TOKYO – Basketball, baseball, tennis – the list goes on for Olympic sports that almost everyone has tried before. Watch these athletes in Tokyo on TV and somewhere in the back of your mind it’s easy to think: I probably could do it.
Seeing athletic climbers hang with one hand from their fingertips or upside down from a foot stuck in a crevice opens up a different kind of response: Yes, I couldn’t do that.
Sport climbing made its Olympic debut, giving the world the opportunity to see how physically demanding it can be. A mix of speed, strength and agility, the sport opened our eyes to two days of qualifying. It will get even more intense with the finals, starting with the men on Thursday.
So how did sport climbing get here and what exactly is going on?
A BRIEF HISTORY
Climbing has been around since man looked up at a rock face and thought to himself: I wonder what it would be like to climb that?
As with almost all other sporting activities, it turned into competition.
Sport climbing first took hold in the 1980s on exterior walls and moved indoors at the end of the decade to avoid negatively impacting the environment. The first world championships were held a decade later and the International Federation of Sport Climbing was founded in 2007, giving the sport more structure.
The sport has grown in popularity in recent years with the success of the documentary Free Solo, the prowess of its climbers on social media and a televised deal with ESPN to broadcast World Cup events.
The sport has kept part of its relaxed atmosphere. But competitions have given climbers a different kind of outlet and the financial means to continue playing the sport they love.
The Olympic sport climbing program is broken down into three disciplines: speed, bouldering and lead.
Lead looks a lot like what people see on indoor recreational walls, but much, much harder. The score is also simple: climbers have six minutes to see who can reach the top of the 45-meter wall. All ties are broken by who did it the fastest.
The boulder is a set of four “problems” that climbers should try to solve in four minutes each. Problems can include overhangs, places where climbers have to wedge themselves between holds, and places where head down is the only option to continue climbing. Climbers earn points for reaching each peak and get partial points for reaching different areas on the walls.
The setup for speed is simple: Climbers run side-by-side on a 45-meter wall dotted with standardized holds.
Speed was a controversial addition to the sport’s Olympic debut, as it requires a different skill set than the other two disciplines. As Briton Shauna Coxsey said, having speed is like asking Usain Bolt to add the marathon and hurdles to his sprint events.
The IOC only presents two climbing medals in Tokyo – one for men and one for women – and wanted a fast element for the sport in its early days, so speed was included in the format. Speed will be a separate event at the 2024 Paris Games.
The scoring is a combination of the place of each climber in the three disciplines. Places are multiplied together and the lowest total wins. An example: if a climber ranks first in bouldering, second in lead, 10th in speed, his total would be 20.
The scoring format gives the winners of one of the three disciplines a huge advantage as their total will be multiplied by one, which will result in a poor finish in a discipline.
Many of the top climbers and boulder climbers aren’t as proficient at speed climbing as the speed specialists, so their goal is to win at least one of the other disciplines for a chance in the combined.
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