Surfing finally makes Olympic bow under blazing Japan sun

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Under blue skies and a blazing sun, surfing made its Olympic debut on Sunday, more than a century after Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku first pushed for its inclusion at the Games.

The action began early at Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Tokyo, with the first surfers paddling out in favourable wave conditions.

Brazil's Italo Ferreira, the 2019 world champion, who learned to surf standing on the foam box his father sold fish from, caught the first wave as the men's heats got under way.

"I'm so glad to be here, for sure," said Ferreira, dripping with water and beaming as he stood on the dark brown sand.

"It's special for the fans, for the surfers. All the surfers are watching at home. It's special for everyone."

Sunday's competition saw the start of the men's and women's heats -- featuring 20 riders in each event.

But it also marked a huge milestone for the sport in general, with efforts to get it added to the Olympic programme dating back more than 100 years.

"I cannot take my mask off, but behind this mask is a very happy face," said flamboyant International Surfing Association president Fernando Aguerre, resplendent in a Hawaiian shirt, straw hat and shell necklace.

"I believed that it was possible, but many times there were such odds against us. So difficult. There was not really a clear process for a couple of decades."

The biggest names in the competition safely negotiated the opening rounds, with Ferreira and Brazilian compatriot Gabriel Medina winning their men's heats.

In the women's event, American Carissa Moore and Australian seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore both progressed.

The waves on Sunday were bigger than they had been leading up to the competition, with Ferreira saying they offered "more opportunity" for spectacular moves.

- Storm threat -

Conditions have been helped by a tropical storm approaching off the Japanese coast, which could dramatically affect the four days of competition.

"Everyone can say they know the ocean and they have advantages or whatever, but every wave is different," said Japan's Kanoa Igarashi.

"It's about adapting, about who can surf the best in every condition, and I think the winner will be well-deserved."

Igarashi, whose father grew up surfing on the same beach, is one of the home favourites, with his bleach-blond hair and mega-watt smile.

But fans have been locked out of all but a handful of events at the Tokyo Games, with organisers wary of turning them into a virus super-spreader event.

Large barriers prevented locals from sneaking a look at the surfers, although a huge sign in support of female Japanese rider Mahina Maeda could be seen draped on a nearby hill.

"I had a ticket for the final, but we're in a pandemic so it can't be helped," local guest-house owner Muneharu Yamaura told AFP.

"Only the people who surf here are excited about it. People who don't -- I don't think they welcome it."

There was plenty of excitement inside the venue however, with every surfer stepping onto the Olympic stage for the first time.

"It's a fun experience, it's amazing being here," said American John John Florence, who failed to make it through the first heat but qualified through the repechage later in the day.

"I was thinking that all the way to 2024, 2028, hopefully it will be in those Olympics as well. I think it's amazing for our sport and I'm happy to be here."

amk/jw

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