Understanding the Olympic Climbing Format

To truly appreciate what these athletes are about to go through (and have been training for) we thought we would take you through the format so you can cheer with understanding.

Tomorrow, climbing will take the world stage at the Tokyo Olympics and we are as giddy as goats!

To truly appreciate what these athletes are about to go through (and have been training for) we thought we would take you through the format so you can cheer with understanding…

Who’s Who?

After a year-long selection process of world cups and championships on each continent, the massive international field has been whittled down to just 20 men and 20 women who will battle through all three Sport Climbing disciplines for just ONE Olympic Gold medal.

Qualified athletes:
Host place1 Kai Harada (JPN)[21] Miho Nonaka (JPN)[21]
World Championship7 Tomoa Narasaki (JPN)
 Jakob Schubert (AUT)
 Rishat Khaibullin (KAZ)
 Mickaël Mawem (FRA)
 Alexander Megos (GER)
 Ludovico Fossali (ITA)
 Sean McColl (CAN)
 Janja Garnbret (SLO)
 Akiyo Noguchi (JPN)[24]
 Shauna Coxsey (GBR)
 Aleksandra Mirosław (POL)
 Petra Klingler (SUI)
 Brooke Raboutou (USA)
 Jessica Pilz (AUT)
Olympic Qualifying Event6 Adam Ondra (CZE)
 Bassa Mawem (FRA)
 Jan Hojer (GER)
 Pan Yufei (CHN)
 Alberto Ginés López (ESP)
 Nathaniel Coleman (USA)
 Julia Chanourdie (FRA)
 Mia Krampl (SLO)
 Iuliia Kaplina (ROC)
 Kyra Condie (USA)
 Laura Rogora (ITA)
 Song Yiling (CHN)
Pan American Championships1 Colin Duffy (USA) Alannah Yip (CAN)
African Championships1 Christopher Cosser (RSA) Erin Sterkenburg (RSA)
European Championships1 Aleksei Rubtsov (ROC) Viktoriia Meshkova (ROC)
Oceania Championships1 Tom O’Halloran (AUS) Oceana Mackenzie (AUS)
Asian Championships0
Tripartite Commission0
Reallocation2 Chon Jong-won (KOR)[7][17]
 Michael Piccolruaz (ITA)[18]
 Seo Chae-hyun (KOR)[7][17]
 Anouck Jaubert (FRA)[18]
*Sourced from Wikipedia qualified athletes list

Format & Disciplines

Athletes will go through two brutal days of climbing, with men and women each competing in day-long qualification and finals rounds. The men’s qualifiers is on Tuesday 3 August, with women’s qualifiers on Wednesday 4 August. With one day to rest, the top 8 athletes from qualifiers move onto finals… and repeat this format all over again with men’s finals on Thursday 5 August and women’s finals on Friday 6 August. Our palms are sweaty just thinking about it!

This intense format is essentially climbing’s equivalent of a triathlon, or of asking a marathon runner to also do a 100-meter dash and the 800-meter hurdles, all wrapped up in one event with three podium positions. The three disciplines are wildly different; requiring different training, strategies and strengths, forcing athletes to stretch themselves to their ultimate limit and making for an action-packed competition that could be anyone’s game.

The three disciplines will be speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing; as per triathlon format, athletes will need to be proficient in all three to win. “Three disciplines, one goal,” according to the Olympics’ promotional literature.

Speed climbing pits two athletes against each other, both climbing a route on a 15m wall as fast as they can. This is a standard, set route on which athletes would have been able to train in their home gyms. The goal is to scale the wall faster than your opponent, and thus advance to the next heat in a knock-out format. The men will likely have to clock runs under 6 seconds to advance to later heats (with the current world record being 5.208 seconds), and the fastest women will likely have to score runs under 8 seconds (with the current world record being 7.10). A small spanner waiting to be thrown in the works: a false start will result in a competitor’s immediate disqualification, leaving the door wide open for some upsets.

In bouldering, athletes scale four diverse routes (also called problems) on a 4m wall with a time allocation of four minutes (per boulder problem) to reach the top of the boulder. Credit will be given for securely reaching the top hold, with both hands, in a controlled manner. If a competitor does not reach the top of a given boulder, separate credit will be awarded if the competitor at least reaches a “zone hold” midway up the climb. The number of attempts will also influence a competitor’s end score. The leaderboard is determined first by the number of tops, then attempts, and then zones. In other words, a competitor who tops a boulder in two attempts will have a better score than a competitor who tops the same boulder in six attempts, and they will both have a better score than a climber who only reaches the boulder’s zone hold. Note that athletes have not seen these boulder problems before or had the opportunity to climb them, and they have just four minutes to work out the unique sequence with as few attempts as possible, like using your body to solve a complex equation in a very high-pressure environment – an athletic 3D puzzle of note, requiring brute strength, presicion and superhuman finger strength.

The lead climbing portion requires athletes to scale a 15m wall with a 5 degree lean, with the safety of a rope that they clip in to anchor points (quickdraws) as they advance. Lead climbing offers the easiest scoring structure: each hold that the athletes grab in a controlled manner on the lead wall represents a point. The athlete who reaches the highest spot on the wall will get the most points and thus win the discipline. When the athlete falls, that competitor’s attempt is over. Again, athletes would not have seen this route before the competition or be able to train on it, they get to view the route from the ground for a few minutes before they climb. With only one attempt to get as high up the wall as possible, great endurance, quick problem solving and superior body strength is needed.

Final Results

Scoring is based on a multiplication of ranking from each discipline, so the top-ranking athletes from each discipline will be the most likely to win.

Each athlete’s overall standing will be determined by multiplying their placements for each event, with lower scores ranking higher. Hypothetically, if a competitor places third in speed climbing, first in bouldering, and fifth in lead climbing, that competitor’s final combined score would be 15 (3x1x5). If another competitor placed second in speed climbing, second in bouldering, and third in lead climbing, that competitor’s final score would be 12 (2x2x3) and thus win over the previous climber—12 being a lower score than 15.

Tokyo 2020 climbing venue declared ready after test event without athletes
The Olympic climbing wall at the Aomi Urban Sports Park, located in the waterfront Bay Zone of Tokyo, Japan. Showing Lead, Boulder and Speed walls from left to right.

Climbing Lingo

Allow our local Olympians, Chris Cosser and Erin Sterkenburg, to take you through climbing jargon so you can understand some of those foreign words you’re likely to hear…

View the Sport Climbing Olympic schedule and viewing options here.

Climb on!