After surfing, skateboarding and 3×3 basketball, Tokyo will see the entry of another new Olympic sport on Tuesday: rock climbing. The event will feature a unique format combining three very different climbing styles – a decision that has ruffled some feathers among enthusiasts of the sport.
In many emblematic Olympic sports, athletes specialize in very specific disciplines: the 100m butterfly, the 800m race, the balance beam or the pole vault. Those battling for the podium in the Games’ climbing debut will face a very different kind of challenge: a hybrid of three different competitions, normally split into separate championships.
Bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing merge in Tokyo under the umbrella of “sport climbing”. There will only be two sets of medals – one for men, one for women – with 20 athletes competing on each side.
“In order not to exclude one of the activities, the international federation has decided to merge the three disciplines; it has become a combination of the three,” Pierre-Henri Paillasson, national technical director at the French Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (FFME), told FRANCE 24. three disciplines.
The three areas involve very different skill sets. The lead involves climbing a 15-meter high wall, attaching your rope to the carabiners along the route as you ascend. You only get one try and whoever gets closest to the top wins.
Bouldering is more technical, with a lower wall (4.5 m) that can be climbed without a rope. The routes are known as “problems”, which climbers attempt to mentally map out before hitting the wall. In competition, climbers have a total of five minutes to “solve” a given problem, study it and aim to reach the last hold in as few tries as possible.
The sprint is simply a sprint to the top, still on a 15m wall but this time with a standardized course of twenty holds. The course, with its five-degree overhang and red amoeba-shaped holds, is identical in climbing gyms around the world.
“You have to tap into different skills for each discipline,” Cécileavezou, coach of the French lead climbing team, told FRANCE 24. “For the speed event, it’s about explosive power For bouldering, it’s strength, imagination and creativity.Lead climbing requires more sustained effort, so it involves adaptation, information gathering and control.
Speed climbing: the “least attractive” format?
The combination of the three events is not suitable for all athletes. The inclusion of speed climbing in particular annoys many, who argue that it lacks the problem-solving element common to bouldering and lead climbing.
Czech climber Adam Ondra, currently the best climber in the world, fears the sprint event could cost him Olympic gold.
“It really is the least appealing and least understandable format of any escalation format imaginable,” he told The New York Times. “Yes it was [always] part of climbing, but it was a very small group of people who were dedicated to speed.
*climber hat on* speed climbing being equally weighted with lead and bouldering is.. bonkers. just a totally unique discipline https://t.co/6IWpG5Qj2Z
— maria heeter (@heetermaria) July 24, 2021
It’s not that Ondra isn’t well-rounded: he’s actually known as one of the few climbers who excels both outdoors and in competition, including bouldering. But in the fast lane, it might just be one of the slowest in Tokyo. At 7.46 seconds, his best time in competition is almost 50 per cent slower than record holder Veddriq Leonardo of Indonesia at 5.2 seconds.
Others complained that speed climbing was only included because it made for good television, or even alleged Russian conspiracy, as modern speed climbing was largely developed in the Soviet Union. (Russian funding for the sport largely evaporated after 1989, however, and other countries have since caught up.)
Whatever momentum is given to the hybrid competition, it will not last beyond the Tokyo Games.
“It’s a first step, the combination of the three disciplines. At the Paris 2024 Games, there will be a second stage, i.e. the speed event will be separated from the combined bouldering and lead climbing event, ”Avezou explained.
For now, some speed climbers are hoping the common format could be their ticket to a medal. And they hope to win over some of their less enthusiastic counterparts to the discipline along the way.
“When I’m up against the wall, my only thought is to reach the buzzer at the top as quickly as possible,” Frenchwoman Anouck Jaubert told FRANCE 24. “To succeed, you have to be technical, know how to position your body, shift your center of gravity.
All of these skills are also crucial for directing climbing and bouldering. But speed requires extra legwork – and a willingness to travel the same route over and over again.
A French favorite
Jaubert will be joined by three teammates in Tokyo, making France one of the best-represented countries on climbing walls, along with the United States and Japan. It’s quite appropriate for a country that has played a key role in the development of modern climbing.
In 1492, France witnessed the first recorded major ascent using mechanical tools, after King Charles VIII ordered a military captain to scale the 2,000m Mont Aiguille – then known as name of “Inaccessible Mountain”. The captain relied on hooks, ladders and his experience besieging medieval castles to make the nearly vertical ascent, in a first mountaineering feat.
Four centuries later, in the late 1800s, members of the new French Alpine Club began gathering in the forest of Fontainebleau, outside of Paris, to practice their technique on its unique collection of rocks. Today, Fontainebleau remains one of the most iconic bouldering destinations in the world and lends its name to one of the three main grading systems used to rate the difficulty of climbs.
Even the current standardized speed climbing route was defined by a French climber, Jacky Godoffe, in 2005.
In Tokyo, however, the France team faces stiff competition, including Ondra of the Czech Republic; Janja Garnbret, six-time world champion, from Slovenia; Tomoa Narasaki and Akiyo Noguchi from Japan; and Rishat Khaibullin from Kazakhstan.
The qualifying rounds will take place on Tuesday and Wednesday, before the men’s finals on Thursday August 5 and the women’s finals on Friday.
The sport’s governing bodies hope that, despite a somewhat rocky start, rock climbing‘s presence in the Olympics will only add to its growing popularity. Already, escalation has exploded in recent years, fueled in part by the 2018 film “Free Solo.” In the Paris region alone, a dozen climbing gyms have opened in the past ten years, including five in just a year and a half, notwithstanding the pandemic.
At this rate, one thing is certain: the sport is far from its peak – and it is climbing faster than ever.