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Controversial speed event propels Spain's Lopez to gold in sport climbing debut, American Coleman takes silver

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Speed climbing is considered a gimmick by some serious climbers.

But it played a key role in the first Olympic gold medal awarded for sport climbing on Thursday.

Propelled by his first-place finish in speed climbing, Spain's Alberto Gines Lopez won the gold medal in Thursday's sport climbing final, the first of its kind at the Olympics. American Nathaniel Coleman won silver, while Jakob Schubert of Austria secured bronze.

The Czech Republic's Adam Ondra, considered by many the best climber in the world, finished off the podium in sixth place.

Lopez edged Coleman by two points in a scoring system that considers three climbing elements and places a high reward on winning at least one. Competitors compete in events called speed climbing, bouldering and lead. 

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Sport Climbing - Men's Speed - Final - Aomi Urban Sports Park - Tokyo, Japan - August 5, 2021.Tomoa Narasaki of Japan and Alberto Gines Lopez of Spain in action REUTERS/Yara Nardi
Spain's Alberto Gines Lopez, left, beats Japan's Tomoa Narasaki in the speed climbing final. (Reuters/Yara Nardi)

The three events that make up sport climbing

Speed climbing is exactly what it sounds like. Climbers race head-to-head up a 15-meter wall inverted at five degrees. The winner of each heat advanced on Thursday until Lopez defeated Japan's Tomoa Narasaki to win the discipline.

Bouldering was the second discipline of the event, with climbers competing across three unique routes on a climbing wall without ropes. On each route, they were tasked with reaching two goals called a “zone” and a “top” in an allotted time frame. Climbers who completed the routes in fewer attempts ranked higher.

Strategy plays a key role in the discipline, with competitors isolated from watching other climbers solving their routes that remain low to the ground, but require significant strength, dexterity and creativity.

Nathaniel Coleman (USA) in the men's combined sport climbing bouldering final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Aomi Urban Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Nathaniel Coleman's bouldering prowess propelled him to the silver medal. (Rob Schumacher/Reuters)

Coleman was the only competitor to reach the top on the second route. That edge proved to be the difference in the discipline as all seven climbers failed to reach the top of the third and final route. Coleman secured the critical first-place score in bouldering to remain in the medal hunt. Lopez finished in last place of the seven finalists and was the only climber to fail to reach any of the three top sections. But thanks to his speed-climbing win, he remained one point behind Coleman and two other climbers tied for first place.

Final event propels Austrian from last place to podium

The final discipline called lead simulates traditional rock climbing, with harnessed competitors attempting to climb higher than others on a vertical wall. Schubert won this discipline with the only climb of the event to the 45-meter summit. The event victory moved him into his bronze-medal position after he entered lead in last place. He finished in fifth place in bouldering and seventh (last) in speed.

In this overview image Austria's Jakob Schubert approaches the top to win the men's sport climbing lead final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Aomi Urban Sports Park in Tokyo on August 5, 2021. (Photo by - / POOL / AFP) (Photo by -/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Austria's Jakob Schubert approaches the top of the climbing wall in the lead event. (AFP via Getty Images)

Coleman finished sixth out of seven in speed and in fifth place in lead with a climb of 34 meters. Lopez finished in fourth place in lead (38 meters) in addition to his first-place speed climb and seventh-place bouldering effort.

So how exactly is climbing scored?

Each of the medalists won a discipline, taking advantage of the scoring system that prioritizes victories. Final scores are tallied by multiplying each climber's finish in each discipline. The lowest score wins. 

For instance, Lopez finished first in speed, fourth in lead and seventh in bouldering (1x7x4=28). Having a multiplier that doesn't increase your score is a significant edge. Coleman's 30 points (6x1x5=30) were good for second while Schubert's 35 points (7x5x1) were good for third place after his tally after two events had him in last.

Speed climbing controversy settled for Paris

The overall medal for men and women are the only medals being handed out in Tokyo in climbing, a decision that rankled some in the climbing world. Where bouldering and lead are considering more serious pursuits, speed climbing is sometimes, well, frowned upon.

“The fact that you can climb in five seconds or six seconds has nothing to do with climbing,” Ondra said before the Games. “It’s a circus.” 

Speed climbing is still on the schedule for the Paris Games in 2024. But it will be a standalone event with its own medal. Bouldering and lead will be combined for a separate sport climbing medal, a decision that should please purists of the sport. 

Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 14 slideshow embed
Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 14 slideshow embed

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