Review of Climbing's First Olympics
After a very long wait, climbing made its Olympic debut at the Toky0 2020. If you haven’t read my previous post about the combined Olympic format, go and give it a shoofty so you know how the competition format worked and how the scores were calculated.
In this post, I’ll give you a summary of who won and how they did it (massive spoiler alert!). I’ll also give you my opinion on the routesetting, the overall event, and discuss the future of climbing at the Olympics.
Brothers Mickael and Bassa Mawem stole the show in the men’s qualification round.
Mickael, in particular, absolutely smashed it, coming 3rd in speed, 1st in bouldering, and 11th in lead giving him a combined score of 33, making him the top qualifier for the final.
Going into the Olympics, it was well known that Mikael was significantly faster on the speed wall than many other non-speed specialists and he’s generally known to be a strong boulderer. But he certainly surprised me with how impressively he cruised the difficult (and very entertaining) set of boulders. Going into the lead round, his incredible performance in the first two disciplines meant he was basically guaranteed a very well-deserved place in the final.
Winning the speed round was crucial for the speed specialists. A place in the final would be extremely hard to come by with anything less than a win in speed. While others crumbled under the pressure, Mikael’s big (both in age and stature!) brother Bassa held his nerve. He climbed half a second faster than anyone else and when a whole race takes about six seconds, that’s a massive margin. He won the speed round, came 18th in bouldering, and 20th in lead, which meant he would join his brother in the final.
Or he would have done had his left bicep not horribly betrayed him just a few moves into the lead route.
If you’re squeamish I hope you didn’t watch this moment too closely. Bassa reached up and over to the next hold and as he weighted his left hand you could actually see the bulge of his bicep shrink as the muscle ruptured and retracted. It made my own biceps quiver with fright.
After frantic speculation about how bad the injury might be, Bassa eventually confirmed that he wouldn’t be able to compete in the final and that Mikael would be flying the flag for the family and team France.
Aside from that there weren’t many surprises. I expected Tomoa Narasaki, Adam Ondra, Jakob Schubert, and whichever speed climber won that discipline to make the final but considered the other 4 spots very much up for grabs.
The eight climbers who qualified for the final were:
Mikael Mawem (France)
Tomoa Narasaki (Japan)
Colin Duffy (USA)
Jakob Schubert (Austria)
Adam Ondra (Czech Republic)
Alberto Gines Lopez (Spain)
Bassa Mawem (France) (withdrew from the final due to injury)
Nathaniel Coleman (USA)
Because of the slightly bizarre format of the speed climbing aspect of the competition, Bassa’s withdrawal meant that Adam was guaranteed to finish 4th at worst. If Bassa had competed and beaten Adam as everyone expected, he would have come anywhere between 5th and 8th. So, there was a stroke of luck for Adam before he even stepped onto the timing pad.
Aside from this, there initially weren’t many upsets in the head-to-head races. Favourites for the speed round, Tomoa and Mikael, respectively beat Jakob and Nathanial, before facing each other to decide who would make it to the race for 1st and 2nd place and presumably win the discipline. Tomoa beat Mikael by almost a full second leaving only Alberto between him and 1 sweet point.
What came next was an example of how unbelievably cruel sport can be.
Tomoa, who took to speed climbing better than basically all other non-speed specialists when the combined format was announced, slipped on his signature move, the Tomoa Skip. This is a variation on the technique first used by speed climbing legend, Reza Alipour Shenazandifard, which involves not using a hold low down the route. Whereas Reza did this by smearing off the wall, the Tomoa Skip involves bringing the left foot up to meet the hands on the hold and doing a step-up dyno.
It’s a move that Tomoa pioneered and has probably done thousands of times. I could barely believe my eyes when he fluffed it in the race for 1st place. Tomoa managed to stay on the wall and admirably flew up the rest of the route in a bid to catch Alberto but the gap was too great and Tomoa finished roughly a second and a half behind him.
Alberto is a good boulderer and an excellent lead climber but the idea that he could take first place in the speed round was absurd. Apart from the odd very optimistic Spaniard, I doubt anyone predicted that result.
The standings after the speed round were as follows:
The bouldering round was a little underwhelming.
Boulder 1 was too easy. 5 climbers flashed it. Adam did it on his second go and Alberto got the zone but not the top. It was a delightful delicate slab climb and very pleasing to watch, but too straightforward.
