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Surfing at the Tokyo Olympics: Everything you need to know about new Olympic sport

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Dates

July 25-Aug. 1 (Scheduled days subject to change due to wave conditions.)

What to know

Surfing’s path to the Olympics has been more than 100 years in the making.

Duke Kahanamoku, a Hawaiian swimmer and Olympic gold medalist, advocated for the sport to be added to the Olympic program as long ago as 1912. And in the years that followed, he helped introduce surfing to the mainland U.S., Australia and other parts of the world, turning the Hawaiian pastime into an international sport.

World championships have been held in surfing since 1964, while the current competitive circuit — the World Surf League — has been around in one form or another since 1976. American surfers — including several native Hawaiians — continue to pace the field, though countries like Australia and Brazil have closed the gap over time.

In 2016, the International Olympic Committee voted to add surfing, among other sports, to the program in Tokyo as a way of appealing to younger viewers. Carissa Moore, a Hawaii native who is favored to win gold, hopes competing in the Olympics will expose surfing to a wider audience.

"Hopefully more people will fall in love with it and actually tune in on a more regular basis. And maybe it will even inspire them to get out and try it," Moore said at Team USA’s media summit in April.

Carissa Moore competes in the semifinal of the Rip Curl Narrabeen Classic at Narrabeen Beach in Sydney, Australia, on April 20, 2021.
Carissa Moore competes in the semifinal of the Rip Curl Narrabeen Classic at Narrabeen Beach in Sydney, Australia, on April 20, 2021.

How it works

While wave machines are great practice tools, elite surfing competitions still usually take place in the ocean. And that means some flexibility is required.

For instance, the Olympic competition is scheduled to take place over parts of four days in an eight-day window, with the exact timing of rounds to be determined by factors like wind speed and wave height. Each competitor is also given 30 minutes per heat, so everyone has a sufficient chance to identify and ride good waves.

Because the natural setting is so important, surfing is one of the few sports at the Tokyo Olympics that will be contested entirely outside of Tokyo. For surfing, the competition will occur at Tsurigasaki Beach, about 90 minutes southeast of the host city.

The path to gold

The Olympic surfing field will feature 20 men and 20 women. They’ll compete in groups of four or five in the preliminary rounds before entering into a one-on-one bracket, to determine who wins gold.

Surfers are judged on every wave they ride, on a scale of 0 to 10, but only the top two highest scores from their 30-minute heat are ultimately counted.

The judging process, meanwhile, can be a bit difficult for newcomers to grasp. Variety, difficulty, speed and flow are among the top criteria, and there are a number of ways that surfers can rack up points — from aerial tricks to clean, smooth rides through the barrel of a wave.

With smaller waves expected in Tokyo, many competitors are expected to lean on aerial tricks. And there will be a heightened strategic importance when it comes to wave selection. With only 30 minutes per round, it’s important for surfers to not only execute while on the board, but also pick the right waves to surf.

U.S. athlete to watch: Carissa Moore

Moore is just 28, but she’s been a staple on the professional surfing scene for more than a decade now. She has won four World Surf League championships in her career and, as the reigning WSL champion, is considered the woman to beat in Tokyo.

International athlete to watch: Gabriel Medina, Brazil

While the United States and Australia have long dominated men’s surfing, Brazilians have come on strong in recent years, winning four of the past six WSL titles. Medina, 27, is responsible for two of them. He and countryman Italo Ferreira have been among the most consistent performers in the WSL in recent years, and don’t be surprised if both wind up on the Olympic podium this summer.

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Surfing among new sports at 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo