Olympic Surfing: How Does It All Work?

Olympic Surfing: How Does It All Work?

Olympic surfing favourite Italo Ferreira boosts massive air

Looking forward to Olympic surfing but don’t know how the scoring works, or what makes one ride better than another? Evans explains all…

Many Olympic events – arguably all the best ones – involve a single, simple competitive element. The fastest time ran, biked, swam, rowed; the longest distance jumped, thrown, vaulted. In its purest form, athletic endeavour is often both at its most exciting, and easiest to understand. Gunfire initiates a furious dash off a start line; sinews strain, eyeballs bulge, cheeks puff, lungs burst.

Glorious victory awaits the first past the finish line.

Others are about pinpoint accuracy. Again, the parameters are beautifully simple, even to the uninitiated; the closest bullet, arrow (dart, surely soon, IOC?) to the centre of the target, which is gold, and brings home the medal of the same colour (assuming the pee pee tests come back clean).

Not all sports, mind. Some are more nuanced and subjective, involving often sublime, subtle skills easily missed by the layperson. There’s the hoofed, dancing pets of equestrianism, straddled by aristos with double barrelled surnames, that accrue points for the finest hoofwork and best plaited manes, probably. There are the somewhat more sinister pursuits like gymnastics, that often involve 12-year-old girls training 20 hours a day before peaking at 14 and never speaking to their parents again. 

Olympic surfing favourite Gabriel Medina at the Rip Curl Narrabeen Classic presented by Corona

Others, like diving and synchronized swimming, also involve a panel of judges, often middle aged men, usually with polo shirts tucked into chinos who calculate scores by fetishising faults, identifying deviations from performance perfection. Like taking your driving test, only with a people carrier full of DVLA examiners. 

And then there’s surfing. 

One of the finest sports in the world to do, one with the most range as a spectacle. It can be visceral and exhilarating, especially when the waves are big and explosive. More often, and when conditions are more run of the mill, it can seem a bit like a rain delayed day of test cricket to a non cricket fan, only much less eventful. A day of surfing competition can be described as ten hours of downtime interspersed with a cumulative minute or two of almost action.

But like so many things, competitive surfing is easier to love / feign semi-interest in when you have a handle on the rules, or best yet, know enough to pretend you do. 

So here goes.

Photo above: Men’s Olympic favourite, 2-time world champion, and current ratings leader Gabriel Medina at the Rip Curl Narrabeen Classic early this year. A large aerial like this one, landed cleanly after a full rotation in the air, is one of the few ways of securing an excellent score with a single manoeuvre. Photo by Cait Miers / Rip Curl. Photo top: Italo Ferreira is the current men’s world champ. He’s also from Brazil, also one of the event favourites, and also capable of landing humungous airs. Photo by Billabong.

Olympic Surfing: Scoring

Competitive surfing is scored on a surfer’s two best rides in an allotted time period (usually 30 mins), in points out of ten, giving a heat total out of twenty. Perfect tens are very rare, perfect twenties much rarer still. Most elite event heats are head to head (two surfers in the water) except for the opening round which has three surfers per heat.

Olympic surfing favourite Carissa Moore

Above: Carissa Moore, the favourite for Olympic gold in the women’s event. The fins showing out the back of the wave are a sign of a critical, progressive turn. Photo: Hurley

Rides are judged on the moves performed; how difficult those moves are to do, whereabouts on the wave they’re being performed, and the overall visual impact from linking those moves together. The actual wording for the judging critertia is: 

  • Commitment and degree of difficulty.
  • Innovative and progressive manoeuvres.
  • Variety of manoeuvres.
  • Combination of major manoeuvres.
  • Speed, power, and flow.

While there are a myriad of complexities and variations to the way a wave can be ridden, in a nutshell, if the surfer goes really fast the whole time, does risky, technically hard moves in the steepest part of the wave, and doesn’t overly repeat the same moves, they’ll score well. Conversely, if the surfing is conservative, slow and ‘safe’ with little risk, average to low scores will result.

If the ride includes good manoeuvres early on, but an incomplete move (a wipeout) at the end, while the failed move won’t add to the score, points aren’t ‘deducted’ as such from the good work done prior. 

Olympic Surfing: Judging

A panel of five sitting judges score each ride, with the highest and lowest scores being deleted, and an average taken of the remaining three. A head judge oversees this process mainly by pacing up and down behind the panel, pointing out significant differences relative to other rides in that heat. 

A priority judge is in charge of who’s turn it is, which is indicated to the surfers by a LED display. A beach announcer serves as part live MC to the crowd but also, crucially, relays scores and the situation to the surfers; who’s winning, by how much, what score the surfer in second place needs to move to first, who’s turn it is on the next wave (who has priority) and how much time is remaining. 

Above: Committed gauge by Italo Ferreira, current men’s world no. 2, with inside rail fully buried. Large amounts of spray are generously rewarded by the judges. Photo: Billabong

Towards the end of most heats, one surfer will be chasing a moderate score and will try to surf accordingly; not take undue risks by trying to get a perfect ten, if they perhaps only need a mid 6 to advance.

If a surfer is winning by more than ten points, their opponent is said to be ‘combo’d’; requiring a combination of two rides to get into first, even if they got a perfect ten on their next wave.

Olympic Surfing: Tactics

Priority shifts between surfers as they take waves, in a relatively simple, take it in turns system. The ideal way to control the end of a heat is to not only have the lead, but to also have priority. By assessing the points scoring potential of a wave as it approaches, if the surfer in the lead deems the wave not to have enough potential to reward their opponent with the required score, they will not use their priority.

By contrast, if they think the wave has a high scoring potential, they’ll use their priority by taking the wave, thus blocking their opponent. This tactic is not without risk of course, waves often comes in sets, there may well be a similar or even better wave, right behind it. 

Stephanie Gilmore, another of the favourites for Tokyo, riding inside the barrel – one of the highest scoring manoeuvres, but one we're unlikely to see much of at Tsurigasaki Beach. Photo: Roxy

Above: Steph Gilmore, another of the favourites, riding inside the barrel – a very high-scoring manoeuvre, but one we’re unlikely to see much of at Tsurigasaki Beach. Photo: Roxy

The surfer with priority will generally ‘sit on’ their opponent in the last five minutes of the heat, so as to control what waves can be taken, whereas a surfer without priority will try to get away from their opponent by paddling up or down the beach in order to have their wave choice unhindered by the priority of their opponent.

Olympic Surfing: Controversy

Sports can be dull encounters without close calls and associated controversies, and while surfing rarely has Maradona Hand of God moments or Tyson biting off bits of Holyfield’s earole, there’s enough ambiguity in the rules and more than enough hubris, ego, rivalry and money involved to see tempers flare. 

The judging itself is regularly called into question by spectators, especially when the crucial score comes down to the last ride and the score awarded falls within half a point or so either side of the requirement. As the scores are announced, surfers regularly show their frustration at being underscored themselves, or at a perceived over scoring of their opponents, often by splashing water (boo hoo) or sometimes with a sarcastic overhead clap aimed at the judging panel (oooow somebody’s tired). 

At times, a middle finger or bras d’honneur aimed at the judging tower are met with a fine, less so controversial comments made in post heat interview. Down the years, top professional surfers have been known to throw rocks and muffins (!) at the judges, or storm the tower looking for a physical confrontation with the head judge. 

Usually though, the disgruntled losing surfers merely punch/jump on their own surfboard and/or stomp loudly on the wooden floorboards of the locker room, before taking to Instagram to vow to train harder, come back stronger, fist emoji praying hands emoji, etc from a nearby sushi restaurant.

Enjoy the surfing!

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