By Timothy Fernandez and Jake Lapham
Stephanie Gilmore and Sally Fitzgibbons will have to wait until May next year to officially confirm their qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, even though they have satisfied the World Surf League (WSL) ranking requirement for Olympic qualification.
Fitzgibbons was knocked out of this week’s France Pro and seven-time world champion Gilmore failed to advance past the second round, but despite the results they sit third and fourth, respectively on the overall WSL rankings.
They have enough points to guarantee they will finish the year in the top eight, which means the pair have satisfied the Tokyo 2020 nomination criteria.
But the cork will remain in the champagne bottle for the time being, as Gilmore and Fitzgibbons still have one hoop to jump through to complete the complex Olympic qualification process.
It’s a complicated process
Surfing will be one of five sports debuting at next year’s Olympics and naturally there has been much discussion about the best way to decide which athletes get to compete.
An agreement between surfing’s two global governing bodies, the WSL and the International Surfing Association, was reached in 2017 to ensure the world’s best surfers were given every opportunity to compete at Tokyo 2020.
Forty surfers will be taking part in the event — 20 women and 20 men— with a maximum of two women and two men from each country allowed to compete.
Under the agreement, 18 of the 40 available places would be reserved for surfers on the WSL Championship Tour.
The remaining 22 places will be determined at the 2019 and 2020 ISA World Surfing Games, the 2019 Pan American Games and two slots for the host nation.
Heavyweight surfing countries like Australia, the United States and Brazil dominate the WSL rankings and Surfing Australia chief executive Chris Mater said the qualification system was necessary to ensure smaller countries got a chance to compete.
“The logic is that there’s not seven Brazilians, seven Americans and seven Australians competing,” he said.
“That there’s a more-diverse field so people from Italy and France and Costa Rica can represent their countries.”
The hardest part is over
Surfers like Gilmore and Fitzgibbons, who have provisionally secured a WSL Olympic qualification spot, will still need to represent their country at the ISA World Surfing Games next April to satisfy the qualification criteria.
But Mr Mater said the pair were only required to compete at the ISA World Surfing Games to guarantee spots for Tokyo, as their performances would not affect their eligibility for Olympic selection.
“It’s a bit of a technicality as their performances at the World Surfing Games won’t influence whether they make the team or not,” he said.
Mr Mater said the 18 reserved spots for the top surfers on the WSL Championship Tour would guarantee that the world’s best surfers would compete in Tokyo.
He said the real challenge for surfers was finishing in the top eight in the world.
“[They have] secured the WSL ranking requirement for qualification, that’s the toughest part in booking a spot in the Olympics,” Mr Mater said.
“But there’s another obligation, which is competing in the World Surfing Games in 2020.”
Who are the Aussie hopefuls?
Despite the bureaucratic hurdles, Gilmore and Fitzgibbons are almost certain to occupy two spots and don the green and gold in the women’s competition in Japan next year.
Owen Wright and Julian Wilson, currently ranked seventh and ninth respectively in the men’s standings, are the frontrunners to secure the remaining Australian WSL spots.
But Ryan Callinan, Wade Carmichael and Adrian Buchan are all still in the running, with two events remaining on this year’s tour.
The final nominations will ultimately come from the Australian Olympic Committee, which will be delivered after next year’s World Surfing Games.