?
Surfing is a massively popular sport and it’s also different, exciting, and in the eyes of organizers, “youthful”. It was included along with sports like skateboarding as a way of attracting younger generations to the event and ensuring the longevity of this historical competition.
How Was Surfing Organized at Tokyo 2020?
As the host country, Japan was allocated a place for both the male and female surfing events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (which actually took place in 2021 due to the pandemic).
Additional places were allocated to:
- 2021 ISA World Surfing Games: The highest-placed men (4 surfers) and women (6 surfers).
- 2019 World Surf League: The highest-ranked males (10 surfers) and females (8 surfers) in the 2019 World Surf League Championship Tour.
- 2019 ISA World Surfing Games: The top finishers from all continents (except the Americas) in the 2019 ISA World Surfing Games.
- 2019 Pan American Games: The highest-ranked finishers in both the male and female 2019 Pan American Games.
The end result was a total of 20 male and 20 female surfers. All surfers were separated by gender and entered into four-person heats, with the top two advancing through to the next round after a heat time of 20 to 25 minutes.
The gold medal winners were Italo Ferreira (Brazil) for the men’s event and Carissa Moore (USA) for the women’s event.
The Future of Olympic Surfing
Surfing will likely make an appearance at the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris. It hasn’t been confirmed whether or not it will also appear in Los Angeles 2028, but considering California is one of the biggest surfing regions in the world, it will probably be included there as well.
We could also see the event evolve in future iterations. The Tokyo Olympics only included 2 events—one for men and one for women. In Paris and Los Angeles, we could see a wider variety of surfing events, including longboarding and paddle boarding.
Only time will tell, but it’s fair to say that Duke Kahanamoku’s dream has been realized and that the future of surfing at the Olympics is very bright!