Written by Noah Graff. Photo of Alex Honnold by Tim Boone.
UPDATE: Because of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, the Tokyo 2020 games have been postponed. As of summer 2020, the current plan from the IOC is to hold the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in summer of 2021: July 23, 2021 - August 8, 2021.
Every fall, rock climbing athletes know the routine: knock out those last desert climbing trips before heading back indoors at the gym to climb on plastic walls all winter and get strong for the next season. This year, for some of our favorite climbing heroes, the training season is particularly important, because they are preparing for Olympic gold. That's right, sport climbing is coming to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo!
Four athletes per country will be allowed to compete (two men and two women). With two Olympic gold medals up for grabs, one for men and one for women, climbing is seeing new heights and exposure that the sport has never seen before. However, with every new sport added to the Olympics, there is confusion around the rules, qualification process, and the athletes competing on the biggest stage in sports. That’s why we're going to explain all the basics, so that everyone can enjoy spectating one of the most fascinating new Olympic sports. So, buckle your seatbelts, this is the most anticipated year in climbing so far. Folks, the road to Tokyo has begun!
First, let's go over the formatting of the Olympic events. Each climber will compete in all three disciplines: lead, speed, and bouldering. The athletes’ overall placement in each of these events will affect their scores towards the medals. This will also be the same method used for scoring the qualifying events leading up to the Games. Contrary to popular belief, the different disciplines are not separate events in the Olympic formatting. They are instead one event with one set of medals: Lead/speed/bouldering are each just components within the sport climbing event, designed to test the overall ability of competitors and decide the world’s best overall female and male climbers.
THE THREE DISCIPLINES
Lead climbing involves athletes scaling a 15-meter wall using brightly colored plastic hand- and foot-holds. Climbers are tied into a climbing rope and harness, and they must clip the rope into carabiners known as quickdraws that are placed along the route as they ascend. Clipping into the quickdraws prevents the climbers from falling very far if they lose their grip. The climber who either completes the route in the shortest time, or gets the farthest up the route if none complete it, is deemed the winner.
Speed climbing is the second of the two disciplines and it also requires the climber to be attached to a rope and harness. Climbers compete in a head-to-head simultaneous race up the wall on a universal, identical route. Athletes attempt to complete the 15 meter route before their opponent, but because they are roped into a device called an “auto-belay” they are not required to clip quickdraws along their route as they did in the lead climbing event. Once they reach the top, the auto-belay system safely lowers the athlete to the ground. This discipline is run in a tournament style format, with the winner of each heat moving on to the next. Speed routes are the same route with the same distance between holds all around the world. Speed climbing uses specifically-shaped holds that have been standardized to be identical in any speed competition.
Bouldering is the third of the three disciplines, and does not allow climbers to be roped in for safety. Climbers attempt to ascend various routes on a short four-meter wall within a given timeframe. The floor of a bouldering facility has deep padding for safety in the event of a fall. Bouldering uses holds similar to those used in lead climbing, as well as larger “volumes” which are holds that can be gripped in a number of creative ways. Athletes are not allowed to see the routes (also called “problems”) ahead of time. To complete a route, they must have control of the finishing hold with both hands which is called “topping out” the route. In bouldering, athletes attempt a series of different routes of varying difficulty during an allowed time. Athletes’ scores in bouldering are based on points they earn for the difficulty of the routes they “top out” during their time.
An athlete’s combined score from each of these three events will be used to determine the overall Olympic sport climbing champion. This format is designed to determine the world’s best all-around climbers, as opposed to one-discipline specialists.
QUALIFYING FOR TOKYO
There are multiple ways that athletes can qualify to compete in Tokyo. In the year leading up to the Olympics, athletes must maximize their performance at each of the major qualifying events if they want a chance at competing in the Olympics in 2020. According to USA Climbing, there will be 20 available spots per gender at the 2020 games, with each country being given the opportunity to qualify two men and two women between now and Tokyo.
Climbers’ first opportunities for qualification have already been underway recently at the IFSC World Championships in Japan during August of 2019. Climbers traveled to Hachioji, Japan to test their skills against the best in the world. The top 6 athletes from the World Championships were given a spot on their countries’ respective teams.
In August 2019 there were some real standouts in both the men and the women. Notably for the men, Japan's own Tomoa Narasaki really impressed with his effort and qualification, and Canada's Sean McColl became the first North American to qualify. For the women, the USA had a solid qualification with Brooke Raboutou, and Great Britain has their hopes pinned on climbing phenom Shauna Coxsey, who also qualified. Going forward, overall World Cup results will play a factor and we'll begin to see more qualifiers emerge from the global climbing elite.
Another qualifying event exists in fall 2019 for athletes to make their country’s Olympic teams, at the Olympic Qualifier event in November 2019 in Toulouse, France. The 20 highest-ranking athletes who have not yet qualified through the World Championships or overall World Cup title will be selected to compete in the Olympic Qualifiers. The six highest-ranked athletes at the Olympic Qualifiers will then take any remaining spots on their country’s team, if they have not yet met the maximum gender quota for their country.
A climber’s final option, assuming there is still space left on their country’s team, is to win the IFSC continental championship in 2020. The highest-ranked athlete from each gender in this event can obtain a spot on their Olympic team.
If a climber has a shot at securing a spot on their Olympic team, we can count on them bringing their A-game from the second they started their 2019 season. With such a small number of athletes allowed per team, you’ll see climbers fighting just as hard in the qualifying events as they will in the actual Olympics – each yearning to represent their country in one of the most highly-anticipated new Olympic sports.
Our excitement is building by the day as we get closer to the July 24th Opening Ceremony of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. And, as excited as we at Gear.com are about one of our favorite sports being added to the Olympics, we are also sure that folks at home will love watching the fierce competition in the months leading up to the Olympics. The reward for all of us will be watching that group of 40 men and women give everything they’ve got to win gold on the biggest stage in the world.
If you (or your kiddos!) dream of getting into sport climbing too, don't get overwhelmed by all the gear out there. Start by just checking out our Gym Climbing collection, which is a handful of curated items that Gear.com's experts have found are just what you need, and not what you don't, to get started. And see below a few extras that have also been hits on Gear.com for aspiring sport climbing athletes.