With so many disciplines and formats of the sport, it can often be confusing trying to get a sense of what sports climbing is. Let’s break it down, so we can get an idea of what the sport is, and why and how it is going to feature for the very first time at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Climbing is a sport that comes in more variations than most people can imagine when they think of one kind of sport. It ranges from bouldering and lead climbing to the increasingly famous soloing and even includes ice climbing!
The exhilaration, the rush, the thrill, there are only a few things that match it (yes, this is the blatant bias of a climber, but you have to try it for yourself to get what I’m talking about). Not to mention the problem-solving element, thinking and cognitive function required alongside the physical prowess to complete climbing routes.
With so many disciplines and formats of the sport, it can often be confusing trying to get a sense of what climbing is, particularly sports climbing.
Someone might say they are going bouldering, another that they are soloing, and others – top-roping. Let’s break it down, so we can get a sense of what the sport is and why and how it is going to feature for the very first time at next year’s Olympics!
Many, like myself, were introduced to climbing by Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), when he leapt across Utah’s Dead Horse Point in Mission Impossible II. Tom Cruise did do that jump several times even if the technique and Hollywood drama were a bit unrealistic (you can watch the soloist Alex Honnold, from Free Solo fame, break down the technique here).
Although climbing had existed for centuries prior, it was first labelled a ‘sport’ in England in the late 19th century. For a lot of climbers today it was that scene in MI-II that started it all and unleashed climbing to the world in a mainstream setting for the very first time. However, its real growth in popularity did not come until much later.
In the meantime, climbers worked on their techniques, gyms were opening up, and people found spots to hone their skills outdoors. Climbers would make their way to mountains and hills in the hope of sending (finishing) – short for ascending, a route by flashing (finishing the route to the top in one go, and being advised on how to do it) it or if luckier and if possible by on-sighting (finishing it in one go without any advice or prior views) it.
I know this may sound like a whole lot of gibberish to you. And that’s normal. I used to find it overwhelmingly confusing, too! Like any sport, climbing consists of its own unique terminology. For some of you, this may be your first introduction to climbing jargon, along with the sport as a whole! The
The Olympic admission of competitive climbing will consist of these three formats of climbing: bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing. Competitors will be ranked based on their aggregate scores across the aforementioned formats.
Either way, in the last decade or so this sport has picked up a lot and continues to grow in popularity, so much so that it has been included in the 2020 Summer Olympics. And when this announcement was made, climbers and fans wondered what format of climbing? Just as you might be wondering after that hefty introduction.
It’s a bit more confusing than you think, especially if you are not familiar with the sport, but let me break down the key formats for you because believe me, even if you do not climb, it is fun to watch, especially at the competitive level.
The international governing body of sports climbing is the International Federation of Sports Climbing (IFSC). It features three formats of the sport – bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing. The Olympic admission of competitive climbing will consist of these three formats of climbing: bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing. Competitors will be ranked based on their aggregate scores across the aforementioned formats.
First up, there is bouldering. Before it became its own individual discipline it was mostly used by roped climbers and other people traversing mountains to develop their technique and build their strength at a safe distance from the ground. They would find a boulder and attempt to reach the top by using gaps and holes that they could hold onto and pull themselves up using their balance, strength and flexibility.
This is still the case today, but with better gear and support equipment such as cushioned mats at the bottom, the likelihood of injury has been reduced outdoors. Bouldering has now evolved into a discipline of its own. You find indoor bouldering gyms across the world, where people can further refine and develop their skills, with coaches often training the youth and parents bringing along their children to give the sport a go.
Many gyms are multi-purpose though. They include a bouldering section, but most of the space within the gym is for those climbers that like to climb and reach the top of tall, wall-like, rocky, structures. These are the most common types of climbing gyms, and what you do there is essentially known as top roping and lead climbing, with a slight, but key difference between the two. The best way to describe speed climbing is by comparing it to a sprint run. Big, lean athletes who can quickly jump up a wall of 15 meter’s while competing with each other, side by side.
Top roping will not be featuring at the Olympics next year, but it is the most common form of the sport, especially for beginners. For example, many young people in Australia have tried it out as a social activity at least once. It is where one person stands at the bottom or foot of the route, and belays (attaches the rope from the climber to themselves) and controls the rope for the person climbing up the route or top-roping. This can be done both indoors, and outdoors.
