I often wonder how surfers, let alone the rest of the world, will receive surfing as an Olympic sport. Mostly I'm sure it will exist as a novelty highlights package between women’s water polo and the equestrian events. Could we hope for anything more?
Surely, if the best surfers in the world represent our sport on the world stage, it won’t be a complete embarrassment. Right?
The thing is, there’s no guarantee that the ‘best surfers’ will even be asked to attend.
The IOC, ISA and WCT have banded together to ensure that the process of Olympic selection is about as straight forward as WSL judging decisions, which is to say: not at all. I’ll skip the tedious details of their ‘hierarchical order of qualification’ and instead cut to the chase; who, at this point, is a chance of making the athlete’s village Olympic orgy, and who’s going to be watching it on tv with the rest of us.
Firstly, you can forget the ISA's World Surfing or Pan American Games for now; the first and most immediate course for Olympic qualification is via the 2019 WSL Championship Tour. In short: make 2019 count, and the other events won’t have to.
Ten men and eight women will have earned their spots come season’s end, with a maximum of two male and female surfers per nation.
Currently four men (and all 8 women) have been granted qualification* to Tokyo in 2020, leaving just six men’s spots to be decided at Pipe.
If the tour was cancelled immediately, a la 2001, these would be the immediate WCT qualifiers as the points stand (bold represents confirmed qualification):
Brazil - Italo Ferreira, Gabriel Medina
South Africa - Jordy Smith
USA - Kolohe Andino, John John Florence
Japan - Kanoa Igarashi
Australia - Owen Wright, Julian Wilson
France - Jeremy Flores, Michel Bourez
USA - Carissa Moore, Caroline Marks
Australia - Sally Fitzgibbons, Stephanie Gilmore
Brazil - Tatiana Weston-Webb, Silvana Lima
France - Johanne Defay
Costa Rica - Brisa Hennessy
Did you notice any absences there? Kelly Slater? Filipe Toledo? Ricardo Christie? With Pipe to come, they're not ruled out entirely (I lie; Ricardo is), but some have a less significant chance of making it according to the numbers.
Let’s take a closer look at the possibilities for each nation:
Kolohe can’t finish behind any of his countrymen at this point; even if John wins at Pipe, Kolohe will finish above him. That leaves one USA men’s spot to share between John John Florence (currently 8th), Kelly Slater (10th), and Seth Moniz (=12th).
The Pipe scenarios are thus:
- if John doesn’t compete or gets a 33rd, Kelly needs a 5th and Seth needs to make the final.
- if John makes just one heat (17th), Kelly needs a 3rd and Seth a win.
- if John gets a 5th, Kelly needs to win.
- if John makes it to the semis, the Olympic spot is his.
If John doesn’t surf or loses early, and Kelly and Seth duke it out at Pipe, Kelly needs a final to rule out Seth completely. Otherwise, Seth needs to finish 2 rounds above Kelly to overtake him.
Here are the Pipe stats for the USA hopefuls:
Average Pipe Place: 4.38 (26 events, 7x winner)
Pipe win %: 70 (106 heats)
Pipe AHS: 14.2
Isn’t that average place scintillating? Kelly needs at least a 5th, and his average (over 26 events) is better than 5th. In fact, Kelly has finished 5th or better in 76.92% of all his Pipe appearances.
John John Florence
Average Pipe Place: 9.6 (10 events, 2 finals, no wins)
Pipe win %: 70 (37 heats)
Pipe AHS: 14.68
With a lower average place (and no wins), Kelly gets the advantage over John. They are tied heat win percentages, and John gets the slight advantage with AHS. It’s worth mentioning also that John has four Volcom Pipe Pro QS wins at this event, often amongst stellar fields in pumping conditions.
Average Pipe Place: 13 (1 event)
Pipe win %: 33 (3 heats)
Pipe AHS: 9.72
Seth is certainly no slouch at Pipe, but his metrics are too limited to yield any resounding conclusions. He surfed his first Pipe masters in 2018 as a replacement for John John, beating Owen Wright in R2 for his only heat win before losing to eventual winner Medina in R3.
Verdict: Seth is such an outsider, it’s hard to take his chances seriously. With John already entered into the Triple Crown events, he seems genuine about competing in Hawaii this winter. Assuming he doesn’t re-tweak his injury, John seems to be in the most advantageous position. A few heat wins will make Kelly’s requirements more and more demanding. That said, Kelly still has what it takes to win heats at Pipe and could definitely rise to the occasion. I’m calling John by a chin whisker.
The Brazilian men’s race is probably the tightest of the lot, but somewhat less interesting given the lopsided contest. Italo Ferreira (1st), Gabriel Medina (2nd) and Filipe Toledo (4th) are all in the world title race with just one event to go, but Filipe has both history and mathematics to fight against (read here for full Pipe stats and world title preview).
Verdict: Filipe’s poor Pipe record and slight points deficit mean his chances are slim. It’s a shame for him, as the small beachbreak conditions of Japan would suit him well. That said, a two-time WSL world champion and reigning ISA world champion still make for a pretty solid Brazilian team.
