A Guide to Climbing at the Olympics
Sport climbing is making its Olympic debut at the Tokyo 2021 games. It’s an exciting occasion but also a slightly confusing one. Until recently, competitive climbers tended to specialise in 1 of 3 disciplines:
A few climbers dabbled (and even fewer excelled) in both bouldering and lead but, generally speaking, climbers stuck to their specialty. Very few climbers regularly competed in all three disciplines.
When climbing was accepted as an Olympic sport, it was only allocated 1 medal despite featuring 3 very different disciplines. This left the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) (the body in charge of competitive climbing) in a bit of a pickle. Either choose 1 discipline to represent the whole community at the Olympics and risk excluding a huge amount of climbing talent from the biggest sporting show on earth. Or rewrite the rules of competition climbing and have all climbers compete in all 3 disciplines. In the end, the IFSC went for the second option and created the combined format of competition climbing.
The IFSC have put together a handy little video (IFSC Combined Olympic Format Explained) that gives you a very bare bones explanation of how the combined format will work at the Tokyo Olympics. I’m going to give you a slightly more thorough explanation here.
How Many Climbers Will Compete?
The qualification process for the Olympics was complicated before Covid-19 hit and since then it’s become even more confusing, so I won’t go into too much detail about how they qualified. For now, let’s just keep it simple.
20 men and 20 women have qualified for the Olympics. All nations are allowed a maximum of 2 athletes per gender.
For a full list of the climbers who have qualified for the games and for more information on how they got there, check out the IFSC’s website.
This short series of videos on the Olympic Channel website features interviews with some of the climbers who have qualified and some clips from the qualification event in Toulouse, France, in 2019.
When is it All Happening?
The sport climbing portion of the Tokyo Olympic games will take place over 4 consecutive days:
Tuesday 3rd August – Men's qualification (5 – 10:40pm)
Wednesday 4th August – Women's qualification (5 – 10:40pm)
Thursday 5th August – Men's final (5:30 – 10:20pm)
Friday 6th August – Women's final (5:30 – 10:20pm)
*All times given are in local time. I don’t trust myself to give you accurate times in other time zones, wherever you may be in the world. I suggest you Google it!
Competition Format - Overview
The competition consists of 2 rounds.
All 20 climbers compete in all 3 disciplines (speed, bouldering, and lead) in a long, grueling day of climbing. The day begins with speed, then bouldering, and finishes with lead.
The climbers are ranked from best (1st) to worst (20th) for each discipline and these rankings translate to points. The climber who comes 1st gets 1 point, 2nd gets 2 points, and so on until the last climber, who gets 20 points.
Their scores for each discipline are then multiplied together to give each climber their combined total. The aim of the game is to have the lowest possible score, ideally by coming first in all three disciplines and scoring a grand total of 1 point!
Here’s a hypothetical example to demonstrate how the scoring system works. Let’s say our climber, Burly von Crimpsalot, has placed:
17th in speed
2nd in bouldering
3rd in lead
Their overall score would be 17 x 2 x 3 = 102
At the end of the qualification round, the 8 climbers with the lowest scores progress to the . . .
This follows a very similar format.
The scores from the qualification round do not contribute to the scores in the final. Everyone starts with a clean slate.
Once again, all climbers compete in all three disciplines (speed, bouldering, and lead). They score ranking points for each discipline (this time between 1 and 8), which are again multiplied together to give them their final score. The climber with the lowest combined score claims the title of first ever Olympic gold medalist in Sport Climbing. Not a bad day’s work.
Now let’s look a little closer at each of the three disciplines individually.
Anatomy of a Competition Speed Wall
The speed climbing wall is 15 metres high and 5 degrees overhanging. It has 2 lanes (labelled A and B) next to each other that are 3 metres wide. Both lanes feature the exact same holds, in the exact same places so they are as close to identical as possible.
Climbers are attached to automatic belay devices (sort of like seatbelts) that catch them when they finish the route (or fall) and lower them gracefully back down to earth.
The times are recorded using touch pads. The timer starts when the climber lifts their foot off one touch pad at the bottom of the wall and stops when they hit the second touch pad at the top of the wall.
Fastest wins. Simple.
Each climber runs once in lane A and once in lane B. There’s some slight complication if false starts or unsuccessful runs are involved. But put simply, the climbers are ranked (from 1st to 20th) according to their best times out of the two runs.
The table above shows the order of races and how the climbers are paired up in the combined final. As you can see, it’s a little complicated and hard to describe!
All 8 climbers run 3 head-to-head races.
In the first set of races (labelled “¼ stage” in the table above) the climbers are paired up based on their qualification ranking:
1st fastest vs 8th fastest
2nd fastest vs 7th fastest
3rd fastest vs 6th fastest
4th fastest vs 5th fastest
In the second set of races (labelled “½ stage” in the table above) the climbers that won their first race are paired up for another 2 head-to-head races. The climbers that lost their first race are also paired up for another 2 head-to-head races.
In the third and final set of races (labelled “Final stage” in the table above) the winners and losers from the second set of races are once again paired up. These last head-to-head races decide the climbers final ranking points (from 1 to 8) that will be multiplied together with the ranking points from the other two disciplines.
