The Olympics – what you need to know

May 26, 2021
Climbing Centre in Tunbridge Wells on the Olympics

It was almost two years ago that we gave you the ins and the outs of climbing’s debut in the Tokyo Olympic Games. So much has changed since then, and with the Games finally on the horizon, we thought we’d better give you an update of what’s what.

First and foremost, no, we still don’t know if the Games will happen. But it will be a pretty big deal if they are cancelled, especially at what is now relatively short notice. So working on the assumption that they will go ahead, the first thing to know are the dates.

Climbing will take place in the second week of the Games, with qualification rounds on Tuesday 3rd August for the men, Wednesday 4th for the women. The men’s final is on Thursday 5th August, and the women round out the competition on the Friday. Thanks to the time difference, the events will start in the morning and finish in the early afternoon. Perfect timing we’d say as rather interested spectators. And yes we’ll have them on at the wall.

Now, onto the competition itself. There is one gold medal on offer for the men and one for the women, and that gold will be won by the best all-round climber. The event is run as ‘combined’ meaning everyone competes in speed, boulder and lead.

The places you finish in each discipline are multiplied together – stay with us – so if you win all three events, you score 1 x 1 x 1 = 1. If you excel at speed, but aren’t quite as good in the other events, you could score something like 1 x 5 x 6 = 30. So as you can see, the scores can skyrocket with one bad discipline. Lowest overall score wins.

In bouldering, getting to the zone hold and number of attempts are taken into account when ranking the athletes, the same as in normal World Cup events, with tops still being the crucial parameter. In lead, it is all about which hold you get to before you fall or the time you take if two climbers make it to the same hold or top the route. Speed is the easiest – hence its inclusion – as it is a simple race to the top hold.

For those of you who haven’t watched much speed, the route is the same for every competition and has been since 2007. It is a 15m wall, five degrees of overhang and the world record is an eye-wateringly quick 5.48s for the men and 6.96s for the women. Blink and you really do miss it.

When it comes to the Olympics, speed will come first, followed by bouldering over three routes and then the daunting lead wall. Make sure you watch, as by the next Games, speed will be a separate category with lead and bouldering combining for the other medal on offer.

So that’s the dates and the formats – what about the competitors? Twenty athletes have qualified for the men and twenty for the women, with each country allowed a maximum of two climbers. That has meant hard choices have had to be made in Japan, where their talent pool runs deep, and also Slovenia, who had three incredibly talented climbers competing for two spots. Well we say three, actually two were competing for one spot, as there was no way Janja Garnbret wasn’t going to be selected.

The absolute queen of competition climbing, Garnbret was unbeatable in the last full season in 2019 and excels at both bouldering and lead. At just 22 years old, she has a staggering 27 gold medals from world cups across lead and bouldering, and six world championship golds.

She’s the undisputed favourite for Tokyo regardless of how much competitive action she sees between now and then, but the rest of the form book is more of an unknown. Pre-Covid, the likes of Akiyo Noguchi, Miho Nonaka and Shauna Coxsey were all looking like possible medallists but there are so many extra variables in the mix these days.

Especially when it comes to home hero Shauna – she’s had an absolutely torrid run with injuries, but seems to be getting back towards her best form.

As for the men’s competition, Tomoa Narasaki was the favourite based on both home advantage and competition prowess, with Adam Ondra breathing down his neck. Ondra has dedicated four years of his life to turning himself from a brilliant outdoor real rock beast into a pulling on plastic indoor athlete, and certainly every competition he shows up to, he seems to look more and more comfortable. He is gunning for gold, so dismiss him at your peril. The other athlete who will fancy his chances is Jakob Shubert. A great lead climber, his bouldering has come on leaps and bounds and he stays calm under pressure – which really could end up being the thing that separates these three on the day.

So that’s your runners and riders for the 2020 Olympic Games as climbing makes its debut. Faster, higher, stronger is an apt motto and one that certainly seems to make sense with regards to our somewhat strange but equally surprisingly natural sport. All that remains is to grab the popcorn, book the days off work and settle in for a TV fest. Trust us, this is not to be missed.

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