The 5 New Sports at Tokyo 2020
Following great uncertainty about its feasibility and over a year’s delay, the Summer Olympics Tokyo 2020 (2021?) are finally set to begin. Despite the unprecedented circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Games will undoubtedly be a magnificent spectacle, representing the pinnacle of sporting achievement. Enhancing the sporting appeal will be 5 sports added to the Olympic Program for the Tokyo Olympics: Sport Climbing, Karate, Surfing, Skateboarding, and Baseball/Softball.
While tradition certainly plays an immense role in making the Olympics what they are, the Games too must evolve to keep with the times. As a result, the International Olympic Committee is in the process of gradually changing the Olympic Program to maintain mainstream modern relevance and appeal to new audiences. New events are being added and some older events transformed to add spectator value. This gives us the chance to see 5 sports take the Olympic stage for the first time.
Sport climbing at the Olympics is the competitive version of rock climbing, making use of specially designed climbing walls. It was featured for the first time at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires and has never before been part of the senior Summer Olympics. There are 3 different disciplines of sport climbing. Athletes will compete in all, and final rankings will be determined by their cumulative performance across the three. The final scores will be the multiplied product of the individual rankings in all 3 disciplines. There will be separate competitions for men and women.
In Lead, competitors scale a tall, challenging wall testing climbers’ technique and endurance. Rankings are determined by how far up the wall each athlete reaches, with ties broken by the time taken. Intriguing to watch, Lead is probably the discipline that most closely resembles outdoor rock climbing. The climbers also periodically clip their safety rope into intermediate protection equipment to prevent falls.
Bouldering takes place on much shorter walls, uniquely designed as bouldering ‘problems.’ This is because they are very challenging obstacles that climbers need to find innovative ways to scale. A test of climbers’ strength, technique, and ingenuity, it is exhilarating to watch as climbers execute explosive jumps to get from one hold to the next and support their weight on tiny holds in crazy positions, often doing splits or going completely horizontal, all without ropes. There are multiple short walls each athlete attempts, and scores are determined by how many walls they top, and the number of attempts required to do so.
Speed climbing, as the name suggests, is an explosive race up a standard 15m route, which is all about speed. Usually organized in head-to-head matchups with two climbers competing on adjacent identical walls simultaneously, with the first to reach the top winning. The climbers can ascend the wall at astonishing pace, requiring just a few seconds to scale the 15 meters. The world record stands at just 5.21 seconds.
The culture normally associated with skateboarding and its roots in the streets is not the kind of thing you would expect to see at the Olympics. The likes of Fencing and Athletics are steeped in history and tradition, and Skateboarding is a much younger sport. But it brings just the kind of energy and exuberance needed to refresh the Games’ appeal to youth. There will be two Skateboarding events adding excitement to the Games. These are Park and Street, and there will be a men’s and women’s competition for each.
Both competitions are based on athletes performing routines with tricks and jumps that are scored by judges. As the name suggests, the Street event builds on the sport’s roots in streets and sidewalks. The course has several features or apparatus that you would find in regular streets, such as stairs, rails, and benches (the features are a bit analogous to snowboard slopestyle), which the athletes use to perform a wide variety of tricks. Skaters’ tricks are judged on factors like difficulty, execution, course utilization, originality, and flow and consistency.
The Park course seems to pay homage to the image of early skateparks resembling empty swimming pools. The curved walls of the course are the main features of the course as they act as ramps that skaters use to perform jumps and mid-air tricks, like half- or quarter-pipe ramps. Likely highlighting more altitude, but less attitude than Street, tricks are still judged on similar overall criteria. In general, skaters either prefer a ‘regular stance’ (left foot forward) or a ‘goofy foot’ stance (right foot forward), and tricks performed on the other side, their ‘switch stance’ score more points.
Surfing will be another unique sport adding dynamism and style to the Olympic Games. We won’t see the big-wave surfing most often seen in movies. Competition surfing takes place much closer to shore, using shortboards on shorter waves which surfers ride and perform various maneuvers on, often using the waves effectively as ramps, launching into the air for tricks.