Anatomy of a Competition Boulder
Here is an example of the kind of boulder you’ll see at the Olympics.
The “Start” label and four pieces of tape indicate which holds the climber should use to start the boulder and how many points of contact they must have on each hold. In this case, they begin with 2 hands or 2 feet (or 1 hand and 1 foot) on each of the 2 start holds, marked with pink tape on the right-hand side. The most obvious way to start this boulder would be with 2 hands on the higher hold and 2 feet on the lower hold but it’s not always that straightforward.
Roughly halfway up the boulder you find the zone hold. In this case, the zone hold is indicated by the “Zone” label and the green tape. Specifically, the zone hold here is the smaller red hold, not the bigger round beast of a hold it’s attached to. As we will discuss in the scoring section below, the number of zone holds a climber reaches contributes to their final score.
And finally, we have the top hold. The one every competition climber dreams of getting their hands on. It’s not enough to simply tap the top hold as you fly past it or fall to the floor. A climber is only deemed to have topped the boulder when they have both hands in control on this hold. In this case, the top hold is the black hold (not the red hold it’s attached to) in the top left corner, marked with a “Top” label and pink tape.
Bouldering uses a 4-tier scoring system:
Tops – getting to the top of a boulder (most important)
Zones – reaching the designated zone hold, roughly halfway up a boulder
Attempts to top(s) – the number of attempts needed to reach the top(s)
Attempts to zone(s) – the number of attempts needed to reach the zone(s) (least important)
Let’s use this scoreboard from a previous competition as an example.
Although Janja (1st) and Akiyo (2nd) both climbed all 4 boulders, giving them both a score of 4 tops and 4 zones, Janja wins because she only needed 8 attempts to get the 4 tops compared to Akiyo’s 12 attempts.
If they had both taken the same number of attempts to get 4 tops, they would have been separated by attempts to get the 4 zones. In this case, Janja also has fewer attempts to zones so is again ranked above Akiyo.
Jessica is 3rd because she has 1 fewer top than Janja and Akiyo. Petra (4th) beats Futaba (5th) because she has 1 more zone. And Katja is 6th because she has no tops and everyone else has at least 1.
If two climbers are tied on tops, zones, and attempts then they are ranked by the number of tops they attained on the 1st attempt, then the 2nd attempt, and so on.
If they are still tied then they are ranked by the number of zones they attained on the 1st attempt, then the 2nd attempt, and so on.
All 20 climbers attempt 4 boulders, which they have not seen before. They have 5 minutes to climb each boulder and 5 minutes rest in between boulders. Climb, rest, climb, rest, repeat.
The climbers are ranked from 1 to 20 using the scoring system above.
As a group, the climbers have 2 minutes to preview each of 3 new boulders, so 6 minutes in total.
Boulder 1 is then climbed by all 8 climbers, one after the other (although the climbers do not watch each other's attempts), and so on for boulders 2, and 3. In this round the climbers only have 4 minutes to attempt each boulder.
The climbers are ranked from 1 to 8 using the scoring system above. These rankings are translated to points and multiplied together with the ranking points from the other disciplines.
In the final, in the unlikely event that 2 climbers are tied, they will be ranked according to who did better in the bouldering qualification round.
Anatomy of a Competition Lead Route
Here’s a lead climbing route from a previous competition as an example.
Lead walls must be at least 15m high. They can be a range of angles, but they often start off close to vertical, have a steeper section in the middle, then finish with another less overhanging section at the top.
The climber starts at the bottom and has to climb to the top, clipping the rope through all the quickdraws (the things that stop the climber from dying when they fall off) in order along the way. The climber tops the route when they clip the final quickdraw at the top of the wall.
For this particular route, the climber starts on the blue holds at the bottom right, heads up and left to the blue pointy holds, before traversing back right again on the big round holds, then finally heads back up and left again to the big quarter circle at the very top left-hand corner of the wall.
Every lead climbing route is made up of a series of numbered handholds. The first hold is hold 1, the second hold is hold 2 and so on until you reach the top hold, which is simply called “Top”. The route in the image above has 45 handholds so the first 44 are numbered 1 to 44 and the last hold is the Top.
Whichever hold the climber reaches gives them their score. So, if they reach the 23rd hold they get a score of 23.
If a climber reaches a hold and then uses it to move towards the next hold before falling off, then a plus is added to their score. So, if they held the 23rd hold and lunged in the direction of the 24th hold, they would score 23+.
If 2 or more climbers reach the same handhold and therefore achieve the same score, the climbers are ranked according to the time it took them to reach that handhold (the faster the better).
The climbers have a maximum of 6 minutes to complete the route. If they are still on the wall when the 6 minutes runs out, their score is taken from the last handhold they used within the 6 minute time limit.
The climbers have 6 minutes to observe the route en masse. They all then have 1 attempt to climb the route.
The climbers are ranked from 1 to 20 using the scoring system above.
The climbers have 6 minutes to observe the route en masse. This is a different route to the one they climbed in the qualification round. They all then have 1 attempt to climb the route.