Similarly, lead climbing involves similar movements and technique, but it gets a tad bit more complicated because you are expected to attach the rope yourself, while climbing, to equipment like bolts, nuts and so on. There is a belayer at the foot of the route, supporting you, but unlike top-roping, there is no mechanism at the top of the route to assist your fall.
This makes it more difficult and requires you to bide your time while climbing a bit better, for if you miss an attachment point, you are not considered to have climbed any further. Professionally, most climbers compete in both bouldering and lead climbing as a collective.
Across these two disciplines (bouldering and lead climbing) you also find a bunch of people who develop, test and build the routes that climbers compete on. They are known as route setters. This also takes place regularly across most bouldering gyms and the IFSC route setters are mostly former professional climbers or experienced climbers who have not competed at a professional level. Their job is often as hard as that of the climber because if they build a route that is too easy and everyone sends it, they come under a lot of fire, and if they set a route that is too hard and no climber can send it, they can be criticised for that as well. Therefore, it’s important that they are able to get the right kind of balance between difficulty and ease for the climbers.
The one area in competitive climbing where these route setters don’t have a say is speed climbing, which is often considered the separate discipline of the three.
In competitive speed climbing, there is a standardised speed climbing wall that enables the IFSC to compare speeds and records. Currently, the men’s 15-meter speed record is held by Iranian Climber, Reza Alipour Shenazandifar at 5.48 seconds, whereas the women’s record is held by Indonesian climber, Aries Susanti Rahayu at 6.995 seconds.
The best way to describe speed climbing is by comparing it to a sprint run. Big, lean athletes who can quickly jump up a wall of 15 meter’s while competing with each other, side by side.
This is by far the most exciting form of the sport for average viewers, and definitely the quickest. Where lead climbing finals can take a few hours for all the athletes to compete and outcomes to be determined, speed climbing finals finish within an hour.
However, unlike bouldering and lead climbing, they require a very different skill set and technique. In the most simplistic of terms, think of the endurance that Mo Farah requires to complete a 1500m run, a half marathon or a full marathon, and compare those to that of Usain Bolt competing in a relay, a 100m or 200m sprint.
For professional climbers though, this has been a topic of contention. How can those who specialise in bouldering and/or lead climbing also master speed climbing, and vice versa? As the three disciplines do not necessarily go hand in hand.
And not to take anything away from speed climbers, several boulderers and lead climbers have criticised the move to include it in the Olympics. Adam Ondra said ‘I think speed climbing is kind of an artificial discipline, climbers compete on the same holds and train on the same holds, which doesn’t have much in common with the climbing philosophy, in my opinion, … anything would be better than this combination.”
Others, however, refuted this, such as Sean McColl, who argued that competitive climbing is new and will continue to evolve, this is just the beginning and it will create a unique competition for climbers.
There is no surprise that climbers continue to increase around the world and show off their prowess. For climbing is not just about making it up a wall, it’s about grit, strength and dedication as much as it is about problem-solving, risk-taking and analysis.
Whatever the criticism and discussion around the format may be, climbing will surely rock (pun intended) the Olympics! And befittingly, Japan is set to be the venue to host a sport that the Japanese ever-increasingly dominate. The likes of Akiyo Noguchi and Miho Nonaka are expected to perform well and even win medals in the women’s section of the competition, with Tomoa Narasaki likely to end up with a medal at the men’s, there seems to be no stopping Japan. Unless, of course, other top athletes like Janja Garnbret and Sean McColl have their say.
Perhaps, we’ll leave the Olympic qualifications and stories of professional climbers for another time. At the end of the day, despite the criticism, the endless terminology, the numerous formats and the list of climbers, this sport is going to continue to grow and take the world by storm. Climbing is a sport that is easily accessible, and easy to take up for most people as well.
With this, there is no surprise that climbers continue to increase around the world and show off their prowess. For climbing is not just about making it up a wall, it’s about grit, strength and dedication as much as it is about problem-solving, risk-taking and analysis.
Hence, it is understandable that climbers do really well in mixed sports entertainment competitions’ such as the Ninja Warriors’ and Ultimate Beastmasters’ of the world, as they improve their own sport and increase its viewership and popularity as well.
Zushan Hashmi is a sports enthusiast who works in the policy space in Australia. He is an avid fan of climbing, football, cricket and all things sport. You can follow him here on Twitter.
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