In contrast, Boulder 3 was too hard. Everyone got the zone on their first go. No-one got the top. It was a classic climber’s boulder with hard moves on tiny holds on an overhanging wall, but it was overcooked. Everyone apart from Adam got stuck on the same move and even he, arguably the best in the world on this style of climb, could only get one move further.
Boulder 2 was where the round was won and lost. The ranking for this round was mostly decided by attempts to the zone on this boulder, which came after a run and jump to a burly gaston. Adam was the only one not to reach the zone. Everyone else got it in between 1 and 5 attempts. The only man to carry on to the top was Nathaniel, which gave him 1st place in the bouldering round.
The last move on boulder 2 was a dynamic move to a left handhold and right toe hook. Everyone but Adam attempted it and Nathaniel was the only person to stick it. It looked like one of those moves where a tiny tweak here or a slight rotation of a hold there could have transformed it from a difficult move to an achievable move. Route-setting is such a difficult job and they achieved the necessary separation with this boulder. It would have been fun to see a few more tops though, in my opinion.
All that left the standings looking like this going into the lead round:
Everyone get your abacuses out, this shit is about to get complicated.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching the climbers tackle this lead route. There was a great balance between committing dynamic moves and technical moves requiring finger strength and body tension and positioning. The theme for the route seemed to be tenuousness (I think that’s a word!). Even the best lead climbers in the pack looked uncomfortable or unsure on quite a few moves and it felt like an excellent test of the climbers’ complete skillset to round off the day.
Those expected to do well in the lead round were at the bottom of the ranking table and those expected to do less well in lead were at the top, with Alberto bang in the middle. This meant the leader board could be completely flipped on its head by the end of the lead round. With only 1 point between the top 4 and nothing going to plan so far, the final results were anyone’s guess.
Tomoa, Nathaniel, and Mikael climbed first, second, and third and did, in my opinion, well by their own standards. Nothing incredible, but solid performances. Then it was Adam’s turn.
After a disappointing boulder round, he needed an excellent performance in his favourite discipline to have any chance of getting an Olympic medal. He climbed well and seemed pleased with his performance, pumping his fists as he was lowered back to the ground. He climbed high on the route, surpassing the previous 3 climbers’ highpoints but not quite reaching the top.
Next came Alberto. With the lowest score of the climbers best known for their lead climbing skills, he was in the strongest position going into the lead round. Something very few people would have predicted. He climbed smoothly and in control on a tricky route. He fell 4 moves below Adam, leaving him in 2nd place in lead but, crucially, in gold medal position when the scores were combined.
With Colin and Jakob, both strong lead climbers, left to have a crack at the route, the results were anything but decided. Their performances could change everything.
The first time I saw Colin Duffy climbing in a youth lead competition I was flabbergasted at the skills and strength of the tiny child I was watching on my screen. He looked about 5ft nothing and like you’d hardly notice if you bumped into him walking down the street. He was so dinky but he climbed like a beast. The yearlong delay of the Olympics probably worked in his favour as he seems to have shot up at least 6 inches since I last saw him compete. Although height certainly isn’t everything in climbing, an extra year of training makes a big difference to a teenager and he performed brilliantly during the Olympics.
Although he seemed disappointed with himself, Colin’s lead result certainly made things interesting. He beat Alberto but fell short of Adam’s high point. Alberto was still winning but his position was as tenuous as the moves on the lead route he’d climbed to get there.
Jakob Schubert was the last climber to attempt the route.
If Jakob climbed higher or lower than both Alberto and Adam then Alberto would take the gold.
If Jakob climbed higher than Alberto but lower than Adam then Adam would take the gold.
Jakob could do no better than 3rd but his score would decide who won gold.
As Jakob pulled onto the bottom of the wall I made the only prediction I got right all day: Jakob’s going to top this route. He climbed like a man on a mission after a (not unexpected) poor speed climbing round and bouldering round which he seemed disappointed with.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m a big fan of Jakob and his dreamy shoulders. As he passed the highpoints of Alberto and Colin I was screaming at the screen, determined to yell him up to the top of the route. He steadily worked his way passed Adam’s highpoint, nailed the double dyno to the top hold, and secured himself a bronze medal.
