Sport climbing at Tokyo 2020: Events, schedule, athletes to watch

Sean McColl of the Canadian Olympic Sport Climbing team. (Christopher Morris/COC)

Canadian sport climber Sean McColl was in Salt Lake City in 2016 when he heard the news that would shape the trajectory of his career. That day, the International Olympic Committee announced the inclusion of sport climbing for the 2020 Tokyo Games – the very first time the sport will be contested on the Olympic stage.

It took McColl all of three seconds to decide he was going to pursue the Olympic podium.

“And that was the easiest four-year decision of my life,” he said.

In early August, as McColl approaches the walls at Aomi Urban Sports Park, he'll be walking a path he helped pave. As president of the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Athlete Commission, the North Vancouver native has provided athlete testimony during pitches to the IOC Executive Board for sport climbing’s inclusion at the Games.

An unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Games led to another full-court press of testimony and trials. Now, finally, sport climbers will get their Olympic moment.

For McColl and many other climbers, a lifelong dream made possible five years ago is now finally a reality.

Climbing is a dynamic sport that’s growing at a rapid pace thanks to indoor facilities popping up in urban centres. And while athletes compete against one another in the standings, every route is ultimately a battle between the climber the wall.

“I love the feeling of being out there all by myself,” said McColl, who will be one of just 20 men vying for gold in the sport’s Olympic debut. “Right before I climb, I often think about how many hours and years I’ve put in to get to the place I am. And I already know that, you know, at the Olympics, that’s exactly what I will think of — that I'll step out and I’ll think of how many people have had the opportunity to climb at the Olympics: only about seven or eight before me and another 12 after me.

“And that’s what I think about. I’ll tell myself to smile.... And once I turn around, then I go into competition mode. Everything fades to black, and it’s just me and the wall."

EVENTS

For its first Olympic year, sport climbing has been allotted one medal per gender by the IOC. In an effort to showcase as much of the sport as possible and avoid alienating an entire speciality, climbing will be contested as a “combined” event with each athlete competing in three disciplines: speed climbing, bouldering and lead climbing.

First up will be speed climbing, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s essentially sprinting, but instead of running, you’re scaling a wall. The vertical race takes place on a standardized wall (this allows for world records) with holds designed for easier grip. Climbers race up two at a time, pitted against one another, but it’s their time that truly counts. Fastest climber to reach the top wins. Blink, and you might miss it – the world’s best speed climbers can scale a wall in about seven seconds.

While speed climbing is all about power and explosiveness, bouldering is steeped in strategy, and requires poise and patience to reach the top. Bouldering courses, known as “problems,” aren’t as tall as speed and lead climbing walls – they typically measure about four or five metres in height – and unlike the other events, climbers aren’t roped in (the floor is heavily padded). On each problem is a marked starting point, and from there climbers must scale and top the boulder problem in four minutes or less. Multiple attempts are allowed, but climbers can score the most points with fewer.

Climbers will complete four different bouldering problems in the qualifying round, with each one typically aimed at testing a different skillset so as not to favour one particular type of climber. For example, one problem might be simple in its solvability but really physically demanding, while another might be all about the fine details while not requiring quite as much strength. In the final round, three more problems await.

The final discipline tested will be lead climbing, which will look the most familiar to those new to the sport. It’s designed to be both physically challenging and mentally tough. Holds, which climbers use to scale the 50-foot wall, vary in shape, size and difficulty, and are numbered in ascending order to measure the climber’s progress and score. The wall also features a variety of overhangs (which really test a climber’s arm strength) and slabs (climbers must rely more on their legs in these sections) to navigate, and clips along the way to secure the rope to the wall so that if/when they fall, they don’t have far to go.

Climbers have six minutes to climb as high as they can, and only one attempt – once they fall, they’re done. To win, a climber must reach higher than their opponents. In the event multiple climbers reach the same winning height or the top of the wall, their time will serve as a tie-breaker, with the fastest climber getting the edge. For those who advance to the final, a brand new lead climbing route awaits.

