Olympic Surfing Explained: Understanding Qualification and What It Means for the Pros


This summer, surfing will make its debut at the Olympic Games as part of the new lineup for Tokyo 2020. Already, though, this Olympic movement is making a noticeable mark on competitive surfing as we now sit at about the halfway point of the qualification process.

New faces from obscure locations and backgrounds (such as Israel’s Anat Lelieor) are surfacing as Olympic hopefuls, provisionally qualified to represent their countries on the world’s largest stage for sport.

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Conversely, surfing’s most notable superstars, such as Kelly Slater, are appearing in the lineups of events outside of the highest level of competitive surfing, the World Surf League (WSL) Championship Tour (CT). This is all part of an effort to adhere to Olympic qualification requirements, that are separate from that of the tour.

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Kelly Slater chases down Jeremy Flores during the Aloha Cup team relay race as part of the 2019 ISA World Surfing Games. Courtesy of Photo Courtesy ISA/Ben Reed

In September, 55 nations sent their surf teams to the International Surfing Association (ISA) World Surfing Games (WSG) in Miyazaki, Japan to participate in the regional qualifying event. For many of the 200-plus surfers in attendance, it was their first time sharing the lineup with some of the world’s most recognizable surfers.

“It’s super sick being [at the ISA WSG in Myazaki, Japan], rooting on your fellow countrymen,” says CT standout Kolohe Andino, nicknamed “Captain America” around the event. “The team atmosphere is rad! It is really fun surfing and representing in a team matchup like America versus Brazil, for example.”

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Kolohe Andino letting one loose for Team USA during the 2019 ISA WSG grand final. Courtesy of ISA/Ben Reed

Andino has secured his position as one of the 40 total surfers that will represent their countries during surfing’s Olympic spotlight. He’s also the only currently qualified American for two available male slots, while Carissa Moore and Caroline Marks secured the two female U.S. spots. For Andino, however, participation at the ISA WSG was simply a formality as he earned his place by sway of the WSL rankings for the 2019 season.

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“I am definitely focusing on the [WSL CT]. It is great coming to this [ISA] event, though,” explains Andino. “Because it doesn’t count toward the world title, it creates a super fun atmosphere. Everyone is talking smack, and doing that sort of thing. But yeah, I am definitely just focusing on the world tour and the world title, and then hopefully making it into the Olympics.”

For Andino, that was the perfect strategy. However, there are multiple paths to qualify and a complex hierarchy among the various events organized by two separate bodies, the ISA and WSL.

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Kolohe Andino gives high fives to a crowded beach in Miyazaki, Japan for the 2019 ISA WSG. Courtesy of ISA/Pablo Jiminez

The first thing to understand is there are a limited amount of surfers allowed to compete in the Olympics. A trimmed field of 20 men and 20 women will be sent to Tokyo 2020, each of which is determined strictly by rank. The only surf discipline is high-performance shortboard, with a maximum of four surfers total (two men, two women) allowed to compete from any given country’s National Olympic Committee.

The 2019 WSL CT ranking has the highest level of hierarchy for Olympic qualification. Though WSL CT surfers are required to compete in ISA qualification events if they are selected to their national team’s roster, they will not be considered for qualification through ISA events if qualification spots for their country can ultimately determined in the 2019 WSL CT ranking.

Simply put, the most direct path for surfers is on the WSL CT. Eighteen surfers (10 men, eight women) will be qualified to represent their country as a result of their ranking at the end of the 2019 season, though each country is still capped with only being able to qualify two surfers per gender.

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The second most direct path to qualify is by being a top finisher at the 2020 ISA World Surfing Games (WSG). Qualification spots will be awarded to the top five finishing men and top seven finishing women, not including surfers already qualified or whose national team has capped according to the 2019 WSL CT ranking.

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Owen Wright cutting it up for Team Australia at the 2019 ISA World Surfing Games. Courtesy of ISA/Pablo Jiminez

The other two events have already taken place, the 2019 PanAmerican Games and the 2019 ISA WSG. Although surfers have been provisionally qualified from these events, the results of the two above mentioned paths outrank the individual results of these two.

However, the countries of the qualified surfers from the PanAmerican Games and the 2019 ISA WSG are locked in, because those two events were considered Continental Qualifiers. Meaning, until the end of the 2019 WSL CT season (which concludes with the Billabong Pipe Masters later this month), and completion of the 2020 ISA WSG, most of the qualification slots determined up to this point (nine of the men’s 20 spots, and 13 of the women’s 20) are provisional as they relate to the individuals. In other words, big finishes at the ISA event could disrupt rosters; the full men’s women’s fields will not be locked until June 2020.

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“Surfing Australia is really gunning for the Olympics, and we’ve got a lot of funding to help us all get there,” says CT veteran Owen Wright. “I’ve seen more country spirit from countries in the forms of more funding. That is massive, and I think that is the same with every country. That has been a huge positive.”

Wright is currently sitting as the lead Australian in the WSL after winning the CT event in Teahupo’o, Tahiti just before attending the ISA WSG. For Wright, he sees much positivity circulating around this Olympic movement in surfing.

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Owen Wright celebrating with Team Australia on their Aloha Cup team relay win at the 2019 ISA WSG. Courtesy of ISA/Sean Evans

“I enjoy coming to these [ISA events], they are really inclusive. For the last 10 years or so, the WSL guys have been kind of isolated, off to a different bracket,” explains Wright. “I find it nice to come to this event and be together with everyone. We get that team spirit and country pride. I think that is what has changed, when I think about the Olympics, it is more than just an individualized sport.”

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