Mystery Solved: How will the Olympics guarantee waves for surfing?

For most Olympic events, the venue isn’t a concern. You build the arena/stadium/track, and it’s there waiting when you’re ready to go.

Surfing isn’t like most Olympic events. The venue — ocean waves — can change from day to day, hour to hour. So how can the Olympics guarantee that surfing — which makes its Olympic debut at Tokyo — actually takes place during the Olympics?

As with everything else involving Olympic events, the key is planning, years and years of planning. The International Surfing Association worked with Surfline, a weather forecasting site for surfing events, to analyze potential locales for the competition. Surfline monitors all ocean hotspots, tracking climate and wave trends from every possible angle.

Where to surf?

“Once surfing was officially in the Olympics, we started thinking about where the event might be held,” says Kevin Wallis, director of forecasting for Surfline. “We wanted consistent waves and decent-quality surf close to Tokyo.”

The winner: Shidashita Beach, a spot about an hour’s drive outside Tokyo in the Chiba Prefecture. Wide-open with sandbars, the beach — dubbed “Shida” — will offer the right combination of waves and challenges to test the world’s best. Plus, the beach is somewhat protected from prevailing southerly winds, meaning that the surfers will be able to compete without heavy influence from the wind.

“Shida can get good in both summer typhoon swells and winter or spring windswells, making it a very reliable location for the urban Tokyo surfer with a limited amount of time to get to the coast, catch a few waves, and get back to work in the city,” reads Surfline’s review of the locale.

Plus, there’s likely to be quite the scene at Shida: “There’s a huge parking area, which on a summer weekend with waves will see hundreds of surfers hanging out between surfs in specially equipped vans and cars complete with shower systems, barbecue grills, and small refrigerators stocked with cold beer.”

MARGARET RIVER, AUS - MAY 6: Two-time WSL Champion John John Florence of Hawaii surfing in Heat 1 of Round 4 of the Boost Mobile Margaret River Pro presented by Corona on May 6, 2021 in Margaret River, WA, Australia.(Photo by Matt Dunbar/World Surf League via Getty Images)
John John Florence of Hawaii is a medal contender for the United States in the Olympic debut of surfing. (Matt Dunbar/World Surf League via Getty Images)

When to surf?

Surfline has access to about 40 years’ worth of historical records on Shida’s surf, and can predict with reasonable accuracy what the waves will be like during the Olympic window from July 24 to August 9. The competition will require four days — two for men, two for women — and Surfline predicts there will be more than enough days in that window for competition.

Before the Games, Wallis predicted “two-to-three-foot-plus waves." However, the forecast has changed with a potential tropical storm looming off the coast of Japan. The prediction now is for up to five- to seven-foot waves on Monday.

Surfers in the Olympics will be using five- to six-foot shortboards, as opposed to eight-to-10-foot longboards, meaning the waves don’t need to be as big for competition purposes.

“It’s not a spectacular wave, like a pipeline on the north shore of Oahu,” Wallis says. “But it’s a fun, rippable wave for high-performance surfing. You can make big turns, lots of aerial maneuvers — it should be a fun event to watch.”

Currently, the surfing is slated for July 26-29, but there’s plenty of wiggle room there if environmental conditions warrant. A test event held last July during the same Olympic date range went off perfectly.

“That doesn’t mean the waves can’t be small,” Wallis says. “There have been poor surfing years; 2014 wasn’t very good. But still, the likelihood of no contestable days is pretty low. If we’ve got just two days, we can shorten the format, and the days are long.”

This likely won’t even be an issue in 2024, when the Olympics head to Paris. The City of Lights is known for many things, but surfing isn’t one of them. So the 2024 surfing event will be held in French Polynesia in the South Pacific, a mere 22-hour flight from Paris.

“There are,” Wallis says, understating it, “some excellent waves in Tahiti.”

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