The Great Big Guide to Surfing in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Matt Rode

by on

Updated 2d ago

After more than 30 years of effort and hundreds of garish bow ties, Fernando Aguerre is set to see his dreams come true in a little less than a week. The co-founder of Reef and perennial president of the ISA, Aguerre has spent half of his life lobbying to get surfing into the Olympics. When the 20 men and 20 women who made the cut paddle out at Shidashita Beach next week (July 23 until August 8), wearing the colours of their respective countries, it will largely be thanks to Aguerre’s dogged determination and hard work.

That being said, a lot of other factors have come into play during surfing’s strange journey toward Olympic gold, including a worldwide pandemic that delayed the Games for a year, as well as a technical qualification process. But despite all the hiccups and roadblocks, we are a few short days away from surfing’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games. So, what can we surf fans expect to see?

Carlos Burle (left) with ISA President Fernando Aguerre.

Carlos Burle (left) with ISA President Fernando Aguerre.

Meet The Competitors
There will be a total of 40 surfers in the Olympics—20 men and 20 women representing 17 countries (with no more than two men and two women from any single country). Approximately half qualified through the WSL world tour, while the other half earned their spots based on performances at the various ISA events. Here’s a breakdown of each country’s competitors.

Australia

The Aus Olympic surfing team.

The Aus Olympic surfing team.

© 2021 - Surfing Australia.

Owen Wright: Modern surfing’s biggest comeback story, Owen Wright was the tour’s leading charger when it came to big, scary, left-hand reef breaks, but suffered a traumatic brain injury at Pipeline in 2016. His competitive future was touch and go for awhile, as he had to completely relearn how to stand on a surfboard. But a little over a year later, he won Snapper Rocks, his first contest back in the jersey. Since then, he has reclaimed his place as a prolific top 10 tour surfer.

Julian Wilson: Needing no introduction, Julian Wilson has been a fixture at the top of the world tour for nearly a decade. While a world title still alludes him, his radical approach redefined surfing during the Young Guns era and his smooth, timeless style keeps him relevant even as the next generation catches up to his futuristic surfing.

Sally Fitzgibbons: If it weren’t for the competitive juggernaut of Steph Gilmore, Carissa Moore, and Tyler Wright, Sally Fitzgibbons would likely have a handful of world titles to her name. While she has been somewhat overshadowed by the women above her on the tour rankings, this Aussie is a force to be reckoned with. Sally has a dozen event wins to her name and has been runner up to the world title more than just about any other woman in history.

Steph Gilmore: Seven-time world champion. Groovy style master. Rips apart any wave in front of her. What more needs to be said?

New Zealand

Here's an introduction to Ella Williams.

Billy Stairmand: A consistent performer on the world qualifying series, Stairmand is known for his high-fi surfing and beating Kelly Slater at the Margaret River Pro in 2011. He qualified for the Olympics via his performance at the 2019 ISA Games.

Ella Williams: Ella Williams has a strong competitive history, including a number of years as a top performer on the QS and a win at the World Junior Championships in 2013, where she beat Tatiana Weston-Webb for the title. She continues to dominate regional competitions, finishing as high as 30th on the qualifying series, and earned her ticket to Tokyo at the 2019 ISA Games.

Japan

Arguably the poster kid for Olympic surfing in general, this is a stellar introduction to the real Kanoa.

Kanoa Igarashi: Technically a Huntington Beach local, Kanoa Igarashi has both US and Japanese citizenship and was quick to register as a Japanese athlete when it was first announced that surfing would be included in the Tokyo Olympics. He’s a proven competitor on the world tour and a household name in the surf community, but his status is about to upgrade to bonafide sports celebrity in Japan as the Olympics get started.

Hiroto Ohara: Arguably Japan’s second best known surf competitor, Hiroto Ohara burst onto the international radar after winning the US Open in Huntington Beach. As the host of the Olympics, Japan automatically gets four athlete slots, one of which was deservingly awarded to Ohara, who is a local of Chiba, where the event will be hosted. Oh and famously announced in an interview he'd be buying a car with his winnings from HB.

