Climbing didn’t just have to wait an extra year to make its debut in the Olympics, it had to wait until deep in the second week to take centre stage in Tokyo. But the climbers didn’t disappoint, with some extreme sends, awe-inspiring moves and jaw-dropping results.
The eight finalists were whittled down from twenty starters, who themselves had had a long hard road to qualify, with the Pandemic wrecking competitions left, right and centre, and forcing training plans to be ripped up along the way.
It can’t be understated how hard it has been for athletes across all sports to plan a four-year training cycle, attempt to peak for key events and then enter the topsy-turvy world of will it won’t it go ahead, before being asked to be at their absolute best at what was relatively short notice.
But on Thursday and Friday, the eight finalists took on the combined format for one last time in this Olympic cycle, with the actual medals finally on the line.
For those of you who don’t usually follow competition climbing, the overlap with outdoors isn’t as large as you might think. Competition climbing is a unique discipline in its own right, and that meant asking top climbers to essentially forgo their outdoor projects and train exclusively for Tokyo, abandoning the type of climbing that often made them fall in love with the sport in the first place.
In the Men’s comp, the most obvious exponent of this predicament was Adam Ondra. He had set his sights on the gold and was willing to make sacrifices along the way, training more indoors and pulling on plastic. Alex Megos is another prolific outdoor climber who made the field, although he has been somewhat more successful in the last couple of years at combining comps with outdoor pursuits.
But of those two, only Ondra made the final - Megos coming home an agonisingly close ninth overall. Joining Ondra in the final were the pre-Olympics favourite Tomoa Narasaki, the two American climbers Nat Coleman and Colin Duffy, lead specialist Jakob Schubert, youngster Alberto Gines Lopez and the Mawem brothers from France.
Unfortunately for Bassa Mawem, he injured his bicep tendon at a very early stage in the lead qualifier. He'd already done enough to make it through by winning the speed, but he wasn't able to take part in the final.
All of which left the rather odd sight of Ondra lining up alone for his first speed round which turned out to be a massive bonus for the Czech athlete as it netted him a 'victory' that he almost certainly wouldn't have had. Luck seemed to be favouring him - especially when Micky Mawem slipped on one of his runs, as did Narasaki means Gines Lopez was the unexpected winner of the lead.
The bouldering final featured three problems - the first balance-based slab route that everyone but the young Spaniard topped with ease. At this point the setters must have started to sweat but never fear, they knew their trade and boulder two wound up the most influential. Coleman was the only man to top it, a desperate last move seeing a simultaneous go with the left hand to a bad crimp and toe hook catch with the right foot, on an overhang. Plenty of others got to the top move but couldn't stick it. As for Ondra, he didn't make the zone and that's where his medal charge started to falter.
The third problem couldn't separate the field - zones all around but no tops on a very interesting looking bloc that was all about the shoulders. But that meant there were four climbers in with a really good shout heading into the lead, with a three-way tie for the lead.
There's something about the drama of the lead wall, one athlete out, spotlights on, tension building. The falls are dramatic for the non-climbers watching and the atmosphere electric.
Ondra did what he does best and set a high point, but came up just short of topping the route. Narasaki had a good go, as did Coleman. Duffy and Gines Lopez both put in the performance of their lives, meaning the gold could go a handful of ways when Schubert walked out as last man.
The Austrian had been bumped down the leader board thanks to attempts on boulders, and couldn't win - but he could put on a show and he did just that, making his way to the very top and letting out a roar when he did so. The only man to top the route, it was a fitting end that saw the gold change hands with every hold he reached.
In the end, Gines Lopez, surprise winner of the speed was crowned champion with Coleman's top in boulder two netting him silver and Schubert's lead top enough to get bronze. No medals for home hero Narasaki whose slip in speed proved costly, nor Ondra who will have some tough decisions to make now as to whether he throws his all behind this again with Paris and that elusive medal only three years away - and speed no longer in the combined.