In just a few moves made by another climber, Adam went from 1st to 6th and Alberto pinched the gold medal from around his neck. And I became severely dehydrated from an epic case of sympathetic sweaty palm syndrome.
Unpredictability was the theme of the men’s final.
Much of the speculation leading up to the Olympics had been about who would win between Adam and Tomoa. In the end, neither of them made the podium. Jakob was many people’s outside shot for the gold and he only managed to come third.
Alberto seemed justifiably overwhelmed by the whole thing. Despite some strong World Cup performances, I don’t think he was many people’s favourite for the Olympics. A steady performance, a false start from Colin, and a slip from Tomoa in the speed round meant luck was on his side. In a tight contest, you need often need a bit of luck to go with the incredible talent that all these climbers possess. At the end of the day, Alberto embraced his good fortune, kept his head together on the lead wall, and became sport climbing’s first male Olympic Champion.
Thankfully there was less controversy and no torn biceps in the women’s qualification round.
Speed climbing specialist Aleksandra Miroslaw did what she had to do by taking 1st place on the speed wall. She was the only woman to clock a time under 7 seconds and quite frankly seemed disappointed not to have broken the world record. I got the impression she thought she could have done better.
As with the men’s competition, finishing anywhere other than 1st in the speed round would mean making the final would be almost impossible for the speed climbing specialists. Anouck Jaubert therefore had quite a challenge on her hands when she finished 2nd to Miroslaw. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a climber try harder than Jaubert did on the qualification boulders and she was rewarded for her herculean efforts with a place in the final.
Janja Garnbret made a hard set of boulders look trivial as ever but had an unexpected foot slip on the lead route. Despite this, she still qualified in 1st place followed by the 2019 lead World Cup champion Chaeyun Seo and 2 home favourites, Miho Nonaka and Akiyo Noguchi.
Here’s how the lineup for the women’s final shaped up after the qualification round:
Janja Garnbret (Slovenia)
Chaeyun Seo (South Korea)
Miho Nonaka (Japan)
Akiyo Noguchi (Japan)
Brooke Raboutou (USA)
Jessica Pilz (Austria)
Aleksandra Miroslaw (Poland)
Anouck Jaubert (France)
Women’s Final Speed
Unlike the men’s speed final, everything went more or less as expected for the women. The fight for 1st and 2nd was between the 2 speed climbing specialists, Aleksandra and Anouck. Aleksandra had been on incredible form in qualification and capped it off by smashing the world record with a time of 6.84 seconds.
As the only non-speed specialist to win a medal in a speed World Cup it wasn’t surprising that Miho beat Akiyo, giving them 3 and 4 points respectively. Finishing in the top half of the table, above the favourite for the gold medal, Janja, was a boost for Miho and Akiyo considering Janja’s dominance on the boulders and her stellar reputation on the lead wall.
Everything was still very much to play for after the speed round.
The bouldering round was absolutely brutal, particularly for Brooke Raboutou.
The boulders were extremely difficult. Nobody topped boulder 3. There were only 2 tops on the other 2 boulders and Janja got both of them. Not a great surprise considering she'd won every bouldering World Cup in 2019 and 2 of the 3 she entered in 2021 (she came 2nd in the other).
Janja’s performance was out of this world, as usual, but Brooke brought some drama to an otherwise slightly disappointing bouldering round. Despite having both hands on the top hold of both boulders 1 and 2, Brooke didn’t manage to officially top either. After some beautiful technique on boulder 1, a tricky slab consisting of 2 dynamic moves and a delicate finish, her left foot slipped as she reached to match the top hold, causing her to swing off the wall. So close, yet so heartbreakingly far.
It was a similar story on boulder 2. After pressing, teetering, balancing, and carefully climbing her way to the last move of a very complex boulder, Brooke was running out of time to reach the top and jumped for the last hold. She hung on for what felt like an age before slipping off the hold and hitting the crashmat. Another last move heartbreaker.
Thankfully, due to the number of attempts, Brooke would still have come 2nd to Janja even if she had secured those 2 tops. But I'm sure a couple of tops in an Olympic bouldering final would have been an excellent confidence boost going into the lead round.
The lead route was similar to the route in the men’s final: tricky and tenuous. There were a lot of powerful moves that looked extremely droppable and energy sapping. Anyone who wanted to pip Janja to the gold medal was going to have pull off something pretty special and climb high on a difficult route.