Mahina Maeda: While she grew up on Oahu’s North Shore and is better known for her big wave exploits than her competitive prowess in small waves, Mahina Maeda also won the 2014 World Junior Championships and finished runner up in 2015. She competed under the Japanese flag in the 2021 ISA Games due to the fact that her parents are both Japanese, and qualified to represent Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

Amuro Tsuzuki: While she grew up in nearby Kanagawa, Amuro Tsuzuki spent most of her formative years surfing the more wave-rich Chiba Prefecture, making her the closest thing to a local woman in the Olympic event at Shidashita Beach. She won the World Junior Titles in 2019, in addition to the Galicia Classic Surf Pro, which moved her into the top 10 on the QS and qualified her for the 2021 world tour. She then capped an incredible two years by qualifying for the Olympics at the 2021 ISA Games. Amuro returns home to Chiba this month as one of the most exciting new success stories in the field.

Indonesia

Rio Waida: Although he was born in Japan to a Japanese father and Indonesian mother, Rio Waida grew up in Bali, honing his free surfing and competitive chops on the island’s legendary waves. He won the Quiksilver Young Guns event in 2016 and placed well at the 2019 ISA Games, guaranteeing him a spot as Indonesia’s only surfer at the Tokyo Olympics.

USA

John John Florence: Considered by many to be the best all-around surfer on the planet, John John Florence has been a surf star since he was seven years old. He’s a multiple-time world champion, winner of the Eddie, and arguably the best at Pipeline (his home break). However, his career has been plagued the past few years by nagging knee injuries, the most recent of which saw him pull out of the Margaret River Pro a few months ago.

Kolohe Andino: A legacy talent and one of the most hyped American competitors over the past decade, “Brother” has yet to win a world tour event, but that didn’t keep him from being the second-ranked surfer from the US on the tour in 2019 and earning a spot on the American Olympic team.

Carissa Moore: Another multiple-time world champ from Hawaii who has been in the public eye since she was a child, Carissa Moore is arguably the most dominant force in women’s surfing today. While she might not have as many world titles as her Australian counterpart (Steph Gilmore), Moore leads the current crop of pro women and has spent the past decade inspiring the next generation of girl shredders.

Caroline Marks: One of the most successful young American competitors in the past few years, Caroline Marks put in a noteworthy series of performances in 2018, finishing the year rated seventh and taking Rookie of the Year honours. She went on to finish 2019 in second place, proving that her rookie performance wasn’t a fluke and locking down a spot at the Olympics in the process.

Brazil

Italo's a competitive beast. Case in point?

Gabriel Medina: Arguably the best surfer in a jersey today, Gabriel Medina is a two-time world champion, a huge star in Brazil, a cutthroat competitor, and one of surfing’s most polarising figures. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that he’s a generational talent.

Italo Ferreira: Brazil’s other world champ Olympian, Italo Ferreira is less calculated and predictable than Medina, which is precisely what makes him so fun to watch. Due to the cancellation of the world tour in 2020, Italo is technically the reigning world champion, so it is fitting that he will compete for gold in Tokyo.

Tatiana Weston-Webb: One of the earliest athletes to take advantage of her dual citizenship in pursuit of a spot in the Olympics, Kauai resident and 2015 Rookie of the Year Tatiana Weston-Webb began competing under the Brazilian flag in 2019. The strategy paid off when her 2019 result on the world tour earned her a spot in Tokyo.

Silvana Lima: A seasoned veteran compared to most of the athletes surfing in the Olympics, Silvana Lima has long been one of Brazil’s best female competitors, and qualified through her performance at the 2019 ISA games.

Peru

Lucca Mesinas: A QS competitor since 2015, Lucca Mesinas won two events in 2018 and ended the year ranked 68th. In 2019, he earned the distinction of being the first surfer to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics after winning the Pan American Games in Lima.

