Sport climbing has climbed the Olympic wall for Tokyo 2020. From then on it should only go uphill.
An activity that is on the rise due to its combination of physical activity and exhilaration will climb a new frontier when the first rock is packed at the Olympics on August 3rd.
Here’s everything you should know about rock climbing:
Controversy! Since climbing was only awarded one Olympic medal by the International Olympic Committee for Tokyo 2020, it combined three disciplines.
In a typical competition, bouldering, speed climbing and lead climbing are all separate disciplines.
But the Olympics will have 20 men and 20 women in each discipline. The podium and the overall ranking are then determined by multiplying the individual placements from each event.
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Let’s say Canadian Sean McColl is second in bouldering, fourth in lead and sixth in speed climbing. Its total would be 2x4x6, which is 48.
The format meant that athletes who typically specialized in one or two of the three disciplines had to quickly learn the third.
CLOCK | Sport climbing explains:
In bouldering, the athletes have four minutes to freely climb up to three routes on a shorter wall than in the other two disciplines. You can fall and repeat as many times as necessary – think of it like the NBA’s dunking contest.
In speed climbing, it’s a straight sprint to the top of a 15-meter wall that usually takes about eight seconds. The event is contested in a bracket format.
Lead climbing is the way you may have tried rock climbing before. Climbers have six minutes to climb a 15 meter high wall as high as possible. As you fall, the height you have reached is recorded.
Podium candidates have to be careful not to lose their chances by placing too badly in their worst event. At least two top 3 finishes and one more in the middle of the field should do the job.
The multiplier means that every single point matters – when the points are added up, a place or two might not mean much. But with the multiplication, the stakes could grow exponentially.
Of the three new sports – excluding recurring sports like baseball and softball and a new discipline like 3×3 basketball – Canada has the best chance of climbing the podium, well, climbing.
McColl, 33, from North Vancouver, BC, has won four combined world championships despite narrowly qualifying for the Olympics with a 10th place finish at a 2019 world championship.
After showing up at the IOC to urge climbing, McColl needed first or second place in a lead climb to get to Tokyo. Then he nailed a “reckless” climb after originally clamping himself incorrectly in his harness to punch his ticket.
Still, McColl remains one of the most experienced competitors in all three events, with a total of 34 World Cup podiums in his career. He specializes in lead and bouldering, but he’s strong enough in speed to keep large numbers from blowing up his total.
Family friend Alannah Yip, a 27-year-old from Vancouver, had to win the 2020 Pan Am championships, but she did it after finishing fifth in speed, third in lead, and first in can give you an idea what it takes to land on the Olympic podium.)
CLOCK | McColl, Yip on Olympic preparation:
But Yip, who has a degree in mechanical engineering, will likely have a harder time making the podium than McColl.
One reason for this is Janja Garnbret.
Think Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Mikael Kingsbury, US women’s basketball. Garnbret is so dominant.
The 22-year-old Slovene swept six bouldering World Cup events in 2019, making him the first person to ever accomplish this feat. When it comes to lead, Garnbret is almost as unbeatable. If she can keep up with the pace, she’ll likely go straight to the top of the podium.
Among the men, the Czech Adam Ondra is a favorite, but not as a castle like Garnbret.
Ondra was disqualified from the event where McColl finished last Olympic place in 2019 before recovering to book his ticket to a 2020 event.
But Ondra is not just a competitive climber. Although he is versatile like McColl, he also devotes a lot of time to bouldering outdoors so that he can be hit on the plastic.
Hosts Japan has several athletes who can land on the podium for both women and men.
More than any other new sport, climbing wants to use the Olympic Games to expand its international reach.
While rooted as an activity, the games can help climbing hold its own as a sport and competition.
And growth has already begun: In Paris 2024, climbing was allocated two podium places per gender, which makes it possible to separate speed climbing from the other two disciplines and to include more athletes overall.
One step at a time.