11 Things Locals Need to Know About 2020’s First-Ever Olympic Surf Competition at the Tokyo Games
Until last weekend the Olympics looked promising for Hawai‘i’s surfing contingent, with four local hopefuls. But after three days on man-made waves in landlocked California, our hopes are down to a vulnerable Carissa Moore and, with an outside puncher’s chance, the injured (and out of action) John John Florence. Blame the long shadow cast by surfing’s apex predator… Kelly Slater.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games has been rescheduled to begin July 23, 2021 and end Aug. 8, 2021. The Paralympic Games have also been moved to Aug. 24, 2021.
With two qualifying events just completed, the countdown has started for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics’ new surfing competition. What does this mean for Hawai‘i’s top surfers? What are their odds? What kind of surf is there in Japan? Here’s what we know so far (as well as what we don’t):
1. Are ThereWaves There?
Olympic surfing is now officially happening, so, res ipsa loquitur, there must be waves. That truth was self-evident at a preview and qualifying event earlier this month at host Japan’s Kisakihama beach in Miyazaki, held by the International Surfing Association. So yes, there truly are waves there. Not great or even pretty waves, but, thanks to a pair of passing typhoons, gnarly yellow shorebreak dumpers familiar to surfers from Huntington Beach, California, to Florida to Rio de Janeiro.
However, the officially designated beach for the Olympics is Tsurigasaki, also known as Shidashita, in Ichinomiya Town—not Miyazaki. And while punchy beach-break Tsurigasaki is nearer to Tokyo, Miyazaki is far off to the south. Could conditions dictate a last-minute venue change? Don’t count on it, but flat surf is bad optics.
(Kelly Slater is building a wave pool in Japan. A rumor, denied a dozen times, is that it would be a Plan B to take advantage of a dreaded flat-surf scenario.)
2. How Many Surfers Qualify?
When the idea of an Olympic surfing category was first proposed, there was skepticism that there would be surfers there—as in actual high-quality, which is pretty much to say professional, surfers. Fans don’t need to worry. Having learned its lesson from those rogue curling entries (who can forget the Beatles in Help!), the International Olympic Committee and the ISA and its advisers have tweaked the rules about who gets to compete.
Out of a total of 20 men and 20 women, 10 men and eight women will come from the ranks of the World Surfing League’s 2019 standings (which itself is subject to undefined tweaking). Others will come from ISA events, such as this summer’s Pan American Games, which gave us the first qualifiers for 2020, winning shortboarders Luca Mesinas and Daniella Rosas, both of host country Peru.
As in the Pan American Games, the outcomes of the ISA event in Miyazaki counted toward qualifying—but only for those from Africa, Asia, Europe and Oceania (which includes New Zealand). The top male finishers to nail down a provisional spot were Shun Murakami of Japan, who finished a respectable fourth; Morocco’s Ramzi Boukhiam; New Zealand’s Billy Stairmand; and Federico Morais of Portugal.
Provisional female winners were Israel’s Anat Lelior, Shino Matsuda of Japan, Ella Williams of New Zealand and South Africa’s Bianca Buitendag. Nations are limited to two surfers no matter how well their representatives do in qualifiers; the restriction is aimed at increasing the diversity of nations in the water in 2020. Even so, sad to say, we probably won’t be seeing blooper reels of unqualified contestants (although we strongly urge at least one out-of-competition day pitting the ’Stans vs. the Slavs).
3. Sounds Like Rules are the Real Game, Yeah?
It can seem like it. For all who’ve qualified so far, for instance, there’s that “provisional” tag—Murakami, Matsuda and company shouldn’t take the rest of the year off, in other words.
Another tweak: Every surfer to qualify or who wants to qualify has had to show up for either the ISA’s 2019 event or plan on attending the ISA World Surfing Games in April and May 2020. This introduces a direct conflict with some of the WSL’s tournaments. To go by 2019’s contests, two were in April, two in May. It could be a difficult call for professionals who make their living on the tour, not by making the Olympics—as “provisional” qualifiers. And since the ISA has said it’s not done making up the qualifying rules, the fear of losing out to an unforeseen rule change is real.
Indeed, there are more tweaks in the IOC’s bag of tricks—presumably aimed at keeping the event inclusive and media-friendly—than in your typical scripted reality TV show. Aside from the slots going automatically to host Japan, and a field of usual WSL suspects, we’re going to see an unknown number of qualifiers assigned by continent (except, we notice, Antarctica, whose citizens should really complain).
4. So Who’s Gaming the Games?
Because several of the top surfers from the same nation may cancel each other out, the real games have already begun: passport-swapping. Recently, for instance, lifelong-Kaua‘i surfer Tatiana Weston-Webb rediscovered her Brazilian heritage. Clearly she’d have trouble catching up with the Americans ahead of her in the WSL standings; in order, they are Carissa Moore, Lakey Peterson, Caroline Marks, Courtney Conlogu and Malia Manuel. For Weston-Webb, it’s strictly business, though we’ve also heard the Olympic swag bag is awesome.
(We at HONOLULU are applying for an Antarctica passport for the 2024 Games in Paris, btw.)
5. Slater! What is Slater Doing?
Good question, because you never want to take your eye off Slater for more than a minute or two. There’s a reason he’s flat-out called “the greatest surfer of all time” by the World Surf League on its website (though we cough into our fist and murmur, “Duke?”). He’s certainly the best pro circuit surfer in history. A great white in a school of tigers and makos, he’s sliced through schools of competitors for years. And now, thanks to his man-made wave machine, the one at his Surf Ranch where the Freshwater Pro was held, he’s even whacked a woman’s contest. We’ll explain that in a minute, after we discuss the Hawai‘i contingent and their odds…
6. Wait! Slater’s Wave Pool! Will it be Used?
When Slater raised the subject of the IOC using his pool for the Olympics almost two years ago, it seemed a bit of an overreach. Wave pools already exist; Japan has had one (it closed); all were mediocre; nobody could say if Slater’s would be any good.
Much as we’d love the conspiracy theories that would arise if Slater were to end up competing in Tokyo on his own wave, the International Olympic Committee declared they wouldn’t entertain a man-made wave pool for 2020. The odds are looking good for future Olympics, though, with a theme park with wave pools already slated (sorry) for Paris, which hosts the 2024 Games.
Still, the talk of Slater’s wave machine at the Olympics just won’t go away. You can blame Slater himself for that. Among his many talents—he’s a farsighted and astute businessman—he’s a master of media manipulation. The opening of his Surf Ranch received massive coverage, in part due to his dispensing junkets to a number of elite journalists who happened to be pretty good surfers themselves and, thus, couldn’t resist being in the company of Slater and, eventually, strictly as research, trying the wave. (We’d hate to be put in that compromising position ourselves, so send us a private message on Facebook. P.S.: Has anyone tried bodysurfing that thing? P.P.S.: You do chlorinate that water, right?)
Meanwhile, as might befit a 47-year-old in a world of 20-somethings, in recent contests Slater’s looked slightly more later than Slater. While age is a factor, he’s also been surfing hurt. Even though John John Florence was injured in late June in Rio de Janeiro, in mid-September Slater still lagged among U.S. Olympic hopefuls, after Kolohe Andino, Florence and Hawai‘i’s Seth Moniz, who had a 400 point lead over him.
But Florence’s injury did change everything, only in slow motion. First, Slater now had a chance of leapfrogging Moniz and Florence into the Olympics. Indeed, the moment Florence was injured the U.S. Olympic Committee invited Slater to take his place on the team for the ISA Surfing Games. And yet Slater hesitated, quite publicly. He mused. He publicly floated the idea of not going to the Miyazaki qualifier.
Was this out of a sense of noblesse oblige to Florence, a feeling that the U.S. IOC had acted with unseemly haste and no regard for a competitor’s injury? Slater let that thought hang, while mentioning the WSL and ISA schedule conflicts as a primary concern. It was a business decision, in other words.
Slater accepted the offer and a few months later took fifth in Miyazaki. He couldn’t help the U.S. overcome Brazil in the team standings, but with his foot healing he looked totally capable of schooling those 20- and 30-somethings in Tokyo. And if Japan’s beaches turn out sloppy, undersized waves, as is their wont, that’ll play right into the Florida native’s strengths.
In other words: Don’t be surprised if Slater wills his way into the finals, carries the U.S. flag in the opening ceremonies as the oldest competitor in the Games, comes home with gold or at least millions in contracts for his man-made wave machine.