Miguel Tudela: A hard-charging surfer from Punta Hermosa, Miguel Tudela earned a spot in the 2021 Pipe Masters after placing second in the Pipe Invitational. He backed this up with a solid result at the 2021 ISA Games, which earned him a spot at the Olympics.

Sofia Mulanovich: Another veteran of the women’s world tour, Sofia Mulanovich won the world title in 2004 (the first Latin American to do so) after a dominant season in which she won three of the six events contested. She was inducted into the Surfing Hall of Fame in 2007, but came out of retirement to win the 2019 ISA world championship, which qualified her for the Olympics.

Daniella Rosas: A longtime mentee of Peruvian world champion Sofia Mulanovich, Daniella Rosas began competing on the ISA in 2017. She won the Pan Am Games in Lima in 2019 and put in a solid performance at the 2021 ISA Games, earning a spot alongside her mentor on the Peruvian Olympic team.

Chile

Manuel Selman: Manuel Selman was born in Chile, but didn’t start surfing until his family moved to the Dominican Republic when he was 11. Three years later, he began competing at the ISA Games. Then, in 2011 he started his decade-long QS campaign, where he has consistently been the highest-rated Chilean on the qualifying series. In 2021, he placed high enough at the ISA Games to earn a spot as the only Chilean surfer in the Tokyo Olympics.

Argentina

Leandro Usuna: Argentinean Leandro Usuna has competed on the qualifying series for over a decade and put in a number of impressive performances on Oahu’s North Shore, including being a finalist in the Wave of the Winter contest in 2011. His path to the Olympics was relatively unique, as he earned his spot through his result at the 2019 Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru.

Ecuador

Dominic Barona: Hailing from Montanita, Dominic Baron, aka Mimi, is considered one Ecuador’s best surfers. She has won numerous national titles and podiumed at the ISA Games, but the high point of her career thus far was a silver medal finish at the 2019 ISA Games, which qualified her for the Tokyo Olympics.

Costa Rica

Brisa Hennessy: Brisa Hennessy has spent her entire life surfing the waves that the rest of us dream of visiting. She grew up in Costa Rica, transplanted to the North Shore of Oahu during her school years, and has spent most of her teenage summers in Fiji. She qualified for the world tour in 2018 and finished the 2019 season rated 11th—high enough to make her one of just five Costa Ricans to qualify for the Olympics (and one of only two Costa Rican surfers).

Leilani McGonagle: While Leilani McGonagle’s father is British and mother is American, she grew up in Costa Rica, so it was a no-brainer for her to compete under the country’s flag. Her performance at the 2021 ISA Games in nearby El Salvador was enough to qualify McGonagle for the Olympics.

France

Jeremy Flores: One of professional surfing’s favorite sons, Jeremy Flores has been on tour since 2007 (winning Rookie of the Year that season), but remains as passionate today as he was when surfing against legends such as Andy Irons and the Hobgood brothers. The Reunion Island native ranked 10th on the 2019 world tour, securing himself a spot in Tokyo.

Michel Bourez: Many people forget that Tahiti is technically a French territory, so Michel Bourez is technically a French citizen. The Teahupoo local will likely see the 2024 Paris Olympics contested at his home break, but for now his focus is on the beach breaks of Chiba.

Johanne Defay: Born in France but growing up in Reunion Island, Johanne Defay has had fellow Reunion luminary Jeremy Flores in her corner for much of her career. She won the qualifying series in 2017 and has finished in the top 10 every year since qualifying for the world tour. She recently won the 2021 Surf Ranch Pro, and goes to Tokyo ranked second in the world.

Pauline Ado: A fierce competitor for over a decade, Frenchwoman Pauline Ado made the top 10 in her rookie year (2010) and remained on tour until 2014. She then requalified for a single season in 2017. Pauline will surf in the Olympics based on her result at the 2021 ISA Games.

