How Surfing Became an Olympic Sport

Surfing is one of the most physically demanding and exhilarating sports you can find. The unpredictability of the waves and the flashy stunts done by the experts are sure to capture any sports-loving audience.

However, surfing was missing from the biggest sporting event, the Olympics, for the majority of its history. But it all changed with a fateful decision in the mid-2010s, and now, we can see daredevils tame the waves every four years.

But how did surfing become an Olympic sport? When did they decide to make it one? And what was the reason behind the decision? In this article, we answer all these questions and more.

When Did Surfing Become an Olympic Sport?

The question as to when surfing became an Olympic sport is a tricky one. The proposal to include surfing was submitted by the Tokyo committee in 2015, and the International Olympic Committee approved it in August 2016. However, the sport did not debut in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Surfing was supposed to first appear in 2020, but the event was postponed until 2021, when it was finally introduced in Tokyo. The sport was a roaring success as its engagement outperformed traditional Olympic sports, including golf, swimming, and volleyball.

To summarize, here is a short timeline of when surfing became an Olympic sport:

  • 2015: Surfing was proposed as an Olympic sport by the Tokyo Committee.
  • 2016: Proposal approved by the IOC.
  • 2020: Planned debut at the Tokyo Olympics.
  • 2021: Actual debut at the Tokyo Olympics.

How Did Surfing Become an Olympic Sport?

Although it was officially proposed in 2015, surfing and the Olympics have a lengthy history before that. The idea was arguably started by Duke Kahanamoku, a Hawaiian Olympic medalist swimmer and the father of modern surfing. “The Duke” was a prolific athlete, winning gold and silver medals with the US Olympic team between 1912 and 1934. However, Kahanamoku’s true passion was surfing.

The Duke stated in 1912 that he wanted surfing to become an Olympic sport. A formal proposal was never submitted by him, but his dream would be continued by Fernando Aguerre, President of the International Surfing Association.

Aguerre pushed the IOC for the inclusion of surfing since 1995, but he was met by several roadblocks on the way. It all changed in 2014 when new IOC president Thomas Bach wanted to add a youthful spin to the Games. As such, surfing was formally submitted once again, and shortly after, the IOC approved the inclusion.

Why Did Surfing Become an Olympic Sport?

There are many reasons why surfing is an Olympic sport now. One reason is that the image of the Games changed. A new leadership correctly identified that the Olympics need a fresh vision and that they need to include “hip” sports. Surfing is widely considered to be cool and is generally popular among a younger demographic.

Surfing is also associated with sunny beaches and summertime. As the Olympic games are held in the Summer, the sport fits naturally into the Summer Games.

Another reason is that the Olympics mainly exist to celebrate the peak of human performance. As surfing is an extremely demanding and spectacular activity, it is only fitting that the Olympics would showcase the peak of what the sport can offer at its biggest stage.

How Does Surfing Work in the Olympics?

The outcome of surfing events at the Olympics is determined by judges. There are five judges who observe the contestant’s performance and give a score from one to ten based on the following criteria:

  1. Commitment: The bravery of the contestant and the difficulty of the moves.
  2. Innovation: Showcasing original maneuvers.
  3. Variety: How diverse the showcased moves are.
  4. Combination: How well the contestant connects the maneuvers.
  5. Speed, power, and flow: How fast the contestant is, how well do they adapt to the waves, and how forceful are their moves.

The inaugural event was expected to be dominated by the reigning world champion, Italo Ferreira from Brazil. He was followed by Japanese Kanoa Igarashi and Australian Owen Wright. As for the women, Carissa Moore of the US went home with the gold medal, while South African Bianca Buitendag and Japanese Amuro Tsuzuki got the silver and bronze medals, respectively.

Do They Surf Outdoors at the Olympics?

As of 2023, there has only been one instance of surfing in the Olympics, so we can only make judgments based on that. In Tokyo, surfing events were held outdoors at Tsurigasaki Beach, Chiba prefecture. There were suggestions that the event may be held indoors. However, the idea was discarded as adjusting to natural elements is a key factor in surfing, and it cannot be artificially recreated.

Following the Tokyo Games, the 2024 Paris Olympics will conduct the surfing events at Teahupo’o, Tahiti, French Polynesia (an overseas territory of France). After that, the 2028 Los Angeles games have several potential outdoor venues, such as Huntington Beach or Malibu.

This suggests that future events will maintain holding surfing events outdoors. However, it is currently unknown as to how potential host cities without access to the ocean would conduct surfing.

Conclusion

Surfing was formally proposed as an Olympic sport in 2015, but it debuted in the Tokyo Summer Games in 2021. The history of promoting surfing as an Olympic sport goes back to 1912 with Duke Kahanamoku, but an active pursuit only came into fruition with the ISA presidency of Fernando Aguerre and IOC president Thomas Bach’s vision.

Five judges give scores to contestants based on innovation, commitment, speed, flow, power, combination, and variety. The inaugural events were won by Italo Ferreira on the men’s side, and Carissa Moore on the women’s side.

Surfing is conducted outdoors at beaches at the Olympics. Tokyo held it at Tsurigasaki Beach, while both the Paris and Los Angeles Summer Games plan to hold the events on the ocean coasts. How future venues that have no access to the ocean or sea will hold surfing events is currently unknown.

Oliver Jones

Written by Oliver Jones

I'm a dedicated surfer and writer, and my heart truly belongs to the ocean. Surfing is not just a sport but a way of life for me. I ride the waves in the water and on paper, pouring my passion into every word I write.

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