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Tokyo Olympics 101: What are the new sports?

With a record 339 medal events taking place, the program for the Tokyo Olympics is bigger than ever.

The increase is largely driven by several new sports joining the Olympic program and other sports introducing new disciplines and new mixed-team events. Below is a rundown of what’s new for Olympic fans to look forward to during the Tokyo Games.


Several years ago, the IOC approved a series of reforms known as “Agenda 2020.” Some of the most notable changes to come out of it deal with how to handle setting the program for each Olympics. Host cities are now allowed to propose new events to add to their program, giving them the ability to introduce (or reintroduce) sports that are popular in their country, with a particular focus on youth-oriented sports.

There are six sports that will be joining the program for the Tokyo Olympics, four of which will be making their Olympic debuts.

BASEBALL

A baseball game played at night during the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Baseball was an Olympic sport as recently as 2008.Getty Images

Although baseball joined the Olympics as a medal event in 1992 (and was contested as an exhibition event several times prior to that), it was removed from the program after 2008. The sport is extremely popular in Japan, with the country’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league widely considered to be second only to Major League Baseball in talent. Japan has produced a number of MLB stars in recent decades, including players like Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish and Shohei Ohtani.

Six countries will participate in the Olympic baseball tournament. The tournament will start with opening-round pool play before moving into the knockout stage to determine the champion.

SOFTBALL

Team USA plays Japan in the gold medal final for softball at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Japan defeated the United States 3-1 in the softball gold medal game at the 2008 Olympics.Getty Images

Softball previously became a medal event in 1996, but like baseball, it was scrapped after 2008. The Tokyo Games will be a one-off for both sports, as neither one will be contested at the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Whereas the baseball tournament is men only, the softball tournament is women only.

The United States will join Japan, Australia, Italy, Mexico, and Canada in the six-team tournament. The opening round will feature each team playing each other in a round-robin format, and then the top two teams will advance directly to the gold medal game.

SKATEBOARDING

Leticia Bufoni slides down a rail during a skateboard street competition

Brazil’s Leticia Bufoni is one of the top women in skateboard street.Getty Images

The trend of adding action sports to the Olympics continues with the introduction of skateboarding (and a few others listed below). Tokyo will be the first time that skateboarding is on the Olympic program, but it won’t be the last — it’s already been approved for the 2024 Paris Games.

Two disciplines will be showcased at the Tokyo Games: park and street. Park competitions take place within a dome-shaped bowl, and skaters focus on maintaining good flow through the course while executing tricks. Street competitions feature a course with stairs, rails and other features that replicate popular real-world obstacles. In both disciplines, a group of judges will score each run.

SURFING

John John Florence surfing at the 2020 Pipe Masters competition

John John Florence has earned a provisional spot on the U.S. Olympic roster and will be one to watch at the Tokyo Games.World Surf League/Getty Images

Another action sport making its Olympic debut is surfing. Like skateboarding, it has also been approved for the 2024 Olympics, though that competition will take place in Tahiti (about 9,800 miles from Paris).

There will be a men’s contest and a women’s contest at the Tokyo Olympics, and both will feature preliminary-round heats followed by a head-to-head knockout competition. Events will take place at Tsurigasaki Beach in Ichinomiya (about 45 miles southeast of Olympic Stadium), and the contest window is very flexible — it’s not uncommon for a competition day to get postponed to a later day when better wave conditions are forecasted.

SPORT CLIMBING

Tomoa Narasaki competes at the 2019 Sport Climbing World Championships

Japan’s Tomoa Narasaki is the reigning world champion in sport climbing’s combined discipline.Getty Images

Though people have been climbing for sport for centuries, sport climbing as an organized competition didn’t start until 1985. Since then, it has gotten a boost from the increasing popularity of indoor climbing as a recreational activity and from suspenseful documentaries capturing the feats of outdoor rock climbers.

Sport climbing in Tokyo will be contested as a single event, with all three of the sport’s main disciplines (speed, bouldering, lead) being used in a combined format to determine an overall winner for both men and women. This presents a change from usual sport climbing competitions, which typically keep each of the three disciplines as separate events. Because athletes tend to specialize in just one or two disciplines, the Olympic will present a very unique challenge.

KARATE

Tom Scott competes in men's kumite at a tournament held at the Nippon Budokan

Karate will make its Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games.Getty Images

Karate was born in Okinawa, Japan in 1868, popularized across the rest of the country in the early 1900s, then spread globally after World War II. The martial art’s popularity and history in Japan resulted in inclusion for the Tokyo Games, but it will not be on the Olympic program in 2024.

There are two disciplines that will be featured at this year’s Olympics: kata and kumite. Kata is the demonstration discipline where athletes are judged on karate techniques, and kumite is the fighting discipline where athletes compete head-to-head. There are three weight classes each for men and women in the kumite discipline. Competition will take place at the Nippon Budokan, which hosted the first-ever World Karate Championships in 1970. 

In addition, several existing sports have expanded their programs to include brand-new events which will remain part of the Olympic program beyond this year.

BASKETBALL: 3X3

Robbie Hummel holds the basketball during a game of 3x3

3×3 is an outdoor version of basketball that resembles playground pickup games.Getty Images

Olympic basketball will debut two new medal events in Tokyo with men’s and women’s 3-on-3. While many of the basics are the same as the traditional 5×5 game, there are enough differences to make 3×3 a very distinct offshoot. Games are played on a half court, and scoring consists of 1-pointers and 2-pointers (instead of 2-pointers and 3-pointers). Games are also much shorter in 3×3, with a game ending after 10 minutes or after a team reaches 21 points, whichever comes first.

Each team can have one substitute on the bench, so the roster size for a 3×3 team is four players.

CYCLING: FREESTYLE BMX

Logan Martin does a BMX trick in the air at a park in Australia

Freestyle BMX features lots of big tricks.Getty Images

Another action sport making its Olympic debut in Tokyo, freestyle BMX is unlike any other event on the cycling program. That’s because there’s no racing involved with freestyle — it’s all about doing tricks within a specially-designed park. (In terms of competition format, it’s more similar to skateboarding than anything in the cycling program.)

The specific freestyle discipline that will be showcased at these Olympic Games is called BMX park. Each contest has a unique course that typically includes box jumps, walls and other features. Riders will get multiple runs through the course, and judges will score each run based on the difficulty and execution of the tricks done within that run.

VARIOUS SPORTS: MIXED TEAM EVENTS

Matt Grevers celebrates with Lilly King after winning mixed relay gold

Caeleb Dressel (bottom left), Matt Grevers (center), Lilly King (right) and Simone Manuel helped the U.S. take mixed medley relay gold at the 2017 World Championships.Getty Images

With gender equality a big focus for the Tokyo Olympics, several sports are debuting new mixed team events:

  • Swimming: A mixed 4x100m medley relay will feature teams of two men and two women from each country competing in a relay
  • Track & Field: A mixed 4x400m relay will feature teams of two men and two women from each country competing in a relay
  • Archery: A mixed team event will feature teams of one man and one woman competing head-to-head in match-play format
  • Judo: A mixed team event will feature athletes from six different weight classes (three men, three women) competing on each team
  • Shooting: Three mixed team events (air pistol, air rifle, trap) will debut, with one man and one woman comprising each team
  • Table Tennis: A mixed doubles event will feature teams of one man and one woman competing in a single-elimination tournament
  • Triathlon: A mixed team relay will feature teams of four (female-male-female-male in that order) with each athlete completing a shorter version of a triathlon known as a super sprint before tagging their next teammate.

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