Four new sports will debut in the Tokyo Olympic Games. The addition of karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing is part of an effort to attract a younger viewership and encourage young athletes to aspire to compete in the Olympic Games.
“We want to take sport to the youth,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in a press release about the additions. “With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.”
The four new sports will add 18 events and 474 athletes, with equal numbers of women and men competing in each new sport. They are all classified as “extreme sports,” which have recieved increased interest, especially from kids, in recent years because they offer more freedom and self-expression than “mainstream” team sports that are often more structured.
“There are so many amazing athletes that deserve a chance to show the world their dedication and mastery of what they do,” Joe Turpel, the surfing play-by-play host for NBC, told the PBS NewsHour.
Of course, these athletes will be missing one key element of the Games: a live crowd.
Spectators are banned from the Tokyo Olympic Games because the government of Japan announced a COVID-19 state of emergency in Tokyo due to rising cases. Although vaccinations are not required, all participants must adhere to rules such as COVID-19 testing and social distancing when possible.
Here are eight things to know about the new sports:
1. Karate’s Olympic debut will take place in the country of the sport’s origin
Karate has evolved in East Asia over centuries. It was organized into a formal sport in the 17th century in Okinawa, the southernmost and westernmost prefecture of Japan, before gaining worldwide popularity following World War II. The Olympic competition will consist of two karate disciplines: Kata and kumite. In kata, athletes do not directly fight an opponent, but instead are judged on their form inoffensive and defensive movements. In kumite, two opponents compete against each other in an 8×8-meter area in three-minute sessions.
2. The status of Olympic sports are fluid
Karate may be making its debut in the Tokyo Games this year, but that doesn’t mean it’s here to stay. It won’t be included in the 2024 summer Games in Paris. In 2019, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) excluded karate from a list of four sports recommended for those Games. It’s hard to know why, but the significance of a strong social media presence was noted during the IOC decisions. The World Karate Federation (WKF) had the eighth-highest number of YouTube subscribers among International Sport Federations, according to the 2020 BCW Sports International Federation Social Media ranking. The WKF currently has 304,000 Instagram followers, and is the 12th most followed platform among the Olympic international federations. In something of a twist, breakdancing was one of the four sports recommended for the Paris Games, which was approved following its popularity in the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires. The official tweet from the Olympics twitter page announcing “breaking” making its Olympic Games debut received 3.7K likes and 2.9K retweets.
This is all to say – nothing is permanent. Softball and baseball, both dropped due to lack of popularity after the 2008 Games, are back this year. So karate could still make a comeback for the 2028 Games.
3. Not all skateboarders support joining the Olympic Games
Many members of the skateboarding community have voiced concern over adding the sport to the Olympic Games because they think putting score values on “tricks” contradicts the spirit of skateboarding. Two skateboarding events — park skateboarding and street skateboarding — will be featured in the Tokyo Games. Park skateboarding takes place in a hollowed-out course with complicated curves for performing mid-air tricks. The street skateboarding course includes stair sets, rails and benches in order to replicate “real-world” urban terrain. Since its creation, skateboarding has been known for its countercultural reputation and form of self-expression. “It’s hard to judge skateboarding because it’s a lifestyle and an art,” said Cory Juneau, a member of USA’s men’s park skateboarding team. However, Juneau said, he thinks even critics will take interest in how many more people could become interested in skateboarding after seeing it in the Olympics.
4. The rise of skateboarding was fueled by surf culture
Surf culture was thriving in the 1950s when surfers began building make-shift skateboards so that they could “surf the streets” when the ocean was flat. What began with surfers combining a stray piece of plywood with roller skates has now evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry. Juneau is from San Diego, where both surfing and skateboarding are common, and says his style of park skateboarding has been influenced by surfing because he has learned to perform lip tricks, stunts that require balancing on the “lip” of the ramp, which are similar to a surfer’s skill of balancing on a wave.
5. All sport climbers will be required to compete in all three disciplines
In many Olympic sports, disciplines are broken up into separate events. (Different distances and levels of swimming and diving, for instance). In sport climbing, each athlete must compete in bouldering, lead and speed, and the final rankings will be determined by multiplying an athlete’s placement in each discipline. So it’s a climber’s versatility, rather than skill in any singular event, that will lead them to victory.
In bouldering, athletes climb as many fixed routes as they can on a 4.5-meter wall within four minutes. In lead, climbers attempt to climb as high as possible on a 15-meter wall within six minutes. In speed climbing, two climbers are pitted against each other and race to scale a 15-meter wall, set at an angle of 95 degrees. “Each of these events challenges the body in different ways,” Matt Samit, editor of Climbing Magazine said. “[It’s] going to force competitors outside of their comfort zones into events they might not typically compete in.”
6. Team USA is one of just three countries sending the maximum four climbers to the Olympic Games
Forty athletes are set to compete in sport climbing in Tokyo. Each country could send a maximum of two men and two women to the Olympic Games, but only the U.S., France and Japan are sending that many athletes. But the number of participants will expand for the Paris Games. The IOC voted unanimously in 2019 to increase the number of athletes competing in the 2024 sports climbing events from 40 to 72, which shows how the sport is already continuing to expand. And speed climbing will be held as a separate event in 2024. Many athletes contested its grouping with bouldering and lead for the Tokyo Games, as it requires a skillset most climbers do not often practice.
7. The conditions for surfing events will be difficult to predict
Surfers are the only athletes that will be hoping for a storm to develop during their events in Tokyo. The events will take place on Tsurgasaki Beach, located about 40 miles East of Tokyo. According to Kurt Korte, lead forecaster for USA surfing’s official forecasting partner Surfline, the ideal scenario is a typhoon developing far enough off the shore to develop swell without creating local winds. “A monsoon gyre” — a large system of rotating ocean currents — “looks to be setting up over the West Pacific which is going to put us in a pattern where tropical cyclone development is very likely,” Korte said. “Timing up decent winds with those periods of enhanced surf will be key.”
8. Five surfers — instead of just two — will be competing at a time in the early rounds
The surfing event is divided into multiple rounds of timed heats. The preliminary round will feature four to five surfers per heat before the competition turns to a head-to-head single elimination format. “[Having five people in one heat] is something you don’t usually see on the top level of the sport,” Turpel said. “They’re used to surfing with one other person, maybe two, so five people will feel pretty crowded. The people with a better mental strategy going into it will probably come out on top.” A heat can range from 20 to 35 minutes, in which surfers take turns catching waves and displaying their best performances for the judges. Scores range from 0.1 to 10, and the surfer’s two highest scores are added together to make a total score for the heat, with the highest score winning.