Once climbers have completed all three disciplines — known as the triathlon of climbing — their ranks from each one will be multiplied to determine their final score. So, for example, if Climber A finishes 10th in speed-climbing, first in bouldering, and fifth in lead-climbing, her final score will be 50. The eight lowest scores will advance to the final round to compete for the podium. Once in the final, climbers’ qualification scores will not factor into the medal round – it’s a clean slate, and anyone’s game to win.

SCHEDULE

Sport climbing will be contested over the course of four days. A field of 20 men and 20 women will each compete in all three disciplines, with only the top eight combined scores advancing to the medal round.

Tuesday, Aug. 3: Men’s combined sport climbing qualification round
• Speed-climbing: 4:00 a.m. EDT
• Bouldering: 5:00 a.m. EDT
• Lead climbing: 8:10 a.m. EDT

Wednesday, Aug. 4: Women’s combined sport climbing qualification round
• Speed-climbing: 4:00 a.m. EDT
• Bouldering: 5:00 a.m. EDT
• Lead climbing: 8:10 a.m. EDT

Thursday, Aug. 5: Men’s combined sport climbing final/medal round
• Speed-climbing: 4:30 a.m. EDT
• Bouldering: 5:30 a.m. EDT
• Lead climbing: 8:10 a.m. EDT

Friday, Aug. 6: Women’s combined sport climbing final/medal round
• Speed-climbing: 4:30 a.m. EDT
• Bouldering: 5:30 a.m. EDT
• Lead climbing: 8:10 a.m. EDT

WHY YOU SHOULD TUNE IN

The foundation of climbing is right there in the Olympic motto: Faster, higher, stronger. And, as McColl says, the physical act itself is simply human nature.

“When [babies] first start to learn, they learn how to sit up, then they learn how to crawl. Then they learn how to stand with a chair or a couch or something. And then usually they will learn how to climb the chair or couch before they can walk. And so, people learn how to climb before they can walk. It's just a given,” he says.

Now, raise the heights and the stakes, and you’ve got sport climbing.

A sport that’s rooted in the great outdoors, climbing brings to the Games a unique combination of mental strength and physical power — not to mention acrobatic, gravity-defying physical feats that’ll make your palms sweat just watching them. All three disciplines bring something new to the table, from superhero-like rapid ascents to tactical, methodical strategies.

This three-in-one format makes things particularly interesting. While lead climbing and bouldering share many similarities in terms skillsets required, speed climbing is a bit of an outlier.

“It’s a bit like asking Usain Bolt to run a marathon and then do the hurdles,” British climber Shauna Coxsey said back in 2017. “No one has really transitioned before. No boulderer has transitioned to speed and lead, and no speed climber has done it to bouldering and lead.”

It’s already been announced that speed climbing will be its own event at Paris 2024, but for now we’ll have a triathlon of climbing that’s bound to produce some surprising results.

ATHLETES TO WATCH

Slovenia's Janja Garnbret is about as dominant a women’s sport climber as we've seen. At 22, she’s already got enough World Championship titles to fill a trophy cabinet — including six World Cup gold medals in bouldering in 2019, which made her the first climber in IFSC history to ever sweep an entire season in a discipline. While speed climbing isn’t her strong suit, she’s expected to do so well in bouldering and lead that it might not matter.

Japan is extremely strong in the sport, and Akiyo Noguchi — Garnbret’s top challenger these past few years — has an opportunity to win at home.

On the men’s side, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Adam Ondra climb the podium. A prolific outdoor climber, he’s considered the best in the world in terms of his natural pursuits. But will that translate to the synthetic routes in Tokyo?

Canada has two Tokyo-bound climbers. Alannah Yip, who holds an engineering degree, is a smart, tactical climber who specializes in bouldering. The 27-year-old has yet to medal on the World Cup circuit since going pro in 2016, but has her sights set on the Tokyo final — where, as she says, “anything can happen.”

McColl, meanwhile, is eying hardware. The 33-year-old is a four-time IFSC World Championships gold medallist in the combined event, most recently landing atop the podium in 2016. He’s a well-rounded climber whose skillset suits the three-in-one format.

Yip and McColl grew up together in North Vancouver, their parents tight-knit friends from university. McColl, six years older than Yip, actually first inspired Yip to start climbing, and his family took her on her first indoor and outdoor climbing experiences.

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