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Here's why the world's best climbers aren't thrilled with the Olympic climbing competition

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TOKYO – The gauntlet to gold at the debut of Olympic sports climbing requires athletes to work their way across a massive stage adorned with three different walls presenting three different challenges for an event that rewards the most well-rounded climber. And, to some, that’s a source of frustration and exhaustion.

“It's a pretty brutal format,” said Australia’s Tom O’Halloran, who didn’t advance to the finals after the qualifying round on Tuesday night. “It's like getting the track athletes that have always just been single discipline athletes to suddenly do the shot put, the 100 meters and the 1500 or something.”

In a single night, climbers compete in: 1) a speed round, essentially a race to the top of a set route that’s the same in gyms around the world; 2) a bouldering round in which climbers have to scale a series of difficult routes on a lower wall without ropes in a set time with scoring based on the number of so-called “problems” they’re able to solve; and 3) lead climbing, a timed-attempt to climb as high as possible, with safety ropes, on a tall wall without falling.

Bouldering and lead climbing require many of the same skills — and are more directly related to outdoor rock climbing — with speed considered a more niche specialty.

And having to do all three in relatively quick succession: “It's absolutely knackering from a training point of view and from the mental side of things, to be able to kind of switch on and switch off,” O’Halloran said. “Your skin gets absolutely shagged.”

An athlete’s final score is calculated by multiplying their ranking in each event (so: 1st x 4th x 10th = 40 points, for example). The top eight finishers on Tuesday advanced to the finals, which will have the same structure.

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 03: Nathaniel Coleman of The United States of America during the Sport Climbing Men's Combined, Speed Qualification on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Aomi Urban Sports Park on August 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 03: Nathaniel Coleman of The United States of America during the Sport Climbing Men's Combined, Speed Qualification on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Aomi Urban Sports Park on August 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)

That means that they can excel at a certain skill and still miss the podium, or even the finals, if they struggle on another one. On Tuesday night, Germany’s Alexander Megos finished sixth in both bouldering and lead — but will not advance because he was 19th in speed climbing. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s Rishat Khaibullin was fourth fastest on the speed route, but will also miss the finals because of his struggles in bouldering and lead.

“A regular World Cup is a world of difference,” said USA’s Nathaniel Coleman, referring to the fact that climbing competitions are usually divided up by style. He ended the night eighth, just barely ensuring that both American climbers (including 17-year-old phenom Colin Duffy), advanced but was frustrated with his lead climb and felt like he hadn’t adequately prepared for it.

“it's just hard to focus on three disciplines at the same time,” he said.

The pushback isn’t new. In fact, this has been a concern in the climbing community since the sport was added to the Olympic lineup in 2016.

Immediately, top climbers (none of whom ended up qualifying for the Olympics) were concerned, telling Climbing.com that the format was “bogus,” “cheesy and unfair,” and “less than ideal.”

The New York Times spent months following “the world’s best climber,” Adam Ondra, as he attempted to master the speed element just well enough to not sink his medal chances. At the time, he called the speed round a “circus” that “has nothing to do with climbing.”

“It feels like the others are starting 800 meters ahead because there is this speed climbing that I am definitely not talented [at],” he said Tuesday.

The Czech climber struggled, as expected, in the speed element, completing the standardized vertical sprint in 7.46 seconds — two-plus seconds more than the fastest time — but was able to advance on the strength of his bouldering and lead. Even then, it was only enough to finish the qualifiers fifth overall. He feared what an even worse speed round might do to his chances in the finals.

Ondra himself wouldn’t take the bait when reporters asked if the entire format made a farce of the idea of crowning a “best climber” — pointedly saying that such a title is “nonsense because there's just so many kinds of climbing” — but the question itself speaks to the skepticism of the current set up.

According to the Times story — along with reporting from other outlets — the International Federation of Sport Climbing hoped to have a multi-discipline array more compatible with the way athletes train and compete away from the Olympics, but that the International Olympic Committee gave the sport only two medal events: the men’s and women’s combined.

Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 11 slideshow embed
Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 11 slideshow embed

For the sake of including all the climbing athletes, rather than choose a single focus for elevation onto the Olympic stage, the IFSC created a sort of “vertical triathlon.”

Yahoo Sports asked IOC officials if there is a specific policy or reasoning behind the limit on climbing medals in the 2020 Olympics and was told to reach out to the IFSC. Asked if this means that it was the IFSC’s decision to include only two medal events, the IOC said “No,” but again referred questions back to the sport’s governing body without offering further explanation. The IFSC did not return a request for comment.

There is a sense among those in the sport that the IOC was particularly interested in including the straightforward speed round for the ease of television viewing. In qualifying, the times are ranked. In the finals, the event is staged as a head-to-head competition in a bracket format, which means you don’t have to understand climbing at all to get the gist of who’s “winning.” But the way the current structure is weighted, the fastest climbers didn’t even get to compete at the Olympics — and the climbers who value the strategy of the other two elements feel penalized by the speed round.

Having forced an adaptation onto the athletes, the controversial format isn’t, actually, here to stay.

In December 2019, months before the Tokyo Games could actually take place, the IOC’s executive board officially confirmed that the 2024 Games in Paris would award four medals in sports climbing — a men’s and women’s speed climbing and men’s and women’s combined bouldering and lead.

But that does no good for the athletes in Tokyo who still have to get through this Olympics with its winner-take-all combined event.

“It's a nice introduction to climbing,” Coleman said, diplomatically. “I'm excited for it to be gone.”

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