Ichinomiya Chiba Open
Ichinomiya Chiba Open

When surfing was selected as a new Olympic sport for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, enthusiasts wondered how organizers were going to keep score.

One of the challenges when organizing surfing competitions is to create the perception that everyone has a chance at similar size and types of waves. After all we can’t control the moon and the tides they create on the vast ocean waters. And so very quickly enthusiasts wondered whether the Olympics were going to introduce wave pools to the competition, large mechanical pools that create waves. In that manner, you can pretty much guarantee that competitors will get the same level of difficulty every time.

As it turns out, surfing at the Tokyo Olympics will be held out in the wild, on the waves of Tsurigasaki Beach in Chiba, Japan. Perhaps it’s because wave pools have not yet become a part of top-flight surfing competitions, that from a technological or even a surfing culture perspective, competitors are not yet ready for wave pools. But the president of the International Surfing Association (ISA), Fernando Aquerre, gave another, economic reason in this interview with Surfer.com:

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.

Snowdonia wave pool
Snowdonia wave pool

So how will the surfing competition be run in 2020?

  • First, there will be a total of 40 surfers allowed to compete, 20 men and 20 women.
  • Second, the event will be shortboarding only – no longboards or bodyboards.
  • Third, Aguerre said that they will be patient over the two-week Olympic competition to find the right two-day period to hold the surfing competition.

That last point is interesting because television will probably demand that surfing establish a set time in advance. But then again, the Olympics are also about putting “athletes first”.

“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,” Aguerre said. “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.”

Additionally, Aguerre wants to make sure that the venue at Tsurigasaki Beach has the right vibe. “The IOC has asked us to to create a full-on beach scene at Chiba that will last the whole length of the Olympics,” he said. “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.”

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Duke Kahanamoku
Duke Kahanamoku

Surfing is coming to the Olympics in 2020.

But the seed of the idea of surfing as an Olympic sport was planted, apparently, in 1912 by the Johnny Appleseed of surfing, Duke Kahanamoku.

According to the International Surfing Association (ISA), the swimming legend who won three golds and two silvers across three Olympics and 13 years, Kahanamoku “first presented his dream at the 1912 Summer Olympic Games in Stockholm, where he expressed his wish to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to see Surfing included in the Games.”

Fernando Aguerre

In fact, this little historical footnote was the inspiration for the current head of the ISA, president, Fernando Aquerre. The surfer from Argentina was newly elected to the ISA in 1994, and according to Olympic.org, he had a dream to get surfing into the Olympics. In fact, Aguerre met Juan Antonio Samaranch, in 1995, part of his pitch was to give the then 75-year-old president of the IOC a surfing lesson in his office.

Unfortunately for Aguerre, what was true in 1912 was also true in 1995 – the IOC was not ready to hang ten.

“We had paddled out but there were no waves,” Aguerre said (in reference to his meeting with the IOC). “We kind of figured out that waves were going to come at some point but we didn’t really know when they were going to come because they were out of our control.”

Still president of the ISA, and still hanging on to his dream, Aguerre opened up his options by connecting with Thomas Bach in 2013, who was a candidate to become the head of the IOC. And by this time, Aguerre was more able to lay out a vision for why surfing needed to be in the Olympics – the need to attract youth to the movement with the rise of action sports. Bach, who was elected to head the IOC that year, made the attraction and retention of youth to the Olympic Games part of his platform.

Surfing has grown significantly in popularity over the recent decades. There were only 32 member countries of the ISA in 1995, but now there 100. So when surfing was submitted to the IOC in September 2015 as a part of a shortlist of new events for Tokyo 2020, primarily driven by youth-oriented action sports like skateboarding and sport climbing, surfing finally caught a wave. In August, 2016, the IOC voted surfing into the Olympics.

Come July 2020, if you want to watch the first Olympians set Olympic records with every top score in surfing, then plan to bake on the hot sands of Tsurigasaki Beach in Chiba, Japan. That is where the surfing world, Barney and pro alike, will gather.

Surfing Hokusai waves olympic rings

Samurai Surfing

My friends know this: I’m addicted to Nissin Cup Ramen.

