Olympic Climbing Debut for 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics

Coming up in the Summer 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, climbing will be a new addition for viewers to enjoy. Although it was not originally considered for the games, the local committee though the addition of olympic climbing would bring international and local attention to the games, as well as increase the amount of younger viewers.

A group of 20 men and 20 women will compete over four days for the Olympic gold. New for competative climbing, participants will be asked to compete in all three disciplines: speed climbing, lead climbing and bouldering. The finalists from the preliminary round will compete in all three events back to back to determine the overall winner.

In international competitive climbing, climbers only compete in one discipline for the overall title. Most professional climbers only train and compete in one of the three disciplines.

With its Olympic debut, Olympic climbing will have athletes competing in all three disciplines for the gold medal. This could potentially mean that top athletes in their discipline will not qualify for the Olympic climbing team if they do not excel all three.

Speed Climbing

Speed climbing will become the fastest sport in the Olympics, with top times as low as five to six seconds for men and seven to eight seconds for women. Climbers will go at a head-to-head race up two identical routes. Routes are set on a 50-foot-high wall at a 95o angle. Speed is the only detail athletes are judged on. The first to reach the top is the winner. If an athlete false starts, meaning starting before the gun, they will be disqualified.

The exact route for speedclimbing is determined and shared prior to the event. Participants are allowed to train for this route at their own climbing hall.

Lead Climbing

For lead climbing, athletes will climb a 40-60-foot-high wall to see how far they can get. Lead climbing is when the athlete is belayed from below and clips the rope into carabiners of what’s called quick draws as they climb up.

Climbers will be scored based on how high up they reach before either falling or clipping into the topmost quickdraw. How high they reach is determined by the highest hold the climber had a controlled hold of.

Typically, climbers have six minutes to complete the route, but more time can be added based on the route setter’s discretion. When an athlete falls before finishing the route there are no re-climbs. If two or more athletes make it to the top or reach the same height on the wall, the winner will be decided by who had the faster time. This will test climber’s stamina and technique.

The routes for lead climbing are unique and will not be shared with the climbers prior to the event. They will however, get the chance to inspect the route at the start of the event. After that, the climbers are sent backstage and a belayer starts preparing for the first climb.

While the first competitor is invited to the stage, the rest is waiting backstage. They cannot see the other climbers performance, because that may give them an advantage. The backstage for the competitors is called isolation.


Unlike the other two disciplines, bouldering uses no rope and climbers will have the opportunity to climb multiple routes and re-climb uncompleted routes. Bouldering will test athletes physical and mental dexterity.

Climbers have the opportunity to climb multiple routes set on a 13-foot high wall. They will have four minutes to complete each individual route and can re-attempt routes if they fall. Special mats, similar to a gymnastics mats protect the athletes from falls off the wall.

Scores will be based on how many routes the athlete completes and how many attempts it took to complete. Usually, there are four bouldering routes per event.

Scoring methods

Each competitor participates in all three disciplines to compete for Olympic gold. The best overall from the three disciplines is the winner. This however is not typical for competitive climbing.

Usually athletes specialize in a single discipline and rarely cross over. Because of this difference from the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) rules some professional athletes are unsure if they want to compete in Olympic climbing.

Majority of professional climbers are psyched for Olympic climbing to make its debut in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Attention for the sport on the world stage will increase support and understanding for climbing. Coverage will help non-climbers to understand and appreciate the sport more. Young climbers will now have Olympic dreams to chase.

Judges in front of climbing athlete Jernej Kruder

Scoring Controversy

However, professional climbers agree that the overall scoring and medal award is not ideal. Speed climbing is very different from lead climbing and bouldering, so top speed climbers are not expected to excel in the Olympic climbing format. Routes are not created for difficulty in speed climbing, so top athletes in the discipline do not train technique for technical moves.

Professional lead climbers and boulderers have the best shot at the gold medal. In both events physical and mental challenges are solved to complete routes. Technique and strength are both necessary for athletes to complete routes so transitioning between the two disciplines should be easier for these athletes.
Being great at two out three disciplines, gives these climbers the best chance of winning a medal.

This is affirmed by Janja Garnbret, Adam Ondra and Jakob Schubert winning gold and silver medals at the IFCS ‘combined climbing’ finals:

However, many professional athletes who compete in these disciplines do not consider speed climbing as a true representation of what the sport is about. It will be interesting to see how many professional boulderers and lead climbers train speed climbing to qualify for the Olympics.

Future Olympic climbing

For the future of Olympic climbing ideally there will be eight medals presented. One for the winner in each discipline, as well as an overall winner. This is how international competitive climbing is currently scored. Some professional athletes think that speed climbing should not be represented in the Olympics at all.

While climbers are excited about the opportunity to be Olympians, they are not excited about format of competing in all three disciplines. Hopefully the scoring procedure will be reviewed for the 2024 Olympics.

Athletes’ opinions

Athletes like Adam Ondra will be competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, but does not agree that speed climbing should be included. He feels that speed climbing does not represent the true nature of what rock climbing is about. In bouldering and lead climbing athletes have never seen or climbed the route before, testing their mental and physical problem-solving skills. Speed climbers however always train on the same routes that can be memorized and dialed in.

Shauna Coxsey will also be competing in the 2020 games. Like Ondra, she agrees that athletes should not have to compete in all three disciplines for the gold. A boulderer herself, she feels that boulderers are in the best position to transition to competing in the other two events. However, no one has transitioned before and a competition with the Olympic climbing format has never taken place. It will be interesting to see how everything plays out.

Left to right: Fanny Gibert, Janja Garnbret, Shauna Coxsey

Although she is excited to see Olympic climbing make its debut, Sasha DiGiulian will not be competing in the 2020 Olympic games. The 2011 World Champion herself, she is taking a step back and letting a new generation of climbers come up for Olympic climbing. With the new Olympic format, she expects the next generation of professional climbers to train and become all around competitors in the three disciplines. She herself has never trained or competed in speed climbing or bouldering.

Whether you support the Olympic climbing format or not, the coverage will bring the sport to the world stage. More people will learn the challenges and benefits of climbing allowing the sport to continue to grow and gain support.

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