The Olympics are Over, but Speed Climbing is Here to Stay

It’s been over a year now since Sport Climbing made its Olympic debut, unveiling the highly controversial combined scoring format that gave equal weight to lead climbing, bouldering, and the relatively unknown speed climbing, and saw thousands of Ondra fans around the world crying foul (more on this later). After becoming a breakthrough success at the Tokyo Games, it has already been announced that the Sport Climbing competition at the fast-approaching Paris 2024 Olympics will be broken into two separate events:

  1. Combined Lead and Bouldering
  2. Speed Climbing

While some diehards may still struggle with the more traditional disciplines of lead climbing and bouldering being given equal opportunity to medal as speed specialists, there can be little doubt that the new format is a step in the right direction for the sport and will hopefully lead to a more equitable and representative showcase of many climbers’ true abilities.

Between the changes to the competition format and an influx of extremely strong, young competition climbers coming onto the scene, the Paris 2024 landscape will be very different from what we saw in Tokyo last year.

“The sport is still fairly new, so innovations in all areas of training and competing are happening pretty rapidly,” John Brosler, the US men’s speed climbing national record holder explained. “When speed was added to the Olympic program, it created a reason for governments and National Olympic Committees to fund speed climbing directly, which is the first time that speed climbers have seen that kind of money or attention. I think that has spurred innovation in the sport even further.”

Before we dive too deeply into the latest innovations coming to speed climbing, let’s take a quick look back at what did happen during Sport Climbing’s initial introduction to the Olympic spotlight, as well as how things might have been different if only these changes had been made earlier.

Sport Climbing’s Winners and Losers from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

Years before Sport Climbing ever came to Tokyo, the combined scoring format had already come under heavy fire from several members of the climbing community, though none more famous than when Adam Ondra, widely considered the world’s best climber, told the New York Times:

“The fact that you can climb in five seconds or six seconds has nothing to do with climbing,” Ondra said at the time. “It’s a circus.”

In practice, some of the more finicky components of speed climbing did end up having a major impact on the final standings. For example, Colin Duffy narrowly missed out on the gold medal by virtue of a false start on the speed wall, an almost immeasurably small mistake which proved the difference between first and seventh place for the young American.

Duffy wasn’t the only competitor whose placement in the finals was torpedoed by speed climbing. Based on the way that the scores were calculated (lead rank x bouldering rank x speed rank = combined score), a first place finish in at least one of the three disciplines was given undue significance and the gold medal was all but unachievable without it.

Which begs the question: what would the Sport Climbing results have looked like if speed climbing had not factored into the overall scores at the 2020 Olympics?

Let’s take a look at the numbers.

Rescoring Men’s Sport Climbing at the 2020 Olympics by 2024 Standards

Rank Country Name Lead Boulder Adj Score Adj Rank Change
1 ESP Alberto Ginés López 7 4 28 7 6
2 USA Nathaniel Coleman 1 5 5 1 -1
3 AUT Jakob Schubert 5 1 5 1 -2
4 JPN Tomoa Narasaki 3 6 18 6 2
5 FRA Mickael Mawem 2 7 14 5 0
6 CZE Adam Ondra 6 2 12 3 -3
7 USA Colin Duffy 4 3 12 3 -4
FRA Bassa Mawem DNS DNS DNS

 

As you can see, on the men’s side of things, gold medalist Alberto Ginés López from Spain would have finished seventh, had he not taken the top spot in speed. Actually, this was an excellent result for him, as he placed 7 out of 20 competitors in the speed event during qualifications, one spot behind the aforementioned Colin Duffy.

After swapping positions in lead and bouldering, the adjusted joint gold medal winners in the adjusted rankings would have been America’s Nathaniel Coleman and Austria’s Jakob Schubert, who won the silver and bronze, respectively.

Our adjusted bronze medal would have gone to either Ondra (6th) or Duffy (7th), who, based solely on their results in lead and bouldering, would have tied for third with 12 points apiece.

