For its Olympic debut, rock climbing tests a controversial new contest format

·6-min read

After surfing, skateboarding and 3x3 basketball, Tokyo will on Tuesday see the entry of another new Olympic sport: rock climbing. The event will feature a unique format combining three very different styles of climbing – a decision that has ruffled some feathers among the sport’s devotees.

In many of the iconic Olympic sports, athletes specialise in hyper-specific disciplines: the 100m butterfly, the 800m run, the beam or the pole vault. Those fending for the podium in the Games’ climbing debut will face a very different kind of challenge: a hybrid of three different competitions, normally divided into separate championships.

Bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing are merging in Tokyo under the umbrella of “sport climbing”. There will be only 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 decided to merge the three disciplines; it’s become a combination of the three,” Pierre-Henri Paillasson, national technical director at the French Federation of Mountaineering and Climbing (FFME), told FRANCE 24. “So the athletes here are not specialised in all three disciplines.”

The three areas involve very different sets of skills. Lead involves climbing a 15-metre high wall, clipping your rope to carabiners along the route as you make your way up. You only get one try, and whoever gets closest to the top wins.

Bouldering is more technical, with a lower wall (4.5m) that you climb without a rope. The routes are known as “problems”, which climbers attempt to map out mentally before hitting the wall. In competition, climbers get a total of five minutes to “solve” a given problem, studying it and seeking to reach the last hold in as few tries as possible.

The speed race is simply a sprint to the top, again on a 15m wall but this time with a standardised route of twenty holds. The route, 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,” Cécile Avezou, 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 a more sustained effort, so it involves adaptation, information gathering and control.”

Speed climbing: the ‘least attractive’ format?

The combination of the three events doesn’t sit well with all athletes. The inclusion of speed climbing in particular rankles many, who argue that it lacks the problem-solving element common to both bouldering and lead climbing.

Czech climber Adam Ondra, currently the top-ranked climber in the world, fears the speed event could cost him Olympic gold.

“It is really the least attractive, least understandable format of all climbing formats imaginable,” he told the New York Times. “Yes, it was [always] part of climbing, but it was a very narrow group of people dedicating themselves to the speed.”

It’s not that Ondra isn’t well rounded: he is actually known as one of rare climbers who excels both outdoors and in competition, including in bouldering. But on the speed route, he could well be one of the slowest in Tokyo. At 7.46 seconds, his best time in competition is almost 50 percent slower than that of record-holder Veddriq Leonardo, of Indonesia, at 5.2 seconds.

Others have complained that speed climbing was only included because it makes for good TV, or even alleged a Russian conspiracy, as modern speed climbing developed largely in the Soviet Union. (Russian funding for the sport largely evaporated after 1989, however, and other countries have since caught up.)

Whatever the impetus for the hybrid contest, it won’t last beyond the Tokyo Games.

“This is a first step, the combination of the three disciplines. In the Paris 2024 Games, there will be a second step – that is, the speed event will be separate from the combined bouldering and lead climbing event,” Avezou explained.

For now, some speed climbing specialists are hoping the joint format could be their ticket to a medal. And they hope to win some of their less enthusiastic counterparts over to the discipline along the way.

“When I’m at the foot of the wall, my only thought is to reach the buzzer at the top as quickly as possible,” France’s Anouck Jaubert said to FRANCE 24. “To succeed, you have to be technical, know how to place your body, move your centre of gravity.”

All of these skills are crucial to lead climbing and bouldering, too. But speed demands an extra blast from the legs – and a willingness to endlessly zip up the same route.

A French favourite

Jaubert will be joined by three teammates in Tokyo, making France one of the best-represented countries on the climbing walls, along with the United States and Japan. It’s fitting for a country that played a key role in the development of modern climbing.

In 1492, France witnessed the first major recorded ascent using mechanical tools, after King Charles VIII ordered a military captain to scale the 2,000m Mont Aiguille – then known as “Mount Inaccessible”. The captain relied on hooks, ladders and his experience in besieging medieval castles to make the near-vertical ascent, in an early feat of mountaineering.

Four centuries later, in the late 1800s, members of the newly formed French Alpine Club began to gather in the forest of Fontainebleau, outside of Paris, to practice their technique on its unique collection of boulders. Today, Fontainebleau remains among the world’s most iconic bouldering destinations, and lends its name to one of the three main grading systems used to rate the difficulty of climbs.

Even the current, standardised speed climbing route was set by a French climber, Jacky Godoffe, in 2005.

In Tokyo, though, the French team is up against stiff competition, including Ondra, of the Czech Republic; six-time world champion Janja Garnbret, of Slovenia; Tomoa Narasaki and Akiyo Noguchi of Japan; and Rishat Khaibullin of Kazakhstan.

The qualifying rounds will take place 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, climbing’s presence at the Olympics will only add to its rapidly growing popularity. Already, climbing has boomed in recent years, fuelled in part by the 2018 film “Free Solo”. In the Paris area alone, about a dozen climbing gyms have opened over the last decade, including five in just the last year and a half, pandemic notwithstanding.

At this rate, one thing is certain: the sport is far from reaching its peak – and it’s climbing faster than ever.

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