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Climbing in the Olympics – how it works

Climbing in the Olympics – how it works

Are you excited?!

Just in case you haven’t heard (are you living in a climbing-free cave?), in 2016 it was announced that Sport Climbing, along with Skateboarding, Surfing and Karate, would be trialed at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. But a climbing competition? How do you decide who is the best climber in bouldering, lead and speed all at once?

With Olympic Qualifications in full swing and just six months to go until the climbers leave the ground at Aomi Urban Sports Park, we decided we’d bring you a mini-guide to how it’s all going to work.

The Combined Event

At Tokyo 20 climbers from across the world will compete in what’s known as the ‘Combined Event’. A new format, this brings together three disciplines of competition climbing – lead, speed and boulder – and has been seen so far at two World Championships and the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires in 2017. 


So how does each part work?

Speed Climbing

On your marks, get set, SPRINT!

The first event will see each competitor go hell for leather up a set route on a 15m wall. The Speed route is the same world over, so this is the one section where competitors know exactly what they’ll be facing. I’ve heard a lot of complaints of ‘this isn’t really climbing’, to those people I recommend you go an have a crack at the route – it’s about 6b+ and designed for repeated dynos. It feels like climbing to me.

This event is top-roped and, because of the phenomenal speed, competitors are clipped onto an autobelay. To add to the tension, they ascend two at a time, in a ‘duel’, giving the event much more of a race quality. 

At the top, the climbers hit a timer button to finish the route, calculating their time to the nearest 0.01 second!

Whilst at qualifiers, the top times move through, once we get to the final, competitors get knocked out until there’s just the winner left.

Check out this video from BBC Sport of Olympic hopeful Will Bosi racing someone drinking a glass of milk!


Picture this… You’re at your local climbing gym, about to face the hardest boulder problem you’ve ever seen. But you have only seconds to even read the route before starting. 

In the Olympics, once an athlete is on the pads, they’ll have just four minutes to get to the top of their route! They can fall off as much as they like, but once the time is up, that’s it. 

Bouldering sees climbers at their most gymnastic and the four routes they take on will likely showcase the hardest technical climbing of the competition. Expect to see athletes facing the wrong way and even running their way across volumes.

Competitors score points from the number of ‘tops’ they get, followed by ‘zones’ (when the climber reaches a set hold in a route, but doesn’t make the top).

Lead Climbing

I hope you’re not scared of heights! Watching competitive Lead climbing can sometimes really make my stomach lurch as athletes struggle to clip as they hold themselves on with little more than a toe hook and micro-crimp. Baffled, you can see them shaking out their arms in a ‘rest’ of a knee bar on a 45 degree overhang.

Each athlete has just six minutes to make one attempt at a single towering route. The further they get, the harder the moves and the more pumped they get, but once they fall or the time is up, that’s game over. The climber who gets the furthest is the winner!

Once the three events are over, the competitors’ places in each event are multiplied together to form a ranking. The eight competitors with the lowest scores move forwards to the final, where they’ll face new boulders, a new lead route and the head to head speed challenge.

The Athletes

This summer the first qualification round at the Hachioji World Championships saw the first sixteen climbers qualify for the Olympics, including the UK’s Shauna Coxsey and all round superstar Janja Garnbrett, but there’s still time for those who didn’t make it at other qualifying events around the world.

Olympic-Style climbing is going to test the best climbers in the world on their strength, power, endurance, coordination, problem-solving and speed. Most of all, it’s going to bring climbing to the masses and we know they’re going to love it.

So who do you want to see up there on the podium? Let us know your favourite athletes in the comments!

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