There’s something about the aroma after I’ve waited that obligatory 3-minutes for the hot water to soften the noodles and bind the various spices and ingredients in a flavor that instantly gratifies me. This is not a universal addiction to Cup Noodle. It has to be made in Japan – the ones manufactured elsewhere are probably catering to local tastes, and to my palate, pale in comparison.

I don’t believe they manufacture the King Size version anymore, but if they did, I’d buy.

Nissin Cup Ramen also tends to have the coolest commercials. One released in November, 2016 is not only super fun, it is appealing to the same demographic the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are trying to appeal to. In a somewhat tenuous take on The Seven Samurai, Nissin created a commercial that features athletes decked out in traditional armour that the West now associate with the warrior class known as the samurai.

And the seven featured in this commercial are magnificent! They surf, they skateboard, they pogo-stick over street vendors, they spin on their bikes, do acrobatic twists on skis to the amazement of the bewildered crows around them.

Over the decades, the IOC has worked with host countries to appeal to the youth, and ensure a market for their product for years to come. The X-Games, an ESPN-sponsored event featuring extreme sports, drove up the popularity of skateboarding and freestyle motocross. Thanks to growing popularity of these youth-driven activities, snowboarding became an Olympic sport in 1998, while BMX cycling debuted at the 2008 Olympics.

Tokyo 2020 will feature a bevy of new competitions that the organizers hope will build a new generation of Olympic fans, including surfing, skateboarding, and sports climbing.

Samura bike tricks

tokyo-2020-anime-ambassadors
Tokyo 2020 Anime Ambassadors

A big part of the pitch for the 2020 Games by the Japan Olympic Committee to the IOC in 2013 was that the Tokyo Olympics would appeal to youth. Along those lines, new sports added to the Games in 2020 are skateboarding, surfing and rock climbing.

At the Tokyo 2020 preview at the end of the Rio Olympics closing ceremony, the world was pleasantly surprised by the emergence of Prime Minister Abe as the world-renown game character, Super Mario.

And last week, Tokyo2020 announced the lineup of its anime ambassadors for the Tokyo Olympics. They include such globally recognized characters as Sailor Moon, Goku from Dragon Ball, Crayon Shin-chan and a classic character that was a huge hit in Japan in the 1950s and was broadcast in the US in the 1960s, Astro Boy.

Anime, the catch-all phrase for Japanese produced comics or animated television or film, has enjoyed a boom internationally. It is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States alone. Japanese manga in English can be found liberally in bookstores or online. Japanese anime film directors like Hayao Miyazaki and Osamu Tezuka are global icons. And of course, illustrated characters from Japanese games, television programs and films are re-drawn in daydream doodles, their costumes adorned, and their merchandise snapped up the world over.

So yes, who will begrudge the TOCOG (Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee) the opportunity to make a few extra gazillion yen with Tokyo2020-Sailor Moon bags, and Tokyo2020-Dragon Ball hats.

You can buy your Tokyo2020 swag here.

astro-boy
I am a proud owner of a Osamu Tezuka Astro Boy original, drawn for my father in the early 1970s.
drone-shot-surfing
Expect incredible drone shots of surfing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

One of my favorite toys as a kid was Verti-bird, a Mattel product from 1973 in which you operated a mini-helicopter to stop the bad guys. You had to control the helicopter’s lift and descent as well as speed, but it was connected to a wire so its flight was limited to a circular route.

But it was very cool!

Today, drones are the modern-day Verti-bird. This is a very weak comparison because drones today are in the middle of cutting-edge advancements in logistics, the military, security, news and sports coverage.

I remember talking with a photographer who covered the sailing events at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and he mentioned that it is hard for people unfamiliar with yacht competitions to show interest because of how hard it is to capture these competitions visually. Perhaps drones will change that.

Fox Sports made a commitment last year to provide broadcasts of golf and super cross using perspectives provided by drones. This has been made possible by adjustments to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines in the US, which now allows the use of drones for commercial use.

Because drones, when controlled by a skilled technician, can provide unique angles, particularly from above a stadium or an athlete, or close ups of athletes who are far from areas where cameramen or spectators watch.

Drones can currently move at speeds of 64 kph (40 mph). They can venture as far as 1.2 kilometers (.75 miles) away from the controller, which is a pretty wide berth. And battery life for a drone is about 20 minutes. These specs are true as of this writing, but I’m sure it’s already an outdated reality as this technology will advance rapidly.

Yes, there are fears that a drone will plop out of the sky and interfere with an athlete’s performance. People will point to the drone falling just behind a skiier at the Sochi Olympics. But the benefit, in terms of the birds-eye-view images and up-close perspectives in sports where such access was not possible, will outweigh the risk.

Expect to see incredibly creative use of drones at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

drone-shot-sailing

Twenty-six sports were recommended as new additions to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As many of you now know, Tokyo2020 and the IOC selected five new competitions: baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing.

But there were others recommended that I was either surprised about or unfamiliar with. I’ve created a list below of all the “sports” that were considered officially by Tokyo2020 for the next Summer Games. I took the liberty to make sense of them by organizing them into four categories, which you could most certainly dispute.

sports-nominated-for-tokyo2020

The Olympics are, in a way, an endorsement of the international relevance of an organized sport or gaming activity. This year, there was a conscious emphasis to increase the youth following, so skateboarding (roller sports), sports climbing and surfing were added.

Baseball and softball were actually Olympic competitions from 1992 to 2008, so it probably was not a difficult decision with the Olympics returning to Asia, where baseball is very popular. However, tug of war, which was an Olympic competition from 1900 to 1920, did not make the cut.

I was faintly familiar with Netball, which is popular in Singapore where I lived a couple of years. It is a derivative of basketball, played mainly by women. But I was not familiar with Korfball, which originated in the Netherlands and is similar to basketball, but certainly not the same. First, the teams are composed of both 4 men and 4 women. Second, you can score from all angles around the basket. Third, there is no dribbling, and fourth, you can’t shoot the ball if someone is defending you. Watch this primer for details.

Orienteering is new to me, but then again, I was never in the Boy Scouts. Orienteering is a category of events that require the use of navigational skills, primarily with the use of a map and compass. Most are on foot, but some are under water, or in cars or boats. Think The Amazing Race, without all the cameras. The video gives you an idea of what this activity is like.

DanceSport is essentially competitive ballroom dancing, which is popular in Japan. The 2004 movie “Shall We Dance” with Richard Gere and Jeffifer Lopex is a re-make of the 1996 Japanese film of the same name. A film that you may know that focuses on the competitive side of dance (with a smattering of American football) is “Silver Linings Playbook” with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro.

And then there’s Bridge and Chess, what most people refer to as games as opposed to sports. I used to play chess a lot, since I grew up in the days of Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. And while I won second place in a chess tournament when I was 13, I would never experience the mentally and physically draining levels of tension that world-class chess masters go through. Still, is it a sport?

Does it matter?

roys-chess-trophy
The second-place chess trophy I won at a competition at the Manhattan Chess Club when I was 13 years old. (If you must know, there were only three competitors.)
Season_of_the_Sun_poster
1956 film, Season of the Sun (Taiyou no Kisetsu)

 

If surfing comes to the Tokyo Olympics, it’s possible surfers will have the American military to thank.

After the Pacific War ended and General MacArthur assumed nearly imperial-like status in running Japan, military bases with thousands of American troops were established throughout the country. As explained in a previous post, American soldiers and their families were particularly prominent in the Shinjuku and Roppongi areas, significantly influencing the fashion and music of those areas in the 1950s and 1960s.

 

Screen capture of Prof Shunya Yoshima and Kanagawa Prefecture
Screen capture of Tokyo University Professor Shunya Yoshimi’s EdX course, Visualizing Postwar Tokyo.

