History will be written in 2020 at the Olympic summer games in Tokyo. For the first time in history, rock climbing will then be featured as an Olympic sport.
Naturally, the announcement has stirred up the rock climbing world. Well known climbers like Adam Ondra, Shauna Coxsey and Miho Nonaka have all enthusiastically picked up the gauntlet and have started training to become the first rock climbing olympians.
While euphoria still reigns, the dust is settling and it becomes clear that there’s an uncomfortable shadow lurking over the competition, too. And that has to do with the way the rating system works that will be used at the 2020 climbing games.
The three disciplines of climbing at the Olympics
To understand what the problem is with this rating system, it is important that we first briefly skim over the three disciplines that will be demonstrated at the Olympics, and pay close attention to their differences.
These are: lead climbing, bouldering and speed climbing.
Lead climbing is the mother of all rock climbing. The objective in lead climbing competitions is to climb as high as possible within a time frame of 6 minutes.
Climbers clip in their climbing ropes at regular intervals as they climb to the top. The act of securing yourself as you make your way to the top, is what sets lead climbing apart from top roping. In top roping there is already a rope anchored to the top of the climbing wall prior to the ascension, which secures the climber as he makes his way up. In lead climbing however, there is no such rope that enables you to rest for a while. This makes lead climbing more exhausting.
Resultantly, endurance is the most important quality a climber can have to be successful at lead climbing. Without the right endurance climbers will suffer from climbing pump during these 6 minutes and inevitably fall off.
While endurance is the determining factor in winning at lead climbing, in bouldering it is different.
In bouldering, climbers climb without the protection of any ropes or gear: there’s only a soft and protective fallzone underneath the climbing problems. The problems climbers face in bouldering are short, complicated climbing routes that only go up several vertical meters.
Typically, a combination of finger strength, flexibility and problem solving capabilities is the name of the bouldering game. Climbers need to demonstrate incredible finger strength in order to be able to hold on to minuscule holds. In order to get such strong hands that their entire body weight can hang from just a fingertip, they use fingerboards in their training.
In recent bouldering history, moreover, bouldering problems that require spectacular dynamic moves have become increasingly popular amongst route setters. To train for these dynamic moves, climbers rely on route setters to come up with challenging and creative bouldering problems and practise at the gym.
As climbers have 4 minutes to complete any given route, endurance is a lot less important than in lead climbing.
The last of the three climbing disciplines that will be featured at the Olympic games in Tokyo, is speed climbing.
Speed climbing requires neither problem solving nor endurance, but it requires a huge amount of explosive power.
The route that speed climbers have to climb, is internationally standardised. This means that a speed climbing wall is the same in America, Germany, or in Japan.
As a result, climbers do not have to assess what the best way is to get up a route. All they have to do is to replicate a set of moves that they have trained over and over again.
Flawlessly, and as quick as possible.
The current speed climbing record is a staggering 5.48 seconds for climbing up a 15 metre wall.
The first controversy of the climbing rating system: One medal for all disciplines
As you can see, lead climbing, bouldering and speed climbing are three completely different disciplines within the overarching denomination of rock climbing.
Whereas sports like swimming yield a medal for each separate distance (you can win 16 medals as a swimmer!), and even sports like Taekwondo yield a different medal for each weight class, climbing at the Olympics comes with no such luxury.
There’s only one golden medal to be won win with climbing, and to get there, you’ll have to show what you’ve got in each respective climbing discipline.
And while rock climbing has produced lots of famous faces over the years, none of these faces have become widely recognised because they were good at all three disciplines. That means that professional rock climbers now need to transition. They are forced to become a jack of all trades if they want to stand a chance of winning Olympic gold.
The second controversy: How points are attributed
There will be 20 male and 20 female competitors at the Olympics.
When a climber gets first place in bouldering, that will give him one point. The twentieth place will yield 20 points. The climber with the least amount of points win.
Now, the controversy is as follows. The points from each of the three competitions are not added to each other. Instead, they are multiplied.
That means that somebody that is a good allrounder, and gets in at 10th place in each of the disciplines, will receive 101010 = 1000 points.
Another climber, who excels at just one discipline may become first at speed climbing, and 20th (last place) at both others. He will get 12020= 400 points.
In this example, the climber who came in last in 2 out of the three competitions, will earn a higher place in the ranking than the climber who climbed average at all three, because 400 points is less than 1000.
In a way, this favours specialised climbers. It can be argued that this is a good thing, since most climbers only specialise in one or two of the disciplines. Still, it is up for debate whether it is really fair that the system favours specialised climbers over great all rounders.
As climbing is a new sport in the Olympics, it still has to prove itself. There’s just one medal to be won for the male and female athletes respectively.
As time goes on, and the three main disciplines of climbing win recognition as Olympic disciplines, it is certainly within the realm of the possible that climbing will one day be split up into three different olympic disciplines, each with its own medal. Just like swimming and many other olympic sports.
Until that time comes, climbers will have to accept the current rating system for what it is, and adapt to it. And perhaps it is a good thing. Whereas only few traditional rock climbers bothered with speed climbing, many athletes have learned to appreciate the discipline as they started practicing speed climbing in preparation for the Olympics. Conversely, many speed climbers are now branching out into lead climbing and bouldering. In the end, this can only bring the entire climbing world closer together.