2021 Summer Olympics' New Sports: A Guide to Surfing, Skateboarding, Sport Climbing and More
By Meredith B. Kile
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The 2021 Summer Olympics are here, and the competition will look a little different this year. Not only are coronavirus restrictions in place throughout the host city of Tokyo, Japan -- mandating empty stands and strict quarantines within the Olympic Village -- but there are a few new sports and events making their Olympic debut.
Beloved Japanese sports like karate and baseball will get a chance to shine at the Tokyo Games, while new sports with ever-increasing popularity, like sport climbing and skateboarding, join the Olympic program for the first time, with the hope of many years of competition to come.
Read on below to learn about each of the new sports at the 2021 Summer Games, including scoring rules, front-runners to watch and the latest results!
Skateboarding will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo with two separate disciplines -- park and street -- both scored by a panel of judges on difficulty and execution. Park competitions feature skaters competing in a dome-shaped bowl and focus on their flow while executing tricks, while street competitions mimic a real-world skate setting, with ramps, stairs and rails for skaters to perform tricks on.
The front-runner for gold in men's street is American skateboarding icon Nyjah Huston, who made his X Games debut in 2006 at just 11 years old, and has racked up 13 gold medals since -- in addition to his three consecutive world skateboarding championships.
On the women's side, 17-year-old Brighton Zeuner is set to make a competitive stand for the Americans, as she's already a two-time X Games gold medalist in the park events. As in many of the qualifying events, Zeuner will be one of the skaters required to wear a helmet during competition at the Tokyo Olympics, as she's under 18.
The sport made its official debut during the first week of the Games with the street competition. Yuto Horigome and Momiji Nishiya both won gold in their respective events, while Jagger Eaton was the sole U.S. athlete to medal on the men's side, taking home bronze. Meanwhile, the men's and women's park competition will be held Aug. 5 and 6, days before the closing ceremony.
Men's and women's surfing at the Tokyo Olympics will take place at Tsurigasaki Beach in Ichinomiya, about 45 miles southeast of Olympic Stadium. The contests will consist of preliminary-round heats followed by a head-to-head knockout competition. Surfers are scored from 1.00-10.00 on each wave they catch during a heat by a panel of five judges, then the highest and lowest scores are eliminated and the middle three are averaged to get that wave's score. After a heat, the final score is tallied by adding the scores of the surfers' two best waves.
Understandably, the schedule of the surfing competition will be flexible dependent on the weather and waves -- heats and events may be rescheduled to a later time when better conditions are forecasted.
Front-runners from the U.S. Olympic team include current No. 3-ranked John John Florence for the men, and top-ranked, four-time world champion Carissa Moore for the women.
After officially making its debut with preliminary rounds on July 25, the first medals for surfing were handed out. Moore won gold on the women's side, while Florence, another one of Team USA's athletes to watch, was eliminated ahead of the quarterfinals.
With the increased popularity of recreational climbing, both indoors and outdoors, comes sport climbing as a relatively new competitive event on the world stage. However, the Tokyo Olympics will showcase the sport in a unique way, combining the three main disciplines -- speed, bouldering, and lead -- to crown one overall winner in both the men's and women's competitions.
Speed climbing pits two competitors against each other to see who can scale a 15-meter wall, set at a 95-degree angle, the fastest. In bouldering, climbers tackle as many fixed routes as they can within an allotted time frame, climbing on a 4.5-meter wall without safety ropes, but with safety mats to fall on and restart if necessary. Lead involves climbers attempting to climb as high as they can on a wall measuring more than 15 meters in height within six minutes, using safety ropes and clipping in to quickdraws along the route. For all competitions, climbers are isolated from the walls before they begin, so as not to have time to plan their climbing routes.
Team USA's climbers include Nathaniel Coleman and Colin Duffy for the men, and Kyra Condie and Brooke Raboutou for the women.
Anticipation for the sport's debut continues to build. Competitors will take to the walls starting Aug. 3, with the men's final on Aug. 5 followed by the women's on Aug 6.
Born in Japan in the 1800s, karate's legacy in the 2021 host country has earned it a spot in the competition this year -- with competition being held at the Nippon Budokan, which hosted the first-ever World Karate Championships in 1970 -- though it will not be included in the Olympic program for the Summer 2024 Games in Paris.
Two disciplines of karate will be featured at this year’s Olympics: kata and kumite. Kata is the demonstration discipline, where solo athletes are judged on karate techniques. Kumite is the fighting discipline, where athletes compete head-to-head -- there are three weight classes for both men and women.
Team USA competitors at the Tokyo Games include world-ranked women's kata competitor Sakura Kokumai, men's kata Pan American champion Ariel Torres, and No. 9-ranked men's kumite competitor Brian Irr.
Karate officially debuts in the latter half of the Olympic Games, with medals handed out over three days from Aug. 5 to Aug. 7.
An Olympic event from 1992-2008, baseball returns to the program in Tokyo thanks in part to the sport's popularity in the host country. National teams from six countries -- Japan, Israel, Mexico, South Korea, the United States, and the Dominican Republic -- will compete in opening round pool play before moving into a knockout stage and eventual gold-medal game.
The U.S. team consists of longtime MLB stars like Todd Frazier, Scott Kazmir, Edwin Jackson and David Robertson, as well as top prospects like Triston Casas, Shane Baz and Simeon Woods Richardson.
The sport makes its official return with group play starting on July 28, with the U.S. in Group B against Israel and South Korea.
Softball also returns to the Olympics this year, after a 13-year hiatus, with Team USA looking to avenge their 2008 loss to host nation Japan, as the teams are current ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, respectively. Also included in the six-team tournament: Australia, Canada, Mexico and Italy.
The U.S. team includes pitcher Cat Osterman, who came out of retirement at 38 to rejoin the Olympic team in the hopes of earning her third medal. Osterman was the youngest member of the U.S. team who won gold at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, and was on the mound when the Americans took the loss to Japan in the 2008 gold-medal game in Beijing.
Softball, meanwhile, started with group play before the opening ceremony on July 21. After dramatic showdowns early in the competition, the U.S. team finished in second place behind Japan.
OTHER NEW EVENTS
While not entirely new sports, there are also a handful of new events within existing Olympic sports that are making their debut in 2021, including 3-on-3 basketball and freestyle BMX cycling, as well as mixed-gender events (featuring men and women from the same country competing together) in track and field, swimming, archery, judo, shooting, table tennis, and triathlon. Check out a full schedule of competition events on the Tokyo Olympics website.