Sport climbing to make its Olympic debut

Who are the athletes to watch out for?

Next month, forty of the world's best competition climbers will descend on Tokyo.

The roster includes names like Adam Ondra, who is best known for scaling hard outdoor climbs.

And Shauna Coxsey, the UK's most successful competition climber.

Despite concerns about a potential spike in Covid-19 cases, the games appear to be going ahead as planned. For the first time, it includes a climbing event — marking a new era for the sport.

Athletes will rely on their power, agility, and finger strength to compete for the first ever Olympic medals awarded to climbers.

Three different disciplines - bouldering, lead climbing, and speed climbing - are combined into a single event at the Tokyo games; a format that has been criticised by the climbing community.

"It's a bit like asking Usain Bolt to run a marathon and then do the hurdles," said Shauna Coxsey when interviewed about the decision.

Why were climbers surprised by this format? To understand, you need to know how each of the disciplines work.

In lead climbing, athletes attempt to climb as high as they can on an overhanging wall measuring 15 metres in height.

The route is different for every competition, and the athletes get only a few minutes to observe the route before climbing it.

While climbing the route, athletes clip their rope to carabiners attached to the wall.

The goal is to get higher than anyone else. If two climbers reach the same high point, then whoever gets there fastest wins.

Bouldering is more explosive and dynamic than lead climbing.

The wall is a maximum of 4 meters in height, which means that athletes don't need a rope.

The style of modern competition bouldering is sometimes compared to parkour — with moves that involve a high degree of coordination.

Routes in bouldering are called problems, because they are essentially vertical puzzles.

The goal is to solve as many problems as possible, with the lowest number of attempts.

In speed climbing, athletes race up a wall in mere seconds — barely touching the holds as they go.

The route is constructed according to a specific blueprint, and never changes between competitions.

It is arguably the most artificial of the three disciplines, as speed climbing can only be done on man-made walls.

Given the differences between these three disciplines, they are usually regarded as separate from each other — with each having their own competitions.

At the Tokyo Olympics however, athletes will have to perform well in all three to stand a chance of winning a medal. The final score is calculated by multiplying a competitor's place in each of the competitions.

Here's how that works: a win in all three disciplines means a perfect score of 1.

1 x 1 x 1 = 1

From there it quickly gets more complicated. Adam Ondra, for instance, excels at both lead climbing and bouldering. He might get a first place in lead climbing, a second place in bouldering, and a 15th place in the speed category. His total score would then be:

1 x 2 x 15 = 30

It wouldn't be a bad result, but he would lose against someone who finished third in all three.

3 x 3 x 3 = 27

The way the math works out isn't immediately obvious. To win, competitors will likely have to place first in two disciplines, or make it to the top three in all of them.

Who has the advantage?

Within this system, athletes that generally perform well in more than one discipline are likely to get a better result.

The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), maintains world rankings for lead, bouldering, and speed climbing. Many athletes are ranked in multiple disciplines, but only a few manage to rise to the top in more than one.

Only two of the qualified women rank in the top 10 for multiple disciplines

A missing number indicates that an athlete is not included in the world ranking for this discipline.

Out of the 20 women who qualified for the Olympics, only two rank in the top 10 for more than one discipline.

Janja Garnbret stands out, as she is the only one to rank number one in both lead and bouldering.

Garnbret has dominated both lead climbing and bouldering competitions for the past few years. She went undefeated for the entire 2019 bouldering season, which is a feat that will likely not be repeated anytime soon.

Only three of the qualified men rank in the top 10 for multiple disciplines

A missing number indicates that an athlete is not included in the world ranking for this discipline.

It's a similar story for the men. Only three of them rank in the top 10 for more than one discipline.

Out of those three, Adam Ondra is the only one to rank in the top three in two disciplines.

There were a number of pathways to qualify for the games, but the IFSC Combined World Championships 2019 in Hachioji, Japan, was the first and the biggest one. Of the twenty spots to be filled for each gender, seven were awarded based on the results of this competition.

First and second place went to Janja Garnbret and Akiyo Noguchi respectively, which corresponds to their high rankings in both lead and bouldering. Third place went to Shauna Coxsey, who set a new British speed climbing record in the process.

Shauna Coxsey has previously dominated the World Cup bouldering circuit, winning both the 2016 and the 2017 seasons. Despite her weaker track record in competition lead climbing, her result in Hachioji shows that she can’t be discounted as a serious competitor for Olympic gold.

Her aptitude for the speed wall could give her an edge over other bouldering specialists, most of whom struggle to add this new skill to their repertoire.

Shauna Coxsey at the IFSC Bouldering World Cup, Munich 2015. Photo by Henning Schlottmann.

Rishat Khaibullin took a surprise third place in the men’s competition. The Kazakh climber won the speed portion, and managed to get an impressive 5th place in lead, and 8th in bouldering as well.

In a video posted to Adam Ondra’s YouTube channel , the two climbers are shown to be training for the Olympic competition together. With Khaibullin’s ability in speed climbing, and Ondra’s mastery of lead climbing, they should be able to learn from each other — making both of them strong contenders in Tokyo.

The competition was a disappointment for Alex Megos, who still managed to place 8th overall after injuring his finger during the combined finals. In the qualification he had won both lead and bouldering disciplines, showing that he is capable of a great performance in Tokyo, even though he has only been seriously competing since 2017.

Megos previously focused on difficult outdoor climbs. He has done some of the toughest routes in the world, often with significantly less practice than it took others to do the same.

His recent ascent of Bibliographie, reasserted his position as the only climber who can hold a candle to Adam Ondra’s outdoor performance. If Megos correctly assessed the difficulty of that climb, this accomplishment would only be rivalled by Ondra's scaling of a route called Silence, in Norway.

Adam Ondra on Silence (9c/5.15d). Photo by Pavel Blazek.

What can we expect in Tokyo?

With the Olympics having been postponed by a year, and many cancelled competitions because of the pandemic, it is virtually impossible to predict who will be at their best during the Olympic climbing event.

Assuming that athletes have had access to their training facilities during lockdown, they will have had significantly more time to prepare than they would have had under normal circumstances. This additional training might mean that the field this year looks very different from how it did before.

Based on their rankings and their results in the main qualification event, Janja Garnbret, Akiyo Noguchi and Shauna Coxsey look like they will be the ones to beat in the women’s competition.

Nonetheless, there will likely be some surprises, and young climbers like Laura Rogora might be hitting their stride at just the right moment. Rogora, age 19, did not perform particularly well at the qualification events, but she has posted very good results in the youth circuit.

Laura Rogora on Ali Hulk Sit Extension Total (9b/5.15b). Photo by Marco Iacono.

It might be even harder to make predictions on the men’s side. Adam Ondra and Tomoa Narasaki are certainly favourites, but Jakob Schubert and Alex Megos also look like they could take home the gold if they happen to have a good day.

Then there’s Rishat Khaibullin’s third place in Hachioji, which can’t be ignored. If his training with Ondra pays off, he could prove to have a few more surprises up his sleeve.

Finally, you have Colin Duffy, Alberto Ginés López, Kai Harada, and YuFei Pan. All of them are young climbers that have shown tremendous promise. With the extra time they have to train, one of them might just be able to take on the likes of Adam Ondra and Tomoa Narasaki.

No matter the results, the first ever Olympic climbing competition will be a spectacle. As elite climbers fight for a spot on the podium, the sport enters a new phase — taking its position on the athletic world's biggest stage.