Despite a good fight, Aleksandra and Anouck fell low down on the route and Brooke had another moment to forget when her foot slipped heading up to hold 22, dashing her hopes of an Olympic medal.
In stark contrast, Akiyo ended her competitive climbing career with a bang. After over a decade on the circuit, 10 lead World Cup medals, 58 bouldering World Cup medals, 4 overall bouldering World Cup season titles, and inspiring thousands of female climbers, Akiyo gave a final performance to proud of. She climbed in her usual steady style, eventually peeling off the wall at hold 29 after some burly compression moves on slopy holds. All she could do was sit and wait to see if she’d be topping off her glittering career with an Olympic medal.
Next out was Janja. The gold medal was hers for the taking. With the lowest combined score going into the lead round she just had to hold her nerve and show the seemingly effortless brilliance she’d displayed on the lead wall so many times before. She surpassed Akiyo’s highpoint putting herself in 1st place in lead and the combined scores.
Miho was the only person left who could take the gold away from Janja and she’d have to climb higher than Janja to do it. This was a tall order that Miho could not achieve although her efforts on the lead wall secured her the silver medal. The last 2 climbers out, Jessica and Chaeyun, would decide who got the bronze.
The bronze medal was tantalisingly in reach of both Chaeyun and Jessica. Despite excellent performances in the favoured discipline, resulting in them placing 2nd and 3rd respectively, they couldn’t claw the bronze medal away from Akiyo. Although Jessica and Chaeyun would have been popular and worthy winners of the bronze medal, anyone with an interest in competition climbing would agree that a career such as Akiyo’s deserved to finish on the high note of winning an Olympic medal.
The women’s podium felt like the perfect end to climbing’s Olympic debut. The world’s best competition climber took the gold, two consistently brilliant athletes and home favourites took silver and bronze, and one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors ended her career in a fittingly fabulous fashion.
And they couldn’t have been happier for each other.
The sight of Janja Garnbret, Miho Nonaka, and Akiyo Noguchi hugging, crying, and sharing in each other’s success captures the sense of camaraderie and shared passion demonstrated by the sports that made their debut at the Tokyo Olympics. Skateboarders, surfers, and climbers came to the Olympics to win but they also showed the world that they’re part of wider incredibly supportive communities.
I mostly grew up watching football and still occasionally find myself swept up in the big international tournaments. However, I also find myself frustrated with how much time is taken up with animosity towards opposition players, theatrical dives in the penalty area, and peripheral nonsense that has nothing to do with the game itself.
With climbing, it’s completely different. It’s all about the climbing. One climber’s success doesn’t diminish another’s performance. Nobody wants to win at the expense of anyone else. The atmosphere is one of cooperation as well as competition. It seems like a much healthier approach to sport and one that I hope people have appreciated seeing and will carry forward beyond these Olympic games.
This may well be the death of this version of the combined format. It’s undeniably a little on the ridiculous side of things. Asking climbers to compete in speed, bouldering, and lead is like asking Usain Bolt to have a crack at the marathon after running the 100m then rounding the day off with a stab at artistic gymnastics.
Climbing will be included in the Paris 2024 Olympics but with twice as many medals and 68 athletes rather 40. There will be a combined medal for bouldering and lead, and speed climbing will have its own medal. This is without a doubt the logical progression for climbing as an Olympic discipline.
Fingers crossed by the time the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics rolls around speed, bouldering, and lead will all have their own medals. Then everyone can stop bickering over the maths and just enjoy the wonderful spectacle of climbing in all its glorious forms.
That being said, I personally hope this isn’t the last we see of this format. Although I think it’s better that climbers aren’t forced to compete in all the three disciplines in order to win the highest accolades, I've found this format to be a lot of fun to watch. It’s gently nudged me into watching more speed climbing, which I’d hardly followed before this format was announced. It’s been fascinating to see how climbers that used to specialise in 1 discipline have changed their tactics and training regimes to tackle the new format. And the scoring system means the last climber out can often completely change the results, leading to a lot of frantic maths and high drama.
Maybe the Olympic combined format will live on. Maybe it will be consigned to the pages of climbing history. Whatever happens, I’m already exceedingly excited for Paris 2024 when we get to jump on this Olympic train all over again. Choo choo!