7. So What Happened in Lemoore That we Should be Worried About Carissa Moore?
Entering last weekend, Carissa Moore was No. 1 in the women’s tour and heading into a contest stretch where she’s traditionally done well. She had 41,175 points. The nearest U.S. competitor, Lakey Peterson, sat in fourth place with 33,850 points. Last year, Moore ripped at the brand-new Freshwater Pro at Slater’s Surf Ranch in landlocked, formerly godforsaken Lemoore, California. She was the only one who really took to the man-made wave, pulling off the longest tube ride and a win.
This year, more surfers, men and women, were familiar with the yellow-brown Nespresso wave. This year, we saw the future of surfing contests at Lemoore, Paris 2024 and, who knows, maybe Tokyo 2020. Visually, it looked like a video game with a damaged graphics card. But the wave was, ominously, perfect—if engineered perfection is your idea of surfing. Indeed, the WSL judges seemed slightly flummoxed by so much perfection on display, handing out an unusually high number of scores of 9.0 and above (out of a scale of 10). But, then, the wave was perfect and the surfers had a year to get the hang of it.
Doing their best in a suddenly much more calibrated and precise environment, the judges handed down results that did Hawai‘i’s contingent no favors. The WSL’s own commentators thought Moore was robbed with a ding of an 8 score for what they thought was a wave of the day. (When an 8 is considered a ding, you know you’re in unknown territory. When every wave has the potential to be a wave of the day, what, exactly, is a wave of the day?)
That’s showbiz, of course. But the race has narrowed. Moore now has 47,260 points to eventual Lemoore winner and now No. 2 Peterson’s 43,850. Within striking distance at No. 5 and No. 6 are two dangerous U.S. competitors, Caroline Marks and Courtney Conlogue (Manuel trails far behind at 30,410; only a win will put her back in the conversation). Conlogue is the defending champion of the upcoming Roxy Pro France in October.
On the men’s side, Andino and Florence slid in tandem to fourth and eighth, respectively. Though both Moniz and Slater also dropped in the WSL rankings, Slater made up his deficit and now has a 1,500 point lead over Moniz. He’s only 7,200 points behind the inactive Florence. He has a third, a fifth and four ninth-place finishes. With three contests to go, he’s back.
Should be fun.
8. So John John Won’t Go? Anyone Besides Carissa?
A week ago, if you asked where Hawai‘i surfers stood vis-à-vis the Olympics, we would’ve said pretty good, thank you. Back then we had Moore, John John ranked No. 5 in the men’s and Malia Manuel at No. 7 and Seth Moniz at No. 9. Our local deck looked stacked.
Not so today. And the oddest man out looks to be Florence. If he manages a superhuman comeback in time for the final WSL event, the December Billabong Pipe Masters, he’ll have had only six months to rehab his ACL injury, his second in two years.
Sure, it looks as if Florence could limp into the Games. There’s the mandatory ISA qualifier down the road in April 2020. There are those promised ISA tweaks that have yet to be twoke. But it’s not easy to rehab an ACL, ever. Nine months is considered early for a recovery, let alone a comeback for a high-performance athlete. Florence has to be wondering if it’s worth rushing it, especially at Pipe, given the chance of a re-injury if he comes back too soon—which is what happened to Kevin Durant of Golden State Warriors in the playoffs this year.
No question, Florence deserves this Olympics. But local hopes for the men may have to rest with Moniz, whose recent third in Tahiti’s big waves could be a harbinger of things to come at the Pipe.
9. What About the Judging?
Here’s where it gets dicey for everyone. Some Olympic sports use what are called international rules, which may vary from the rules in a country that has its own leagues—the NBA and NCAA being the most notable. For decades, American basketball Olympians had trouble adjusting to Euroball’s different court size and much rougher style of play. Oh, and also to Olympic judges who blatantly supported Soviet bloc participants.
For surfing and judging controversies, just substitute “Soviet bloc” and “World Surfing League” to get a sense of the debate. Until recently, the WSL didn’t even name its judges, before bowing to criticism. The judging criteria itself was as subjective and mystical as the effects of Gwyneth Paltrow’s famous Goop stone egg. Home field decisions, decisions favoring stars over upstarts or blondes in thongs over brunettes in one-pieces, you name it, the WSL has had it every season.
If rule changes confuse athletes, you might expect judging changes to really freak them out. Look for it in Tokyo. It seems obvious that the ISA, a friendly rival organization, will not import the WSL judging team (which may be a good thing). But the ISA also hasn’t named its judges or even discussed them yet. The scoring criteria on the ISA website is mostly mystical mush, except for reciting the WSL formula of “speed, power and flow.” (If this were floor exercises, they’d include “and a long, tinsel-y ribbon helps, too!”)
Yet all this could help the Hawai‘i surfers.
Why? The WSL’s scoring rules, more and more people are saying, are taking away from creativity. For instance, both Florence and Moore have lost points for doing improvisational aerials at the end of great waves that ended badly. In the WSL playbook, if you don’t stick an end move, you lose. With finishing a wave so important, safe landings become soft landings and kill the buzz.
The problem occurs mostly in small surf, where competitors strive to pile up points while basically restricted to cutbacks—conditions not allowing tubes or aerials—with a permissible floater to finish after the wave closes out and collapses into foam. The result looks like a sewing machine zig-zagging down the seam of a mu‘umu‘u and has all the same drama.
It got so bad in a couple of 2019 contests that the WSL commentators were reduced to knowledgeably discussing the spray arc left by cutbacks in terms of their appeal to judges. ( (In can be inferred that we are not far off from hearing, “Dude, super-crisp spray bustle!” in the lineup at Bowls.)
Since both Moore and Florence are known for throwing off bold improvisations, many above the rim, as NBA players call midair creativity, they may find Tokyo to their liking. Whether the judges like them, is anybody’s guess. But do not expect logic or fairness, so skip calling your bookie—just sit back and enjoy the show.
SEE ALSO: 39 Ways You Know You’re a Surfer When…
10. What’s the Bottom Line for 2020?
Your guess is as good as ours. If the beaches don’t get some passing typhoon action, the surf could look pretty tame—like Huntington Beach on a bad day. Bad waves tend to leave the best surfers uninspired, so you can expect anyone to sneak in there and grab a place at the podium if there are lulls and fluke swells to go with TV network and IOC scheduling pressure. Look for the judges to favor the underdog nations (wink-wink, “it’s good for surfing!”).
So we may see the gold going to some lucky guy from Mongolia. No, to Slater. No, to the same Brazilian with a frosted perm and heavy ink sleeves who won the ISA Surfing Games with a close-out 10 of a wave, doing a spinning aerial. It was a replay of Italo Ferreira’s winning wave at the 2019 Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast five months earlier, of which Slater said, judiciously: “Nothing wrong with just saying a score might’ve been generous.” Stab Magazine points out, however, that “Italo’s ability to draw blood from a dried up vein is what crowned him Stab Surfer of the Year by 50 of the most influential surfers in the world.”
The kind of guy who’ll do anything to win, including frosting his ’fro a la Dennis Rodman, is the kind of guy who’ll likely win these Olympics.
11. Anything Else to Look Forward To?
Except for the opening and closing ceremonies, watching the Olympics on television is all about the cross-cutting: one minute a guy will be dunking a basketball, another minute a gal will be doing the Fosbury flop, there’s a person crying in anguish, here’s someone crying in joy—and, look, there’s Slater!
That won’t work for surfing. The networks will give us tiny snippets of freeze-frame action accompanied by freeze-dried commentary by network blow-dry helmet-heads. Save that stuff the meme-ing, later. For the live event, and the recaps, go to the dead- air men. Yes, despite this being a U.S. television- and IOC-controlled event, we have to hope that the on-air commentators from the WSL will be covering this—especially if the waves are flat. This means streaming the excellent WSL website, where the current WSL team of Joe Turpel and Martin Potter do play by play, while Rosy Hodge and Strider Wasilewski report from the water (usually on Jet Skis just off stage from the action, but for this Olympics perhaps astride inflatable porpoises in a hotel pool).
Besides their surreal mélange of accents and surfer verbal fry, the commentators know how to fill dead air—because, in surfing, there’s so much of it. The riffs get pretty wild and amusing; they even throw shade. It’s going to be a challenge to sink back in the sofa and keep your eyes on both the TV and laptop while texting your buds and popping the top of an IPA. But we know you’re up for it. (And did you ever notice how that freshly opened beer sizzle sounds just like a breaking wave?)