By Sam Nussey
TOKYO (Reuters) – Sport climbing will debut at the Olympics next month in a controversial combo format that requires athletes to excel in three radically different disciplines in order to secure a single gold medal for each gender.
The athletes compete against each other in three disciplines: speed, which is a vertical sprint, bouldering, which requires strength and problem solving, and lead climb, an endurance test.
Gold goes to the climber with the lowest combined score, a multiplication of their placements in each of the three disciplines.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) medal limits at the first ever climbing games led to the decision to combine disciplines to get maximum exposure to the fast-growing sport, although that in turn means some of the world’s best climbers will not perform in Tokyo.
Even outstanding favorites like the Czech Adam Ondra have to fight for a chance for gold in weaker disciplines – in his case the head-to-head speed event.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on education have also added to the uncertainty.
“We’re all new to this format and we all play the game with very unpredictable results,” Ondra said in a previous YouTube video. “I have to say it makes it pretty exciting.”
The sport’s elite climbers are already showing results from panning in lesser-known disciplines.
Miho Nonaka, bouldering specialist and one of four Japanese competitors in the Games, finished third in speed at the Climbing World Cup in Salt Lake City last month.
“As the only discipline in which you compete against an opponent, I really understood that speed is not just a question of timing, it is a psychological battle,” said Nonaka on her YouTube channel.
Another Japanese athlete, Tomoa Narasaki, has also reduced his speed to 5.7 seconds, within striking distance of the 5.5 seconds recorded by Frenchman Bassa Mawem, a speed veteran and Tokyo’s oldest climber in 2020.
With 20 athletes and 20 athletes and the format favored by all-rounders, some of the world’s best climbers failed to qualify in their specialist disciplines.
Speed Hotspot Indonesia was unable to secure a single climbing spot at the games. One of the country’s best climbers, Veddriq Leonardo, set a world speed record of 5.208 seconds in a competition in Utah last month.
However, the setback may be temporary as speed will be separated from bouldering and lead climbing in Paris 2024, giving the sport’s young athletes more options and greater potential for record times.
(Reporting by Sam Nussey; Editing by Hugh Lawson)