The format entails 2-5 surfers competing simultaneously, riding separate waves and being scored by judges, with the surfers having the highest scores winning those heats or matches. It’s an unusual format to have competitors judged individually, but still organized in head-to-head matches. But this makes sense because the behaviour of the ocean (tide, swell, etc.) and the types of waves during athletes’ runs would affect their performance. By having multiple competitors surf simultaneously, that variability reduces within that particular group, so they can be judged fairly against each other, but perhaps not against other groups. Competitors will surf for stints of about 30 minutes, limited to 25 waves per run, with only the two highest-scoring waves counting towards their final score. They are judged on factors such as the difficulty of maneuvers, innovation and variety, speed, power, and flow. There will one event each for men and women, with 20 competitors in each.
Where the 3 sports above have been brought in to modernize the Games, much of the Olympics are built on history and tradition. So, it’s no wonder that Karate, a traditional Japanese martial art with a rich history, has been added to the Tokyo Games to add to their spectacle and significance. There are two events each for men and women.
Karate is truly a martial art before it is a combat sport. This is exemplified by the discipline of Kata. It is a demonstrative discipline rather than a combative one. The ‘bouts’ between competitors involve no fighting, instead the two ‘karateka’ each separately perform one of 102 recognized routines called ‘kata’. These are form demonstrations of traditional karate technique, involving graceful flowing movements as well as powerful punches and kicks. Each performance is scored by judges, based on the athleticism and technique on display. The competitor with the higher score wins the bout.
Kumite, on the other hand, is the combat discipline of Karate. Karateka face-off in 3-minute bouts wherein they score points by striking the opponent’s head or torso. There are three types of scores, termed yuko, wazari, and ippon. While they share names with the scoring moves in Judo, they have vastly different point values. In Karate, yuko is scored via a straight punche to the face or body and is worth one point. Wazari is scored via a kick to the body and is worth 2 points. Ippon is scored with a high kick to the opponent’s head, or by dealing a punch while an opponent is on the ground after a takedown. This is worth 3 points. While these strikes and kicks are extremely fast, control and precision are very important as their absence can incur penalties. Category 1 penalties result from uncontrolled strikes with excessive force or that may harm the opponent, as well as from strikes outside the target areas. Category 2 penalties are for leaving the designated area, passivity, or unsportsmanlike conduct. 4 penalties of a single category results in disqualification. A karateka naturally wins the bout when they have more points than the opponent at the end of 3 minutes or if their opponent is disqualified, but they can also win by technical superiority if they gain a lead of 8 points. There are 3 weight categories each for men and women.
Karate will add great spectator value to the Games. It will be a truly unique competition, not only because of the traditional martial art’s great history in Japan, but also because it is unfortunately not slated for a return at Paris 2024 as of now.
Baseball and Softball are not technically new to the Olympic program. They were featured as medal events between 1992 & 2008. They will be making a return to the Games after 13 years, again only as a single-shot return as they are not yet scheduled for the next edition. But the sport is very popular in Japan, as well as other East Asian countries, alongside its popularity in the Americas. Hence its return for Tokyo.
Baseball and Softball are fundamentally the same sport. Baseball is the original, more popular variant, which Softball was born out of, originally meant as an indoor variant of baseball. They have evolved into being almost gender-exclusive, with Baseball played mostly by men and Softball by women. There are only a few differences between the two, however. A softball is larger and heavier than a baseball (though contrary to what the name suggests, it is not any softer). The two main rule differences are that softball pitches must be under-arm and softball matches span 7 innings, versus baseball’s 9. Six teams will compete in each at Tokyo, and it will be fascinating to see whether Japan can succeed on home soil.
Especially for Climbing, Surfing, and Skateboarding, it has been a long journey to go from sports supposedly meant for upstart, rebellious kids to events at the Olympics. They will make fantastic additions to the Games and they're here to stay. The documentary World Debut on YouTube is a great watch that tells the story of the sports' development and a few of the pioneers who fought for their place at the Olympics.