The 2020 Olympics will feature surfing, skateboarding, baseball, karate and more

Surfing on the California coastline at dusk in Cardiff.

The International Olympic Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to add new sports to the official games roster, in an effort organizers hope will get young people pumped again about the event.

Surfing, skateboarding, karate and sport climbing will join the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 — and baseball and softball, considered one sport, will return to the games.

It's all part of a new public engagement strategy, the IOC explained.

“In many ways, the sports that have come in signal a vision for how we want to present sport and how we want to use sport to engage at future Olympic Games,” IOC sports director Kit McConnell told reporters in Rio de Janeiro. The goal is “to not just expect the youth of the world to come to us, but to use the Olympic program to reach out to young people.”

In 2014, the IOC approved a new roadmap that allows the organizing committees for each Olympic Games greater flexibility to propose which sports should be included.

The Tokyo 2020 committee, the first able to take advantage of the new rules, proposed the package of five sports in 2014, and it was approved over the last two years.

For Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association, Wednesday’s vote marks the culmination of a journey he began two decades ago.

Aguerre has been campaigning to include surfing in the Olympics ever since he learned that legendary Hawaiian surfer and three-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer, Duke Kahanamoku, had appealed to have the sport included in 1920. Aguerre said he faced numerous setbacks along the way, but that ultimately his dream has come true.

“It was a little bit like surfing,” Aguerre said. “You start paddling to catch the wave, sometimes the wave leaves you behind. Then you paddle back out and then there’s another problem, and then it gets blown out and you don’t surf any more.”

Olympic surfing faces an obvious challenge: How do you hold a surfing competition in a city or a country that doesn’t have a coastline, or rideable waves?

Tokyo 2020 won’t be a problem in this regard, since Japan has a long and strong surfing tradition and plenty of surf spots. And Aguerre said that of the cities competing to hold the next Olympics in 2024, Budapest is the only one without a coastline.

For landlocked countries, wave pools could pose a solution, Aguerre said.

The surfing community was rocked by the recent announcement that 11-time world champion surfer Kelly Slater has led a successful effort to build a new type of wave pool in California. Videos and images of surfers in the pool show conditions and waves that could revolutionize surfing and put waves in otherwise surf-free cities.

Ultimately, however, Aguerre said he hopes the Olympics can harness surfing as a sport that takes people out into nature.

“There’s no other way that you can really walk out of a city and find nature so close as in a beach,” he said. “You literally walk 100 yards and you go through the sand and you’re in the ocean, in full nature, with all the challenges — rocks, reefs, corals, sharks, stingrays, everything! This is not playing ball.”

Aguerre, who is from Argentina and founded the surfwear brand Reef Brazil, said he would ideally have liked to see surfing debut in Rio this year. As PRI has reported, however, the Brazilian megacity has serious water pollution issues, and professional surfers have reported getting sick during surfing events here.

Aguerre said he hopes Olympic surfing could force future host cities to confront similar water pollution issues.

“You probably won’t find a surfer that is not an environmentalist,” Aguerre said. “You will find no surfer that is not an ocean protector, an ocean defender, concerned about what mankind does to the ocean.”

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.