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Surfing Set For 2020 Summer Olympics, But Will It Work?

Picture of Luke Bradshaw
Sports Editor
Updated: 30 August 2016
Surfing in Tokyo? It’s not something that immediately springs to mind, but come 2020 when the Olympic party rolls into town, the Japanese capital will be making waves.

It has to. As will future landlocked Olympic host cities. Needing water is one thing, but needing waves is another.

Surfing at the Olympics comes as part of an obvious effort from the IOC to appeal to a new demographic. It’s inclusion, along with skateboarding, is an obvious attempt to attract a younger audience. It’s why surfing got the nod, while a sport like squash misses out yet again.

IOC president Thomas Bach said: ‘With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.’

The inclusion is seen as a milestone for the sport given its popularity among young people. International Surfing Association president Fernando Aguerre said: ‘Surfing embodies a cool, playful lifestyle that would add a completely new element to the programme, helping the Games reach new fans.’

Surfing is an amazingly clear, clean and healthy sport. It’s about being fit, heathy and active, as well as respecting the environment. It looks good on TV and encourages a younger audience to get out and be active. It’s also a relatively cheap sport to take up.

As far as the requirement for Olympic inclusion goes, surfing ticks a great number of them (there are 33 official criteria to be met). The issue, however, may be the waves themselves.

There are plenty of islands off the coast of Japan that offer fantastic surfing, but the ISA and IOC will have to work together to decide whether they want to keep the waves natural or not.

Tokyo may build a wave machine, an artificial lagoon that creates man-made waves. Not only does this mean cities can create an environment to surf that would have been impossible in the past, but that the waves can remain constant for different competitors throughout the event.

It is this advance in technology that ensures the IOC can include a sport like surfing, which may have been problematic in the past.

Kelly Slater, arguably the most recognisable surfer of all time, and his team have developed a wave machine. The Spanish-based company, Wavegarden, has also been the big innovators recently when it comes to artificial waves. Their facilities, like Surf Snowdonia, which opened in August 2015, ensure surfers can practice year round, rather than heading to the beach and hoping the elements have been kind.

According to Wavegarden, it works in the exact same way an ocean wave does. They say, ‘A mass of water is systematically moved over a surface that causes the wave to form and then fold on itself – just like a wave breaking over a reef or sand bar. The difference is that we can regulate the size and speed of the wave at will.’

However, there is plenty still to be worked out. Stuart Matthews, a director at Surfing Great Britain, told The Culture Trip: ‘In the U.S. they’re all saying the competition has to be done in the sea, but the Dutch team ride river waves like the Germans, so the ISA, with the IOC, will have to make a definitive decision by next year so people can start their training programs.’

For countries like the UK, such a venue means a new generation of surfers will be enticed to the sport, and with the global stage of the Olympics now a concrete option, the sport will only accelerate in popularity.

The more you think about it, the more surfing in a man-made environment makes sense as an Olympic event. While it may not feature 40ft waves and incredible beaches, the construction of the facility means crowds can be closer to watch. Competitors can see what their rivals are doing and they can also react and feed off the crowds of fans around them.

However, the matter is not actually that straightforward. ‘Machine-made waves ensure a level playing field, but it takes away choice,’ Matthews said. ‘Choosing the right wave requires a huge amount of skill and surfers feel that is a big part of competition. You could be surfing in Tokyo and get a 3ft wave or a 15ft wave and each will suit different surfers.

‘Surfers would prefer to surf in natural waves. Most surfers prefer their local break, but then you want to try these machine-made waves because it opens up a different facet of surfing totally. You can have a bespoke competition which you can’t have naturally, aside from some very specific locations.’

Surfing in Ishigaki island, Japan | ©
Surfing in Ishigaki island, Japan | ©

Regardless of whether the waves are natural or not, surfing is a sport that will engage and excite audiences more than many of the traditional sports included in the Olympics and those snubbed for inclusion. The fact that BMX was the third-most viewed event at London 2012 highlights that.

This is an opportunity for surfers, and surfing, to be noticed. Surfing is growing significantly across the globe, no longer is it the past time for Aussies and Hawaiians.

‘The standard in the Olympics will be incredibly high because the whole world will be represented,’ Matthews said. ‘Places like Israel, Vietnam and France have fantastic structures set up; now they can showcase their talent. It’s a showcase, this is our moment. We can show that this is as an amateur sport with a professional ethos.’