Here’s where things get really interesting. If you take a step back and look at the qualification round, the adjusted scoring reveals an additional complication. Out of an original field of twenty climbers, only the top eight qualifiers went on to compete in the finals. However, if you remove the speed results from the overall scoring calculation, you’ll find that there is one massive change. Rather than Coleman (our hypothetical gold medalist) making it through to the finals, the eight competitor would have been none other than German superstar Alex Megos!

By the same token, if we isolated the competition based entirely on speed climbing results, the standings would have looked like this:

  1. Alberto Ginés López (ESP)
  2. Tomoa Narasaki (JPN)
  3. Mickael Mawem (FRA)

Notably, the top athlete during the speed climbing qualifiers, Bassa Mawem from France, was unable to compete in the finals after tearing his left bicep during his lead qualification attempt.

Rescoring Women’s Sport Climbing at the 2020 Olympics by 2024 Standards

Rank Country Name Lead Boulder Adj Score Adj Rank Change
1 SLO Janja Garnbret 1 1 1 1 0
2 JPN Miho Nonaka 5 3 15 4 2
3 JPN Akiyo Noguchi 4 4 16 6 3
4 POL Aleksandra Miroslaw 8 8 64 8 4
5 USA Brooke Raboutou 6 2 12 2 -3
6 FRA Anouck Jaubert 7 6 42 7 1
7 AUT Jessica Pilz 3 5 15 5 -2
8 KOR Seo Chaehyun 2 7 14 3 -5

 

On the women’s side of the competition, Janja Garnbret was the clear winner, regardless of her fifth place finish in the speed climbing event. The Slovenian climber, who is widely considered to be the greatest female competition climber of all time (and considered by many to be the greatest competition climber period), secured the gold by finishing in the top spot for both lead and bouldering. Based on her ongoing results in the 2022 IFSC World Cup season, unless something changes drastically between now and 2024, she has to be considered the favorite to take home another gold medal in Paris.

After Garnbret, the adjusted rankings become a lot more interesting. Both the silver medalist, Miho Nonaka, and the bronze medalist, Akiyo Noguchi, elevated themselves onto the podium through strong speed performances to go along with their balanced results in lead and bouldering, arguably adapting to the combined scoring format better than any of the other competitors.

However, by removing the speed event, we once again see a drastically different outcome in the women’s final.

Given her World Cup form this past season (and taking into account that fellow American Natalie Grossman did not compete in the 2020 Olympic games), it should come as no surprise that Brooke Raboutou would have claimed the silver medal, propelled by her second place finish in the bouldering competition. Seo Chaehyun from South Korea would have also made a significant leap from eight all the way to third place, based mostly on her superb performance on the lead wall.

Much like Garnbret’s first place finish in lead and bouldering competitions, for anyone familiar with speed climbing, the women’s Olympic speed result also did not come as a surprise. Current world record holder, Aleksandra Miroslaw, claimed the top spot in both the women’s qualifier and the finals. She placed fourth overall in the combined competition.

Women’s speed climbing final results:

  1. Aleksandra Miroslaw (POL)
  2. Anouck Jaubert (FRA)
  3. Miho Nonaka (JPN)

Although Chinese athlete Song Yiling finished third in speed during the qualification round, ultimately she didn’t qualify for the combined final. Neither did Viktoriia Meshkova (ROC) or Shauna Coxsey (GBR), who would have finished seventh and eighth, respectively, based on the adjusted rankings.

The Best of Speed Climbing is Yet to Come

Overcoming the initial backlash leading into the 2020 Olympic, the speed climbing competition turned out to be one of the darlings of the Tokyo Games. Whether out of genuine or morbid curiosity, climbers and non-climbers alike couldn't help but tune into the event. What they found was a unique and awe-inspiring combination of strategy, precision, and explosiveness.

One of the reasons that Sport Climbing’s Olympic debut was such a success can undoubtedly be chalked up to the eye-popping athleticism displayed on the speed wall. Unless you already have some familiarity with climbing, watching world class bouldering or lead simply does not translate the same way as a head-to-head sprint to the top of the wall. With speed climbing, one race is all it takes to be amazed.

What’s next for speed climbing?

While it’s interesting to run experiments with the adjusted rankings like the one above, there is a glaring problem with analyzing the results in this way – if the Tokyo Games really had been broken into two different categories like it will be at Paris 2024, then the pool of athletes competing at those games would have been very different.