Portugal

Frederico Morais: A respected power surfer from Portugal, Frederico “Kikas” Morais qualified for the world tour in 2017. He earned a spot in the Olympics by being the top-rated European surfer at the 2019 ISA Games.

Yolanda Sequeria: After a breakout win at the 2019 Portugal National Titles, Yolanda Sequeria went on to win the Boardriders Roxy Open at Fistral before competitive surfing was effectively shuttered due to the pandemic. In 2021, she picked up where she’d left off by placing high enough at the ISA Games earn the privilege of representing Portugal in Tokyo.

Teresa Bonvalot: A two-time (consecutive) Portuguese National Champion and two-time European Junior Champion, finished in the top 20 on the QS in 2018 and placed high at the 2021 ISA Games. She will round out Portugal’s surf team at the Tokyo Olympics.

Germany

© 2021 - Billy Watts.

Leon Glatzer: Perhaps the most creative of the various athletes who have leveraged their dual citizenship to earn spots in the Olympics, Leon Glatzer was born in Maui to German parents, and grew up at Pavones in Costa Rica. He competed in the 2021 ISA Games under the German flag and placed high enough to lock down a spot at the Olympics.

Israel

Anat Lelior: On a mission to become the first Israeli surfer on tour, Anat Lelior finished the 2019 season in the top 50 on the QS after winning an event in France. She was also the top-rated female European surfer at the 2019 ISA Games in Miyazaki, Japan, which earned her a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics.

Morocco

Ramzi Boukhiam: A talented freesurfer and one of Morocco’s best competitors, Ramzhi Boukhiam grew up surfing the world-class point breaks near his home in Agadir. He is in Tokyo on the merits of his ISA performance in 2019.

South Africa

Jordy Smith: A proven power broker and one of the best surfers in history to not have a world title, Jordy Smith has won numerous world tour events, both on the road and at home in South Africa. His performances at waves that traditionally reveal surfers’ weaknesses, such as Bells Beach and J-Bay, are a testament to his talent. A two-time runner up for the world title, Jordy finished 2019 ranked third. Ed's note: Jordy has officially withdrawn from the Olympics due to injury. His withdrawal means Leonardo Fioravanti will now be competing.

Bianca Buitendag: A world tour competitor from 2013-2017, South African Bianca Buitendag finished the 2015 season ranked fourth and enjoyed a number of finals appearances during her career on tour. She qualified for the Olympics through her 2019 ISA Games result.

Now you've met the crew, here's the slightly nuanced format
Due to the abbreviated, irregular size of the competitive field, the Olympic surf competition will feature a unique format that includes four-person, five-person, and two-person heats. Round one will involve five four-person heats, with the top two in each heat advancing straight to round three.

Round two will serve as the repechage round, with the third- and fourth-placed competitors from the round one heats surfing two five-person elimination heats. The top three surfers from each round two heat advance to round three, while the bottom two in each heat are eliminated.

Round three features eight two-person elimination heats, and is followed by the quarterfinals, which features four two-person elimination heats, per usual. The four winners surf the semifinals (again, two-person heats), with the winners advancing to the gold/silver medal final and the losers surfing against each other for bronze.

This process will be repeated for both the men and women’s fields.

The Venue

And would ya look at that?! This is from March 10 2020, Keito Matsukoa eyes up this gem in Shidashita.

And would ya look at that?! This is from March 10 2020, Keito Matsukoa eyes up this gem in Shidashita.

© 2021 - Pedro Gomes.

Shidashita Beach is a section of Tsurisaki Beach in Chiba Prefecture, which lies at the center of the Japanese surf scene. Unfortunately for those who were hoping to see John John Florence put in a repeat performance in psycho river mouth drainers (ala Dear Suburbia), Shidashita Beach isn’t exactly known for mind-bending perfection. That being said, it is known for consistency, picking up swell from the north, east, and south.

