Last weekend, 450 of the world’s best rock climbers convened in the outskirts of Moscow at the CSKA Sports Complex for the second stop on the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s (IFSC) World Cup tour. All eyes were on Czech climber Adam Ondra, the reigning king of really hard rock climbing and a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. A week prior, Ondra had made a win at the first bouldering World Cup of the 2019 season, proving he deserves to be considered a frontrunner for competitive climbing’s first Olympics.
With rock climbing’s debut in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo less than 16 months away, the effects are already being felt. Top athletes are vying for Olympics slots while a rush of business dollars and media attention bear down on the emerging sport. While most of the competitors in Moscow were not household names, the high level of competition highlighted how far the nascent sport has come.
In January, USA Climbing inked a multi-year agreement with ESPN to broadcast the National Championships and other climbing events across the country. Then in February, the Organizing Committee for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games announced their proposal to expand climbing’s presence in the event by creating two separate medal events per gender, guaranteeing that the sport will continue to evolve at break-neck pace.
“It’s going to be different,” says Canadian climber and Combined World Cup winner Sean McColl. “I don’t think competitive climbing will settle down until it’s been in three or four Olympics. Right now, everything is still evolving.”
When it was formally announced in 2016 that climbing would be a medal sport in the 2020 Olympics, the format was derided by many throughout the climbing world. At the Tokyo games, climbers will compete in three disciplines—bouldering, lead climbing, and speed climbing—for one combined set of medals per gender. In particular, speed climbing’s inclusion was widely criticized. (Learn more about the sport's different styles and history.)
“I am NOT in support of the format that imposes that all climbers must compete in speed climbing,” legendary free climber Lynn Hill told Climbing Magazine. “That is like asking a middle distance runner to compete in the sprint. Speed climbing is a sport within our sport.”
“I think speed climbing is kind of an artificial discipline,” Ondra declared in an interview at the time. “Climbers compete on the same holds and train on the same holds, which doesn’t have much in common with the climbing philosophy in my opinion…anything would be better than this combination.”
For insiders like McColl, who serves as the president of the International Olympic Committee's (I.O.C.) Climbing Athlete Commission, however, the awkward format was a necessary growing pain for the sport to get its foot in the door with the greatest individual competition in the world.
“The I.O.C.’s process is just that, a process,” McColl says. “It’s really hard as a new sport that’s never been seen much on TV, or by anyone very far outside of climbing, to come and say, ‘Hey, we've got this great sport, we want four medals per gender, and 160 athlete spots.’ There are constraints in the Olympics.”
For McColl, last month’s news that organizers of the Paris Games would like to separate speed climbing from bouldering and lead climbing to make two events was vindication that the strategy is working. “For 2020, we got one medal and 40 spots. Now, we have 2 medals and 72 athletes in 2024. My hope is we’ll get four medals by 2028.”
According to McColl, the evolving Olympic format is having a trickle-down effect that will be felt throughout competitive climbing’s ranks. “For 2020, we’ve been encouraging all the [national] federations and competitive climbers to do combined events with all three disciplines. But for 2024, with speed being taken out, combined competitors won’t need to do speed,” he says.
Rise of the Specialists
By the summer of 2018, Ondra begrudgingly began training for speed climbing to bolster his Olympic chances. Another leading outdoor climber, 24-year-old German ace Alex Megos, recently announced his own Olympic bid despite similar misgivings about the format.
“I think what tipped the scale for me and actually made me decide to try and qualify for the Olympics was the fear of regretting not having tried it,” Megos wrote in a recent email. “Considering my age and the fact that I want to shift my focus more on outdoor climbing in the future, the 2020 Olympics will be my first and last chance to ever compete in the Olympics.”
Megos and Ondra are rare specimens, however. Few other outdoor climbers–even luminaries like Chris Sharma, Tommy Caldwell, or Alex Honnold–have the skill set to allow them to compete in the Olympics, even if they were so inclined. “Competition bouldering is now very different from actual climbing. If you rarely train in this particular style you have little chance,” Megos explained in an interview. So far, Megos has placed 16th and 15th in this year’s World Cup bouldering events.
“At the very highest levels of competition climbing, you need to be training indoors full time,” says Chris Danielson, an American World Cup route-setter. And even for seasoned competitive climbers, excelling in all three disciplines simultaneously is a herculean task.
“It’s a bit like asking Usain Bolt to run a marathon and then do the hurdles,” British climber Shauna Coxsey explained in an interview to the Olympics News. “No one has really transitioned before. No boulderer has transitioned to speed and lead, and no speed climber has done it to bouldering and lead.”
Danielson notes that because of the unusual amount of uncertainty in competition climbing, it’s really hard to predict favorites. “Odds from past experience show that teams like Japan and Austria are in good position to do very well… the hard part is predicting who the stars will actually end up being. That’s not just because there’s a lot of high-level athletes, but because of the nature of competition climbing. There’s luck involved.”
In Moscow, Ondra slipped on the beginning of the final boulder problem, which he was unable to complete, ultimately coming in second to Slovenian Jernej Kruder. Coxsey also came in second to another Slovenian, Janja Garnbret. Perhaps most notably, an astonishing seven Japanese climbers placed in the top 19 of the men’s bouldering event.
One big reason even the best rock climbers in the world might struggle in an indoor competition has to do with a wild new style of climbing movement that indoor climbing has spawned. Incorporating wild, all-points of dynamic jumps and large, featureless holds known as “volumes” that force climbers into awkward body positions, the modern brand of competition bouldering sometimes appears to have as much to do with parkour or skateboarding as it does with rock climbing.
“What volumes can do is create the possibility of more variable terrain,” says Danielson. “Rather than grabbing and pulling up a single face, you’re moving and navigating through holds on different angles.”
In the first World Cup bouldering event this year, for instance, route setters used volumes to create a crack that competitors needed to ascend. While most of the field struggled, Ondra used several hand jams—an old-school outdoor technique—to solve the riddle and win first place.
“Bouldering used to be about grabbing on really hard to hold, bad holds,” says Caldwell, an elite outdoor climber who free climbed El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in 2015. “The new indoor style demands way more coordination, flexibility, and timing.” Caldwell notes that it’s even percolating into outdoor climbing. “It actually translates pretty well to granite big-wall climbs, where you’re frequently trying to span blank gaps between holds or crack systems,” he says. “I find it really fun.”
It doesn’t hurt that the new-school approach makes for telegenic viewing, either. “More and more we’ll see lead climbing adopt the tricks and flare that bouldering already has,” McColl predicts.
Danielson is cautiously optimistic about the sport’s next phase. “I think there’s no question that greater viewership and attention to competition climbing will mean changes to certain elements,” he says. “Being someone really embedded in it, I don’t think the way climbing competitions work today has been perfected for the athletes or for a core audience of climbers… Imagine what football or baseball were like when those sports were only 25 or 30 years old. Competitive climbing is still so young and has great room to grow."