To flip the usual complaint about the combined format on its head for a moment, many of the top climbers excluded from the Tokyo Games were, in fact, the world’s best speed climbers!

Rather than altering their training to accommodate one new event, elite speed specialists had to hone their skills at both lead and bouldering. Although there is some overlap, the training that goes into becoming a successful speed climber is more akin to building track-and-field style explosiveness than the static lock off power and grip strength required for lead climbing and bouldering.

What Will Be Different About Speed Climbing in the 2024 Olympic?

At the inaugural standalone speed climbing event in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, the Olympic speed records for both men and women are going to be shattered. That’s not a guess; that is a guarantee (just take a look at the progression chart in that link). Recently, the world speed climbing records have been broken at an incredible pace. Since 2014 the men’s world record has fallen by 15%, while the women’s record is down a whopping 20%.

To put that number into perspective, if someone were to beat Usain Bolt’s world record time on the 100m dash by 20%, they would have to finish in 7.66 seconds.

Right now you’re probably saying to yourself, “Okay, but speed climbing is a newer sport. Those records are bound to fall more frequently.”

While that is true, the standardized 15m speed climbing route that is used in all IFSC and Olympic competitions was created in 2007 by routesetter Jacky Godoffe, so there is a considerable amount of easily comparable data available. What is causing the speed climbing records to drop so much in the last few years?

“There are a couple new beta options that can be a factor in faster times for some athletes. This alone cannot be the only factor as it does not work for everyone,” Emma Hunt, the US women’s national record holder explained. “Specialized training for Speed climbing is still relatively new. I think a lot of athletes, coaches, and countries are exploring different ways to train which is helping produce faster times.”

Even zeroing in on the past year, current world record holder Kiromal Katibin improved on Veddriq Leonardo’s time by almost 4% and Aleksandra Miroslaw reduced her own world record pace (recorded at the Olympics) by almost 5%. In another two years, and with a new wave of talented young speed climbers bursting onto the scene, those numbers are sure to fall even farther.

Another reason that the Olympic record will surely be broken in 2024 is that, with a couple of exceptions, the climbers who qualified for Tokyo 2020 were not speed specialists. The combined scoring format forced athletes to be world class lead climbers and boulderers, as well as strong speed climbers. However, this left out most of the elite speed climbers on the IFSC World Cup circuit.

As John Brosler, the US speed climbing national record holder, put it:

“Because of selection criteria in 2020, the Olympics couldn’t show how fast the speed climbing field really was at that time, so the public really wasn’t given a good perspective on how fast speed athletes really were.”

To give you an idea of the disparity between the World Cup speed climbing circuit and the athletes who competed in speed climbing at the Olympics, out of the 88 speed climbers who competed in Jakarta for the final World Cup event of the 2022 season, only one climber, Ludovico Fossali of Italy, competed at the Tokyo Games in 2021. Obviously, this excludes Aleksandra Miroslaw, who did not travel to Jakarta for the World Cup event, but that ratio is still striking for an event that took place barely a year removed from Olympic competition.

By comparison, six Olympians competed in lead climbing at the World Cup in Jakarta and another six competed in the final combined bouldering and lead World Cup event in Japan.

Among the elite speed climbing athletes to watch out for in Paris 2024 are USA national record holders, Emma Stone and John Brosler, as well as twin sisters Aleksandra and Natalia Kalucka from Poland and the current world record holder Kiromal Katibin, who leads an extremely strong team of speed climbers coming out of Indonesia.

Pushing the Boundaries of Possible

At the IFSC World Cup competition in Chamonix, France in July 2022, Katibin recorded his world record setting time of 5.00 seconds. As recently as a couple of years ago, breaking the five second barrier seemed an impossible task. Now it only seems a matter of time before someone registers a time in the 4s during official competition.

With two more years left to go before the next Olympics, there’s a good chance it will happen before the Games. After that, who knows what could be possible? Just like the athletes themselves, the sport of speed climbing is moving at an incredible clip.

If you thought the speed climbing in the 2020 Olympics was impressive, just wait until Paris 2024.

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