Climbing in the 2020 Olympics, Explained
Are you curious about what Olympic climbing will look like in 2020? We are, too. Here's what you should know before it all begins.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
In 2016, the International Olympic Committee voted to include climbing in the 2020 Olympics. But when it announced that it would combine the three main forms of competitive climbing—speed, boulder, and sport—into a single format and offer only one set of medals, many climbers were understandably apprehensive.
To get a better understanding of the format and how climbers qualify for the Olympics in the first place, we talked to the chief executive officer of USA Climbing, Marc Norman.
The combined format requires every climber to compete in all three disciplines. Twenty men and twenty women will earn spots, and each country has a maximum allowance of two athletes per gender. Norman says that athletes will first complete in speed, then boulder, and finally sport.
Speed climbing is the most controversial style and is basically a 15-meter (49.2-foot) vertical race. Two competitors go head to head on a standardized route; the fastest to the top wins. Speed walls around the world are standardized, all using the same amount and the same placement of holds. A speed wall will be the same in Beijing as in Boston; this way, climbers can train on the exact route they’ll be climbing at the Olympics. When the IOC originally announced it would include speed, Adam Ondra, arguably the best climber in the world, told Black Diamond that speed climbing “doesn’t have much in common with the climbing philosophy, in my opinion.”
On the other hand, speed is fast-paced and exciting for spectators. The current world record is 5.48 seconds for men and 7.32 seconds for women.
Route setters create a set of three unique and challenging boulder problems on a wall that’s four meters (13.12 feet) high. Each athlete has four minutes to complete each climb and will be scored on either how far they get or how many tries it takes them to complete it. The boulder problems are scored separately and combined at the end.
Each athlete attempts to lead-climb (clipping in a rope as they climb) a route on a wall over 15 meters (49.2 feet) high. The climbers have six minutes to reach the top or get as high as they can without falling.
What Will It Take to Win?
An athlete’s overall score will be the final ranking in each discipline multiplied together; the lowest score wins. For example, if a climber finishes sixth in speed, second in bouldering, and third in sport, their end score would be 36, which would be pretty good. On the other hand, if a climber got 17th in speed, first in bouldering, and fourth in sport, their end score would be 68. In this scoring system, it pays to be fairly good in all three events rather than exceptional in just one. Norman says the athletes will have to be really good in at least two disciplines and decent in the third to have a chance at winning.
Who Will Be Climbing in the Olympics?
Norman predicts that most of the climbers will be younger up-and-comers. He thinks the average age will be around 21. That’s because many young climbers are all-arounders, whereas some of the biggest names in climbing—Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold, Alex Puccio—are hyperfocused on one discipline. Honnold told Reuters, “I wouldn’t even be able to qualify [for the Olympics].” Even though Honnold is the best free soloist alive, he doesn’t climb in competitions at all.
How Do Climbers Get into the 2020 Olympics?
In general, there are three main ways for climbers to snag one of the 20 spots per gender in the Olympics. One female and one male spot are reserved for Japan, the host nation. One more spot for each gender is picked by what’s called the tripartite commission—the national Olympic committees, International Olympic Committee, and international federations decide to give an entry to a nation that might need additional support. An important thing to remember is that every climber in the Olympics must compete in all three disciplines, so all the qualifying competitions use a combined ranking from speed, sport, and bouldering.
The next seven places go to the top climbers in each gender from the Combined World Championship on August 20 and 21 in Tokyo. If one country has more than two athletes in the top seven, then only the top two will get invitations and the additional invitations will extend to the next ranking athlete from a different country.
The next six spots will come from the top performers in the World Cup, a series of international competitions running from April to October. The top 20 athletes from the World Cup will enter the International Federation of Sport Climbing Olympic Qualifying Event from November 28 to December 1 in Toulouse, France. The top six ranked competitors for each gender will then move on the Olympics.
The last five spots will come from the first-place winner from five continental championships specifically held for Olympic qualifications. These championships will take place throughout spring 2020 in Johannesburg, Moscow, Sydney, Los Angeles, and Morioka, Japan.
Who Will Be Climbing on Team USA?
USA Climbing chose climbers based on the results of an invitational competition held in January, bouldering nationals, and sport and speed nationals. These are the climbers who made the cut:
There’s no guarantee that any member of the U.S. climbing team will make it to the Olympics; they’ve now got to compete for one of the 40 total available spots. Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, a four-time World Cup champion and coach to some of our best climbers—including Margo Hayes and Brooke Raboutou—thinks there’s a good chance we’ll get in, but we won’t know for sure until after all the qualifying events.