Already looking like Olympic also-rans after a poor CT season and even worse ISA showing, Australia are full of possibilities when it comes to Tokyo. Excepting the possibility of winning a medal, that is.
Currently, Owen Wright (7th), Julian Wilson (11th), Ryan Callinan (=12th), Wade Carmichael (14th), Ace Buchan (17th) and Jack Freestone (18th) are all mathematically in the race. Here’s the breakdown for all possible outcomes:
- Owen only needs a 9th to qualify, as he would be guaranteed to finish above everyone other than Julian.
- With a 33rd or 17th, Owen could only be eliminated from the Olympic race only if Ryan beats Julian in the final.
- Julian needs a win at Pipe to guarantee his Olympic qualification.
- With a 33rd or 17th, Julian would be vulnerable to lose his place to any of the others.
- If Julian gets a 33rd/17th and Ryan a 9th, they would be tied. I can’t find any official ruling on this, but it could result in a one-heat surf-off for the Olympic place like that of Garrett Parkes and Caio Ibelli for the world junior title in 2011.
Here is the list of potential qualification points for each surfer:
And here are their Pipe stats:
Average Pipe Place: 17.57 (6 events, 1 quarterfinal)
Pipe win %: 27 (15 heats)
Pipe AHS: 9.36
Having won both at Fiji and Teahupo’o, you’d be forgiven for assuming Owen was a solid option for Pipe. The truth is, he has never done particularly well. He has only made the quarters once (in 2010) and hasn’t won a single heat at Pipe since his injury there in 2015.
Average Pipe Place: 8.13 (8 events, two finals, one win)
Pipe win %: 55 (31 heats)
Pipe AHS: 10.37
Julian is no slouch at Pipe, winning in 2014 and very nearly clinching his maiden world title by making the final again in 2018 (Gabe ruined his plans by making the final himself). His win % and average place put him in the upper tier of tour surfers and at the top of the Aussie hopefuls.
Average Pipe Place: 14.33 (3 events)
Pipe win %: 47 (15 heats)
Pipe AHS: 9.53
Rhino can’t be ruled out here. He’d need a break-through result to really stand a chance, but an early Julian loss would mean that he only needs two heat wins to farce a possible surf-off.
Average Pipe Place: 19 (2 events)
Pipe win %: 20 (5 heats)
Pipe AHS: 4.00
Look at that AHS. His five combined heat scores at Pipe have been: 3.73, 6.0, 4.5, 2.93, and 2.84. His best wave score at Pipe is a 3.5. I’m not saying he can’t qualify for the Olympics, I’m just saying that he won’t.
Average Pipe Place: 19 (16 events, two semi-finals)
Pipe win %: 44 (32 heats)
Pipe AHS: 9.83
The Fiji and Teahupo’o winner seems fairly solid, with no glaringly bad stats. The truth is that he’s pretty rocks-and-diamonds at Pipe though, with five of his twelve appearances being winless. He will need to equal his best result here while also hoping Julian melts big time.
Average Pipe Place: 29 (3 events)
Pipe win %: 0 (5 heats)
Pipe AHS: 9.53
Jack definitely has the best momentum of this group coming into Pipe, but his poor record at Pipe and comparatively lower ranking make his Olympic chances as slim as his wife’s thong.
Verdict: Owen’s Pipe form opens the door for a sneaky shot from Ryan, but the highly unlikely requirement of a Rhino/Julian 1-2 in the final means that he should be safe regardless. Julian faces greater challenges if he falls to an early loss, but his Pipe record holds him in good stead to keep the wolves at bay. Owen and Julian through.
With Pipe maestro Jeremy Flores already booking his ticket to Tokyo, there is likely to be one spot remaining for all other nations, including France. Fellow Frenchie and Pipe Master Michel Bourez is comfortably positioned as the tenth and final WCT entrant into the Tokyo Olympics; Leonardo can’t overtake him, even with a win, while Joan Duru would need to win Pipe and Bourez to finish no higher than 17th.
Verdict: Jeremy and Bourez make the cut.
What does all of this mean?
Barring some massive upsets or heroics, the list of surfers currently above the cut-off for Olympic qualification will be the ones most likely there at the end of the season. This spells good news for John, Italo and Michel, but sucks somewhat for Kelly and Filipe.
It also means that I have run all of these numbers for naught (mind you, some would argue that was the case regardless).
What about the other 22 Olympic qualifiers?
The first Olympic qualification slots were awarded* to Peru’s Lucca Mesinas and Daniella Rosas at the 2019 Pan American Games.
In the 2019 ISA World Surfing Games, Japan’s Shino Matsuda, South Africa’s Bianca Buitendag, New Zealand’s Ella Williams, and Israel’s Anat Lelior all reserved their Olympic places. For the men, Japan’s Shun Murakami, Portugal’s Frederico Morais, Morroco’s Ramzi Boukhiam, and New Zealand’s Billy Stairmand also booked their Tokyo berths.
There are still 2 remaining Japanese ‘host’ places reserved, while seven women and five men will earn the final surfing places at the ISA event in May next year.
*All slots are provisional until the International Surfing Association final announcement at the end of the 2020 ISA World Surfing Games.