Kanoa Igarashi can’t wait for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The 21-year-old professional surfer not only gets to honor his ancestral roots by representing Japan, but also gets to showcase the sport’s growth and popularity to a new audience.
Surfing, karate, skateboarding and sport climbing make their respective Olympic debuts at the 2020 Games.
“I couldn’t be any prouder,” Igarashi said. “The day the Olympics were announced I teared up. So many emotions. How surfing has been growing so fast the last couple of years then have it included in the Olympics is an extra multiplier to get more eyes on it.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time.”
The 2020 Olympics hold extra meaning for Igarashi: the surfing competition will be conducted at Shidashita in Chiba, Japan, a once-unknown spot first surfed by his father, Tsutomu, and his friends. The Games will also be the first time Kanoa’s extended family will watch him surf live; they are usually glued to a computer cheering from across the globe.
“It means the world to me,” he said. “I’m proud to do this for my family. We’re going out there as a family. I want them to be part of it.”
Surfing’s inclusion in the 2020 Olympics is a testament to the sport’s global growth. According to the International Surfing Association (ISA), the world governing body for surfing, more than 35 million people surf. The ISA has also grown from 32 member nations in 1995 to more than 100, including non-traditional surfing markets like Russia, Sierra Leone and Iran.
There are 2.874 million surfing participants in the United States, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. From 2017-18, the amount of surfing participants in the country increased by 7.3%.
Surfing’s popularity, especially in the United States, is nowhere more evident than at the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing, held annually in Huntington Beach, California. Recognized as the largest professional sports competition and action sports festival in the world, the free public event drew more than 400,000 attendees over its nine days in 2018.
Begun as the West Coast Surfing Championship in 1959, the U.S. Open has grown from a strictly surfing competition to an immersive cultural experience for competitors and attendees featuring surfing, skateboarding and BMX competitions, customization workshops, movie premieres, vendor exhibitions, art installations and music lessons.
The event is sanctioned and operated by the World Surf League (WSL) under the license from event owner IMG, which took over in 2001. Vans has served as the title sponsor since 2013. Swatch, Jeep, Ultra, Red Bull, Harley Davidson and Barefoot Wine were some of the official partners of the 2019 event, which took place from July 27 to August 4.
“Being in our backyard it’s something we’ve always kept an eye on,” said Bobby Gascon, Vans global marketing director for action sports. “This year’s event is probably the best execution we’ve done so far. We’ve broken down barriers between consumers and athletes. It’s a pretty immersive experience.
“It’s not just something people come to and witness something happening, they’re part of it.”
Igarashi fondly recalls his younger days watching the U.S. Open in his hometown. Tsutomu and his wife Misa relocated from Japan to Huntington Beach when Misa was pregnant with Kanoa in the hopes that raising their son in Surf City USA would help him become a professional surfer.
Kanoa idolized competitors like Kelly Slater and Andy Irons who dazzled crowds at the Huntington Beach Pier year in and year out at the U.S Open. Igarashi went from being a kid on the beach watching the surfers he referred to as “rock stars” to standing on the podium, winning the event twice (2017, ’18).
As a member of the sport’s next generation, Igarashi wants to take that responsibility of proudly promoting the sport with him as he and the other surfers ride into the 2020 Olympics and beyond.
“For us to be in the Olympics gives us an opportunity to showcase our sport and now it’s our job to grab hold of it and make the most of it,” Igarashi said. “There will be lots of new eyes on us, a different kind of crowd and a lot bigger crowd, but it will give us an opportunity to show what we have as surfers.
“I’m proud to surf for Japan, and I will also represent California on the big stage, but most importantly, I represent the sport of surfing to the world. I hope we can put on a good show and go out there as one united team of surfers, battle it out and showcase our sport.”