Sport climbing is debuting in the Olympics this year – here's what you need to know for an educated viewing experience. I've tried to include most of the relevant lingo you may hear from commentators.
Basics of Climbing
Sport climbing is the competitive version of rock climbing. If you google sport climbing, you may also find another definition – the two main types of outdoor climbing are called 'sport' and 'trad' and the difference between the two is whether the fall protection is permanent (sport) or temporary (trad).
There are three disciplines in competitive sport climbing: lead, speed, and bouldering. In all three disciplines, route setters build a 'route' or a 'problem' onto a wall using artificial holds – large (or sometimes very, very small) formed plastic pieces that are screwed into the wall. The pieces usually have a bit of a texture to them for friction, though you may hear commentators discussing 'dual-texture holds' – these holds have both slick and textured sections, so that the hold can only be used in a certain way.
Lead, Speed, and Bouldering
Speed is the simplest – climb a 15 meter route as fast as possible. This route is identical in every competition, down to the exact location and angle of every hold, and even the angle of the wall. The competition is usually held in a head-to-head format, in a bracket-style, single-elimination event. Climbers begin with their foot on a pressure pad that automatically senses false starts. If a false start happens, both climbers reset positions and try again. If a second false start happens, the offender is disqualified and the other climber advances. The route ends at a pressure pad at the top of the wall, which climbers must slap to complete the route. In speed climbing, climbers are protected from falls by an auto-belay system.
The current men's world record in speed climbing is 5.2 seconds, set just earlier this year. The world record was actually broken twice that day, by two different people. This video is of the second-fastest time ever recorded in speed climbing.
Lead is the next easiest to explain. A route the competitors have never seen before is set on a 15 meter wall, and climbers must try to reach the top. Before the competition begins, the climbers are given a viewing period to preview the route from the ground, but they are not allowed to try to climb the route in advance. During competition, climbers try the route one by one, while the rest of the climbers wait in the isolation zone. Climbers have 6 minutes to advance up the wall as far as they can. Each hold counts as a point, and the climber with the highest number of points wins. Ties go to count back to previous rounds. The goal is to get to the top of the route and clip the chains, signaling that the climber has completed the route – this is called a 'top.' If they don't clip the chains, their score is the value of the final hold. The route setters try to set the route so that there will be separation between the climbers – their preference is that exactly one climber gets a top (it is considered a bit disappointing if no one tops a route or if a lot of people fall off at exactly the same spot). You will frequently see climbers pausing on the wall for rests. Lead climbing is extremely physical, and climbers will get tired, or get 'pumped.' Rests allow them to recover and continue up the wall.
There are three rules for lead climbing that may affect the final outcome. #1: climbers have to clip every quickdraw (fall protection device placed on the wall that climbers clip their rope in to – there is also a human belayer at the bottom of the wall for fall protection). The quickdraws are considered part of the route and the route setters determine the hold that they think is the last possible position climbers could clip the quickdraw from. If a climber skips a quickdraw, that position is their final score. #2: climbers are not allowed to use the bolts that the quickdraws are attached to. This rule infamously (and controversially) bit Adam Ondra in the ass recently. Judges determined that Ondra stepped on a bolt during climbing, and his score was downgraded to the point that he was at when he broke the rule. This year's World Cup competitions have seen protection added over the top of the bolts so that climbers would be unable to use them, as the surface is very slick and climbers cannot stand on them. The final rule that may affect the outcome is the + system. If a climber uses a hold to advance, but cannot make it to the next hold, they get a + added to their score (e.g. 38+). In order to get that +, both their hand and their center of mass have to progress upwards towards the next hold (they can't just take a swipe at the next hold as they fall and get the +).
Here are some highlights from a World Cup competition last summer that show how difficult lead climbing can be – a particular highlight is the inversion required on the women's route. You'll also see some 'campusing,' when a climber's legs/feet aren't on the wall, and they are hanging solely from their hands. Many of the climbers shown in these highlights will be competing in the Olympics this year.
The final discipline is bouldering. In bouldering, the wall is very short – usually around 15 feet/5 meters. A number of 'boulder problems' are set, and the climbers have a set amount of time to top each one. Both the time and the number of problems varies depending on which round you're in during a competition. The climbers do not get to see the routes before they try to climb them and they are held in the isolation zone between problems. There are two points of interest in a bouldering route – the 'zone' and the 'top.' The zone hold is usually approximately halfway through a boulder problem – though it may come just a couple of holds in or could be the last hold before the top. Climbers get credit for reaching the zone if they control the zone hold with one hand. For the top, the hold must be controlled with both hands to count – and sometimes that second hand can be the hardest part of the whole problem. The climber with the highest number of tops wins. If climbers are tied on tops, the number of zones is the tie breaker. (So, you may see or hear a score of "3 tops, 4 zones" for example.) The next tie breaker after that is attempts to top, which, as it sounds, is the number of tries it took to get all the tops achieved. Unlike lead climbing, climbers can attempt a boulder problem again if they fall off. The ideal situation for a climber is a 'flash' – which means they got the top in one attempt. If there are four boulder problems and they flash every one, they'll have a score of 4 tops, 4 zones (probably – sometimes climbers can skip the zone hold, though it's rare), and 4 attempts to top. Finally, attempts to zone can be used as a final tiebreaker, though I've never seen anything come down to this.