 

In Kanagawa Prefecture, which is just south of Tokyo are two major American military bases, Atsugi and Yokosuka. A spot in between those two bases is a beach called Shonan, which today is considered a popular place for sun worshippers and surfers. The image of Shonan as a surfer’s hangout was most certainly cultivated by American soldiers who brought their music and surfboards to the beach. As Tokyo University professor, Shunya Yoshimi, explained in his EdX course, Visualizing Postwar Japan, “Kanagawa Prefecture or Shonan area was one of the most important areas where American military facilities remained even after the 1960s. And from these military facilities, sporting culture, marine culture, music culture, many kinds of American military culture spread out which people enjoyed.”

Marketers in Japan immediately noticed the influence and the emerging love of beach culture in Shonan. As Professor Yoshimi explained further, Hawaii, or the image of a Hawaiian lifestyle began to enter the Japanese pop consciousness. Prof Yoshimi uses as a case in point an advertisement of TRIS Whiskey, in which the company, Suntory, offers a trip to Hawaii to a lucky 100 Japanese people. Hawaii in the 1960s, for mainland Americans and Japanese alike, was becoming the exotic paradise that people dreamed of visiting. Today, of course, Hawaii is one of the most popular holiday destinations for Japanese.

 

Suntory Ad for TRIS Whiskey
Suntory ad for TRIS Whiskey offering 100 people a trip to Hawaii.

 

One of the more influential movies of the time was called “Season of the Sun”, which came out in 1956, based on a novel by Shintaro Ishihara. Season of the Sun was a love story between a boy, who runs with a rough crowd, and a rich girl, with life on the beach as a central part of the storyline.

Influenced by the surfing culture of beaches like Shonan, and with a desire to inject youth and fun into the Olympics, the Tokyo Olympic Committee nominated surfing to become an Olympic sport in 2020.

What surfing in the Olympics could look like, for better or worse. Photo: WebberWavePools.com
What surfing in the Olympics could look like, for better or worse. Photo: WebberWavePools.com

Surfing in the Olympics? It’s been selected by the Tokyo Olympic powers that be. But why is it even being considered? Technology.

The challenges up till now for holding surfing competitions in the Olympics is how to ensure a level playing field for all surfers. After all, waves with the same or similar difficulty levels don’t come when you want them to in the big blue ocean. And what do you do if the venue for the summer games is land-locked?

Technology appears to be the wave that surfing enthusiasts in support of making it an Olympic sport are betting on. Now wavepools are becoming so sophisticated that specific heights and shapes of waves can be created and repeated consistently so that wave patterns can be replicated for competition.

According to Fernando Aquerre, President of the International Surfing Association, surfing wasn’t initially selected as an Olympic sport in 2011 because of the lack of proper wave-making technologies. “But now the proper wave technology or world-class or Olympic surfing competitions is available,” he wrote in this article.

Apparently it’s still open as to whether a competition in 2020 in Tokyo would be in a wave pool or in the ocean. But the debate is on as to which is more appropriate. Here are a few point/counterpoint from Surfermag:

Surfing should be an Olympic Sport for sure. It would be hard to have the event when the hosting city is land locked, but with the way technology is going it seems we will be able to bring world class waves and surfing anywhere. – Taylor Knox, Veteran World Tour Surfer

No, no and err…no. Olympic sports are all anchored around fairness and level playing fields, but the ocean doesn’t offer that. The only way surfing would ever be considered an Olympic sport is if it was held in wave pools, and if it was held in wave pools then I wouldn’t consider it surfing. The fact that no two waves are ever the same is what makes surfing, surfing. It’s not designed to be fair. The ocean isn’t fair, and unless you’re Kelly the ocean really doesn’t give a shit about you. – Sean Doherty, Surfer Senior Writer

Yes, I think surfing should be included, and I would absolutely love to surf in the Olympics. It would be such a great honor to represent my country. Plus, it would be a sick competition with the Brazilians teaming together against the other counties. And of course we would win. Haha! Hopefully it will happen. – Gabriel Medina, World Champ

…the thought of surfing in the Olympics brings a familiar dab of bile to my throat. Can we just all agree to pretend, for a little while longer, that surfing is a unique thing to do? That this difference has in fact always been its strength? – Matt Warshaw, Surfer Historian

What is it like to surf in a wave pool? Take a look!