Tokyo Olympics: What is sport climbing? Rules and favorites to win

Per the Olympics website, this sport requires strength, flexibility, and skill, together with careful advance planning, and that 'the first-ever medallists' will all possess this unique combination

                            Tokyo Olympics: What is sport climbing? Rules and favorites to win
Peter Kuric of Slovakia competes during the Mens Combined, Bouldering Qualification as part of Buenos Aires Youth Olympics on October 8, 2018 (Photo by Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

Sport climbing will debut at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This new athletic event is going to make things pretty interesting, thanks to its unconventional format and rules. During the 129th International Olympic Committee session in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016, the committee added 'Sport Climbing' to the program of the Tokyo event. 

From August 3 to August 6, 2021, a total of 40 sport climbing athletes — 20 men and 20 women — will compete in a combined event at Tokyo's Aomi Urban Sports Park.  As per the official Olympics website, sport climbing takes the challenge of scaling steep ascents to “a whole new level.” The game will feature three disciplines: Speed, Bouldering, and Lead.


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A man drives past the New National Stadium, the main stadium for the Tokyo Olympics, on June 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan (Photo by Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

The website states that by using a range of hand and footholds of different shapes and sizes, climbers will put their skills and strength into practice on a vertical wall, which may feature varying angles of either positive (known in climbing as a slab) or negative (steep, overhanging) sections.

The Rules

In “Speed” two climbers will race against each other, climbing a route on a 15-meter wall, set at an angle of 95 degrees. In “Bouldering”, athletes will scale a number of fixed routes on a 4.5-meter wall in a specified time. The routes vary in difficulty and climbers are not permitted to practice climbing them in advance. They can try a route again if they fall during their initial attempt.

In the “Lead” round, athletes will attempt to climb as high as possible on a wall measuring over 15 meters in height within six minutes. If a climber falls, the height (hold number) attained is recorded. There are no re-climbs. If two or more athletes complete the climb or reach exactly the same height as the other(s), the one with the fastest climb time is declared the winner. 

Oceania Mackenzie of Australia and Leah Jeffries of Australia compete during the Sport Climbing Olympic Qualifications at Sydney Indoor Climbing Gym on December 19, 2020 in Sydney, Australia (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)

Each climber will compete in all three disciplines, and the final scores will be determined by multiplying the individual ranking in each discipline. The athletes achieving the lowest numbers will win medals. The game’s rules also state that no equipment is permitted, and competitors must climb using only their bare hands and climbing shoes. 

Per the Olympics website, this sport requires strength, flexibility, and skill, together with careful advance planning, and that “the first-ever medallists” will all possess this unique combination of physical and mental capability and decisiveness. To prevent athletes from gaining an advantage from watching others scaling the bouldering and lead climbing walls before them, each climber is sequestered away from the climbing wall before their turn and given just a few minutes to examine the wall and routes prior to starting.

Who are the fan favorites?




Czech Republic's Adam Ondra is certainly one name that many hope will shine in this event. Ondra says that he will need to perform well in the event he believes is his biggest hurdle — the head-to-head speed event — for a chance to secure gold. "We are all new to this format, and we all are playing the game with very unpredictable results," Ondra said. "I must say it makes it pretty exciting."

Miho Nonaka, a bouldering specialist and one of four Japanese contenders at the Games, who took third place in speed at the climbing World Cup in Salt Lake City in May, said: "As the only discipline where you compete against an opponent, I really understood that speed is not just about timing but that it's a psychological battle.”

Two other favorites for this event are the Mawem brothers -- Bassa and Mickaël -- from France. “When Mickaël qualified, it was a relief for me,” said Bassa to “From then on, I just had to think about myself. It is special because we are brothers, we are very close, there is no competition between us, we always support each other.”

The younger Mickaël said, “I want to see my brother win and he wants to see me win. If both of us win, fantastic. But If only one of us wins, both of us have won. Being together at the Games, just the two of us representing France on the men’s side, it’s crazy.”