The jetty-lined beach break at Shidashita has been compared with 54th Street in Newport Beach, California, which means it can feature anything from ankle-high drivel to thumping tubes. Typical conditions this time of year tend more toward the drivel end of the spectrum, but with a potential typhoon on the forecast, it’s really anyone’s guess what we will see. Oh and all athletes are staying in designated accommodation in recycled cardboard beds. Not sure if it's relevant but we're trying to cover most stuff, so there's that.

See our spot guide and forecast, here. Which leads us neatly on to...

MSW's Olympic Forecast from Tony Butt

Our swell chart on Sunday 25. That's a lot of swell for the Olympics. See more, here.

Our swell chart on Sunday 25. That's a lot of swell for the Olympics. See more, here.

The long-term forecast shows a possibility of large, stormy surf, starting Sunday 25. At the moment, Tropical Storm In-Fa is located southeast of Japan, moving in a westerly direction, expected to pass close to northern Taiwan around Friday or Saturday.

Some models are showing a second system forming on its eastern flank by Thursday, which quickly intensifies and moves north, passing to the east of Japan during the weekend. If this happens, an area of hurricane-force winds on its northern flank could produce some large, lumpy surf at the contest site, with wave heights exceeding ten feet and strong winds from a northerly quarter.

Crystal Ballin'
Men
This is a difficult one to call, and who ends up taking home the gold could very well depend on what the conditions do. If the typhoon on the forecast fizzles and the event is held in gutless, waist-high waves, you’d have to think Gabriel Medina is the favourite—although Kanoa Igarashi is as good as anyone when it comes to groveling and will have a lot to prove as the de facto leader of the home team.

If the typhoon delivers victory-at-sea conditions, expect to see Owen Wright step up, as he has proven himself in heavy conditions time after time. Frederico Morais has a legit power game and could be a dark horse for a medal if the conditions are big and chunky.

If the stars align and the typhoon provides epic waves without any associated stormy conditions, then it could turn into a barrel fest—the best-case scenario for surfing’s Olympic debut—and you can expect Medina and John John Florence to battle it out for the gold. However, that’s assuming John John’s freshly injured knee can hold together through four days of competition.

MSW's Official Prediction
Gold: Gabriel Medina
Silver: John John Florence
Bronze: Kanoa Igarashi
Potential spoiler: Italo Ferreira

Here's why we're backing Gabby.

Women
On the women’s side, there are four clearly delineated tiers in the field. At the top you have Carissa Moore and Steph Gilmore. Between the two of them, they’ve won more than half of the past 20 world titles. Just below them you have Sally Fitzgibbons, Caroline Marks, Tatiana Weston-Webb, Johanne Defay, and Brisa Hennessy—all current world tour competitors with proven talent. Then you have former world champion Sofia Mulanovich, Frenchwoman Pauline Ado, and Brazilian veteran Silvana Lima, all of whom were at the top of their game around a decade ago. Finally, you have everyone else—a diverse collection of talented surfers, but clearly a level below the world tour women. Expect to see Carissa Moore and Steph Gilmore battle it out for the win, with Caroline Marks medaling if conditions are small and rippable, and Tatiana Weston-Webb a contender if things get serious.

MSW's Official Prediction
Gold: Carissa Moore
Silver: Steph Gilmore
Bronze: Caroline Marks
Potential spoiler: Johanne Defay

And Riss.

How, When, and Where to Watch
While there will be no in-person spectating at the 2021 Summer Olympics (due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic), the event will be livestreamed online -- you’ll be able to stream the Olympics on Discovery + and we are just confirming all the global avenues too.

In addition, the Olympic Games will be broadcast on a variety of TV channels throughout the world, including NBC in the US, BBC and Eurosport in the UK, Seven Network in Australia, and BandSports in Brazil. There are currently four days of competition scheduled, stretching from Sunday, July 25 to Wednesday, July 28.