It’s Offically Official: Surfing’s an Olympic Sport

Final vote cements surfing in Tokyo 2020 Olympics

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In 2020, surfing will take its place on the world stage at the Tokyo Games, culminating decades of championing by ISA president Fernando Aguerre. Photo: ISA

Surfing is finally, officially, an Olympic sport. Today the IOC voted to add surfing to the sporting menu of the 2020 Tokyo games, which was the final obstacle in the voting version of the 100-meter hurdles that new sports must, uh, hurdle, to get into the games. Today's vote comes after a successful proposal by the Tokyo games organizers back in September to get to this vote, which prompted many surf media articles to be written that said: "Surfing Is Now An Olympic Sport." Those articles were premature, but it doesn’t matter now, so here you go: “Surfing is really, truly an Olympic sport.”

First, the specifics:

  • The event will take place in the ocean, not a wave pool. Venue will be at Chiba, a 45-minute or so train ride from Tokyo
  • 40 competitors in total: 20 men, 20 women
  • High-performance shortboarding only; no longboard, bodyboard, or SUP division
  • Countries from all over the world will be represented, including many surfers not on the WCT

International Surfing Association president and Reef Sandals co-founder Fernando Aguerre has been uniquely dedicated to spearheading surfing's path to the Olympics, and the vote today vindicated Aguerre's decades-long march to the games. I called him last week to get the specifics on how this whole thing will work, and to find out why he’s been so obsessed with getting our weird little sport/lifestyle into the Olympics.

When the WSL bought the Kelly Slater Wave Pool, I think most people assumed that meant if surfing was part of the Olympics, it’d be in a wave pool. Why will the Tokyo surfing events be in the ocean?

It's much simpler than what many people think. The IOC does not want to build more “white elephants”—structures that have no use after the Olympics are over. The Olympics organizers want to focus on legacy, on building things that can be used by host cities after the games. As of now, there is no commercially sustainable wave pool. You can build a wave pool like Snowdonia, but nobody knows if that will be commercially sustainable over a period of time. And the few wave pools that exist haven't ever hosted a top-level competition, from either the ISA or the WSL. So the IOC and Tokyo decided that since there are waves nearby, it's better to do it in the ocean. We're happy to be in the ocean.

Do you at least get to wait out a good swell? 

It will take two days to run the whole competition and we've got the whole two weeks of the games as a swell window. We'll try to start it at the front end of the games, but we can wait to run it if the waves look better at the end. We have ten years of wave history and wind conditions data to rely on. We're very confident, and so are Tokyo and the IOC, that we'll have reasonable waves of good quality.

But not all Summer Olympics are held in cities near the coast. Will future Olympics use wave pools?

The future is open. By the time the 2024 Olympics are held, it's possible that there will be good wave pools running near where the games are held. At the ISA, we're excited about wave pools. They will bring less judging of the waves themselves, and bring more of a focus to the surfing. There could be ways to score heights of airs, speed, tube time, etc. Wave pools might bring a revolution of the way judging works.

What will the contest site look like?

The IOC has asked us to to create a full-on beach scene at Chiba that will last the whole length of the Olympics. It will include the surf events of course, but also organic food, yoga in the morning—it will be a place where you want to hang out. There might be a skate ramp — maybe it will be like what you see at the U.S. Open. It's never been done before at the Olympics.

What will the qualification system look like? Just skim off the top layer of the WCT?

The IOC has input. They've got experience with qualifications in many different sports. We'll look at how other sports do it. The IOC wants to have the best athletes, and the widest geographic representation. You want to have the top guys on Tour—and the WSL has expressed their commitment to provide the best athletes for the Olympic games—but you also want surfers from as many countries as possible. Most of the surfers on Tour are from Australia, Brazil, and the USA. But there are good surfers in Costa Rica, Peru, England, and all over the world.

Why have you been such a tireless crusader to get surfing in the Olympics? 

When I was first elected president of the ISA, I remember thinking that it would be like the United Nations of surfing, but then I learned that it only included certain countries. And I thought surfing should be a global sport, but it really wasn't. So I knew we needed to help local surfers create national organizations to promote their sport and get together. I wanted the ISA to be open to anybody, amateurs or professionals. So in '96, for the first time in history, the ISA World Surfing Games had international dream teams. The USA had Taylor Knox and Shane Beschen, for example. The teams were stocked with stars. I thought, If we could do this here, why not do it at the Olympics?

A little while after that, I read Duke Kahanamoku’s autobiography. In it he says: "Even as early as that day [early 1920s], I was already thinking of how surfing could be somebody become one of the events in the Olympic games. Why not?…I still believe surfing will one day be recognized and accepted." This is the guy that we look to as our founding father. He was asking for surfing’s inclusion in the Olympics, 80 years earlier. I thought, We can do this. But getting to this point was like going out on a dawn patrol. It's foggy, it's dark, and you don't know what you're paddling into. It took me 20 years of paddling. But I hope the Duke is somewhere looking down. I can say to him—Yes, we did it.