Surfing ‘here to stay’ after triumphant debut at Tokyo Olympic Games

When surfing was admitted into the Olympics on August 3, 2016, the Games were being staged in sunny Rio.

Brazil was in the barrel of a surfing revolution.

Inspired by its first world champion Gabriel Medina, the country boasted six of the top 14 surfers on the men’s tour.

Wave-loving ABC broadcaster Peter Wilkins took a camera crew to famous beaches to hear what locals thought about the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announcement.

One teenager with a board under his arm beamed.

“There will be more happy people in the world if more people surfed,” he said.

Ipanema beach in Rio, home of Brazil’s second favourite pastime.(

ABC News: Paul Kennedy


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Copacabana had neat, curling waves, but it was at the end of Ipanema where Wilkins found a pocket of surfing paradise: Apoador.

Olympics tourists stood on the rocks to whistle and wince at a dozen daredevils testing their skills on an endless blue swell.

“In light of Brazil’s second obsession [behind football],” Wilkins pondered in his television story, “it’s perhaps an Olympiad too late.”

Standing on the crowded rocks, you had to agree.

Five years later, Olympic surfing made its debut at Tsurigasaki beach, Japan, shaped by trade winds and typhoons.

On the first day, waves were small.

An Australian female surfer riding a wave during a training session in Japan.
Conditions changed dramatically over the course of the surfing competition.(

Getty Images: Ryan Pierse


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Conditions improved when Tropical Storm Nepartak stirred the sea.

It still wasn’t postcard pretty, but aesthetics didn’t matter when the best surfers started charging to win history-making gold.

Competitors gave everything, and it hurt when they were knocked out.

Australian Julian Wilson was defeated by Medina.

Countrywoman Sally Fitzgibbons lost her quarter-final to inspired Japanese youngster Amuro Tsuzuki.

Sally Fitzgibbons looks down while carrying her surfboard
Sally Fitzgibbons vowed to return stronger for her Olympic experience.(

Reuters: Lisi Niesner


“I wanted to do it so bad,” Fitzgibbons said.

She cried while thanking relatives back home for their support.

Throughout the competition, the Australian support team stood on the beach in green hoodies and gold polos; they celebrated wins and consoled the conquered.

Seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore had dreamed of winning Olympic gold after watching Cathy Freeman’s run in Sydney.

She was devastated to be eliminated in the third round by South African Bianca Buitendag.

A female surfer riding a wave at Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach in Japan.
Steph Gilmore was knocked out early on in the surfing competition.(

Reuters: Lisi Niesner


When time ran out on her heat, Gilmore sat on her board for a long time and dipped her face in the ocean.

“Total frustration,” she said later.

First-time surfing watchers might have noted luck playing its part in deciding contests.

As in gymnastics and diving, surfing is judged by the type and difficulty of manoeuvres.

But unlike other sportspeople, surfers are forced to cope with minute-by-minute changes in nature: Wave selection is important but so is chance.

It all adds to the excitement.

Few have more patience and better judgement than the last Australian medal hope Owen Wright.

Owen Wright shouts with his fists pumped, while surrounded by his support team wearing green and gold.
Owen Wright won bronze for Australia.(

AP: Francisco Seco


The brother of two-time world champion Tyler came to Tokyo the hard way; he suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2015 before relearning how to surf.

World class again, Wright beat Peruvian flag-bearer Lucca Mesinas in the quarter-finals, eventually losing his semi to high-flying Brazilian Italo Ferreira.

The tall, blonde Aussie was sent to the bronze-medal final.

It seemed likely the men’s gold medal match-up would be all Brazilian, but it didn’t happen that way.

Gabriel Medina was beaten by Japan’s Kanoa Igarashi, who landed a stunning aerial 360 in the semis.

A mid-air photo of the Japanese flyer, whose right foot hovered metres above the lip, will be one to keep.

Kanoa Igarashi holds onto his surfboard as he gets air
Kanoa Igarashi stunned Gabriel Medina in the semi-final.(

AP: Francisco Seco


Igarashi, who has spent most of his life in California, maintains a strong connection to Tsurigasaki beach. He says his father Tsutomu discovered the break decades ago.

Surfing, Japan and the Olympic Games

Kanoa Igarashi kneels, looking down at his board with headphones on

Kanoa Igarashi will carry the hopes of a nation on his shoulders when surfing makes its long-awaited bow at the delayed Olympic Games in Tokyo, competing on the same break that his father grew up riding.

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The medal rounds, held on brawling waves bubbling with foam, were as fun to watch as any sporting finale.

The precision and class of Owen Wright were worth their weight in bronze, as the Australian made history: first men’s medal winner.

“My heart was beating so hard,” he said.

“The Olympics to me has been a beacon of light. It really did change my life, the Olympics coming on board.”

He dedicated part of his podium success to fellow survivors of traumatic brain injury.

Medina at full tilt was unmissable but he did not land enough of his bold tricks, so he finished fourth.

By the time the hooter sounded to start the men’s decider — Igarashi versus Ferreira — Japan had proven itself worthy of ushering surfing into a new age.

The waves stood taller in unison as if to honour the occasion.

Ferreira busted his first board; his replacement seemed to have jets attached.

Italo Ferreira points to the sky
Italo Ferreira won an excellent gold medal in the men’s surfing competition.(

Getty Images: Ryan Pierse


The Brazilian’s gold-medal performance was superb and will remain famous.

Surely all the beaches in Rio were bare.

Silver-medallist Igarashi will be a considered a champion of the host nation, and another will be the women’s bronze medallist Amuro Tsuzuki.

Four-time world champion American Carissa Moore won the women’s gold medal to enhance her reputation as one of surfing’s greatest. She out-pointed South African surprise silver medallist Bianca Buitendag. 

The all-powerful Australian women were watching.

Sally Fitzgibbons had already turned her mind to the next Olympic contest, to be held in France.

“Our sport’s here to stay,” she said.

“Hopefully I’ll see you all in 2024.”