Bouldering is probably the flashiest of the three disciplines. Modern competitive bouldering styles include a lot of 'dynos' (large jump moves) or 'coordination moves' – where a climber's hands and feet need to be doing something simultaneously in order to get to the next hold(s). During bouldering competitions, there is usually at least one 'slab' problem set per round, which involves lots of tricky, delicate balancing. You will see a lot of falls during bouldering, as there is no fall protection used due to the (relatively) low height of the wall.
This video is highlights of a competition from 2019, so it's a little older, but I wanted to include this one because this competition was decided by a 'crack' problem – Adam Ondra was the only person in the competition who successfully climbed this problem. (This crack problem is shown as his last highlight.) Crack problems have started to crop up a lot more in World Cup competitions, and it's mildly controversial as crack climbing is usually not considered a style of climbing that lends itself well to indoor/gym climbing. There is a lot of speculation about whether a crack problem will show up in the Olympics and if teams have been training crack climbing well enough (the Japanese team in particular seems to struggle with crack climbing).
The Combined Format
Unfortunately for climbing enthusiasts, the IOC decided that sport climbing would only be allowed one medal event at the Games. The IFSC invented the 'combined' format just for the Olympics, to show off all three disciplines. Climbers will compete in all three disciplines and be ranked against each other. Their combined rankings will then be multiplied together, and the person with the lowest score will win. For example, during the 2019 World Championships, Janja Garnbret took 6th in speed, 2nd in bouldering, and 1st in lead for a combined score of 6x2x1 = 12 to win.
The good news is, the 2024 Olympics will see speed climbing as a separate discipline, with a second medal handed out for a combined lead and bouldering event. There are hopes that each discipline will have its own medal by the 2028 Games.
Who to Watch
40 athletes have qualified to climb at the Olympics this year. However, because speed is such a specialized format compared to lead and bouldering, many of the speed specialists did not qualify for the combined format, and most of the competitors are lead and bouldering specialists.
On the men's side, the man who is widely considered to be the best climber in the world, Adam Ondra of the Czech Republic, is competing, though due to his poor historical performance in speed climbing, he is not necessarily the favorite to win. (The first Olympic qualifying event was the 2019 World Championship, where Ondra shockingly failed to qualify.) Other names to watch out for are:
• Tomoa Narasaki of Japan, who won the 2019 World Championship and is therefore the likely favorite
• Jakob Schubert of Austria
• Alex Megos of Germany, the only person who has climbed a 9c other than Ondra – though Megos isn't as strong at competition climbing as outdoors
• Sean McColl of Canada
• Jan Hojer of Germany
• Alberto Gines Lopez of Spain, a young up-and-comer
Janja Garnbret of Slovenia is far and away the favorite on the women's side. At the World Championships in 2019, she took gold in Lead, Bouldering, and the Combined. Also in 2019, Janja won all 6 Bouldering World Cup events, sweeping the season. Some of the women who are probably only competing for silver include:
• Akiyo Noguchi of Japan, who is retiring from competition following the Games
• Miho Nonaka, also of Japan, who is primarily a lead/bouldering climber, but took home a medal in speed climbing during this World Cup season and might be a dark horse contender for gold
• Petra Klingler of Switzerland
• Brooke Raboutou of the US, who is in very good form this season
• Jessie Pilz of Austria
The US is one of only 3 teams to max out with 4 climbers. (The other teams are France and Japan – the Japanese climbing team is insanely deep.) The US climbers are as follows:
• Nathaniel Coleman of Utah, a bouldering specialist
• Colin Duffy of Colorado, the youngest climber to qualify (which is very impressive, as elite male climbers tend to be older – late 20s to early 30s. Elite female climbers tend to be younger)
• Brooke Raboutou of Colorado, who is probably the most likely to medal of the Americans
• Kyra Condie of Minnesota, who has had a spinal fusion for scoliosis
How to Watch
All times are Pacific Time Zone – I'm in PST and the NBC Olympics website doesn't want to show me whether the broadcasts are simulcast or staggered
Men's Quals – 8/3 at 7:30 AM on USA (live at 1 AM)
Women's Quals – 8/4 at 7 AM on USA (live at 1 AM)
Men's Final – 8/5 at 1:45 PM on USA (live at 1:30 AM)
Women's Final – 8/6 at 2 PM on USA (live at 1:30 AM)
Where Can I Find More?
For general climbing news, follow Climbing Daily
The IFSC streams every World Cup event live, and full replays are available on their YouTube
The video for 'Silence,' the first-ever 9c climbed in the world, can be found here. Only two routes graded 9c have been climbed to date. It's a hell of a watch
Check out the movie Free Solo, which you can find on Disney+ or rent from other streaming sites.
What if I Want to Try?
Find a gym local to you at this link (not every climbing gym is listed – you can check google as well)
Most gyms have rental equipment (shoes, harnesses, chalk – though with COVID many gyms aren't renting chalk bags anymore). For bouldering, all you need is a pair of shoes and maybe some chalk. Top rope requires a harness and either an autobelay system or a partner and belay training. Lead climbing requires additional training, both for how to climb safely and how to lead belay. Your gym will probably offer classes.
Now – go out and crush it!