The climbers are ranked from 1 to 8 using the scoring system above.
In the final, if any climbers are tied on score and time, they will be ranked according to who did better in the lead qualification round.
A Good Place to Start
As this is quite a new format for competition climbing, there are not a lot of competitions that have used it before. It’s a big investment of time (around 4 ½ to 5 hours) to watch a full combined climbing competition so I’d suggest settling down to watch one on a rainy day with many beverages and snacks to keep you going.
The one I suggest starting with is the women’s final of the Pan-American Championships (2020).
Whoever won this competition was going to the Olympics (unless they were American, because the USA had already met their quota of 2 female athletes). Alannah Yip of Canada had been close to qualifying for the Olympics at 2 previous events and this was her last shot. Coming into the lead round, the whole audience knew exactly which hold she had to reach on the lead wall to make her Olympic dreams come true. I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you what happened. Let’s just say, I cry every time I watch this competition. I cry a lot when I watch sport but this one really got me in the feelings.
Who Will Win the Olympics?
From what I’ve seen/heard/read, the 2 climbers that are the favourites to take the gold medals in Tokyo are Janja Garnbret (Slovenia) for the women and Tomoa Narasaki (Japan) for the men.
Commentators have run out of superlatives to describe how good Janja Garnbret is at competition climbing. She’s won almost everything there is to win in bouldering and lead climbing competitions. On a good day she’s absolutely unstoppable. In fact, she’s hard to beat on an average day. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Janja will win both the bouldering and lead rounds, meaning even a pretty shoddy performance on the speed wall won’t stop her taking the gold. She doesn’t exactly have a lot of weaknesses. She occasionally struggles on less powerful boulders on vertical or slab walls and her dynamic style can be a bit risky so she’s not immune to making the odd mistake. Even so, if I had to put my money on anybody to take the women’s gold, I’d put it on her.
I’m fairly convinced Tomoa Narasaki is entirely made of fast-twitch muscle fibers. He’s just so bouncy and an absolute wonder to behold on moves that require coordination and dynamism. Most of the climbers you’ll see at the Olympics had barely touched a speed wall before the combined format was introduced and, for many, it’s been difficult adjusting to this somewhat alien world. Undoubtedly Tomoa’s springy style of climbing has helped him achieve some extremely impressive times on the speed wall. At the time of writing, his personal best is 5.73 seconds, which is not far off the world record (5.208 seconds). With times like this Tomoa could certainly give even the speed climbing specialists a run for their money. He’s also a World Cup season champion and World Champion of bouldering (follow this link to a previous blog post for more information on these competitions) so he’s expected to do well in the bouldering round too. His weakest discipline is lead but he’s won a few lead climbing medals as well so he’s no slouch there either.
Akiyo Noguchi (Japan) for the women.
Akiyo is an absolute legend of the game and possibly the most consistent competitive boulderer ever. Akiyo has been on the podium at the end of every World Cup bouldering season since 2008, except in 2016 when she came 4th. That’s 12 years of consistently being one of the best boulderers in the world. She’s also won bronze and silver medals in lead climbing competitions. Speed is definitely her weakest round as it far from suits her static and controlled style of climbing. I certainly wouldn’t rule her out with the support of her home crowd behind her in Tokyo.
Jakob Schubert (Austria) for the men.
I imagine there will be people reading this wondering why on earth I haven’t picked Adam Ondra as my men’s wildcard. Jakob maybe isn’t the obvious pick. This choice is admittedly slightly motivated by my desire to receive a long and reassuring hug from Jakob’s beautifully sculpted arms and shoulders. However, let’s put my fantasies aside for a second.
Like Akiyo, Jakob has demonstrated an impressive level of consistency. He’s won lead medals in every World Cup season between 2008 and 2018 and picked up a fair few bouldering medals along the way, including a few golds. He’s also one of only a handful of climbers who have won the overall World Cup season titles in both lead and bouldering. His times at previous events suggest he won’t be challenging the speed specialists at the Olympics, but if he climbs his best on the boulders and the lead wall, he may not need to in order to win gold.
Whoever wins, it’s going to be an exciting time for sport climbing as it takes its first step onto the biggest sporting stage in the world.
The Finer Details
What I’ve tried to provide here is a detailed but hopefully not too overwhelming account of how the combined competition format will work at the Tokyo Olympics. For the sake of brevity, there are rules and finer details that I have not included. If you have any questions or have spotted something crucial that I’ve missed do please drop me a comment below.
If you want more information on the subject, I’d recommend checking out the IFSC website, where you can find a full copy of the rules for the Olympics and other climbing competitions. Additionally, you can watch several years’ worth of competitions (combined and the individual disciplines) on the IFSC YouTube channel.
Feel free to comment with your predictions for Olympics or who you’ll be supporting. As you can probably tell, I’m always happy to chat about competition climbing. Also check out my related posts below for guides to other climbing competition formats.
IFSC Website for all your in-depth competition climbing needs and know-how
All images of the climbers mentioned by name are from their Wikipedia pages. Here are links to these pages for photographer credits and more information about the climbers and their competition history: