In sport climbing’s first appearance at the Olympics, eight men and eight women have advanced to the finals, scheduled for Thursday and Friday in Tokyo.
Adam Ondra of the Czech Republic, widely considered the best indoor and outdoor climber in the world, is among them. The biggest question is whether he can convert that talent into a gold medal in the Olympics’ version of sport climbing.
Outdoors, on real rocks, Ondra has scaled the most difficult routes ever climbed around the world. Indoors, on fake obstacles and holds, he has won a slew of world championships and World Cup events.
But this is different, in a lot of important ways. Mainly, climbing’s entry into the Olympic program came with a compromise: Different disciplines were combined into one medal event.
On the World Cup circuit, these are three distinct medal events. Most athletes excel in only one. Some, like Ondra, do well in both bouldering and lead, which have more traits in common. No one performs in all three — or no one did, until the Olympics came calling.
Here’s the back story: The Olympics only offered climbing’s international federation one medal. They insisted that speed be part of the show, recognizing that its quick pace and easy-to-understand format make for good television.
But speed is a quirky niche discipline in climbing, not emblematic of the boom in climbing gyms and outdoor climbing spots. The federation did not want to exclude either bouldering or lead. So it morphed all three into one medal event.
It’s a bit like telling the world’s best swimmers, cyclists and runners that they can only compete in the triathlon. No one is happy about the format — including Ondra, who has struggled mightily to learn how to speed climb — but it is a one-time compromise. The 2024 Olympics promise more medal events in climbing.
The medal winners will almost certainly be world-class athletes in boulder and lead, perhaps merely sufficient in speed. Most of the world’s best speed climbers are not at the Olympics because they were not adept enough at boulder and lead to make it through qualifications.
Who are the climbers to watch?
Among the men, Ondra is considered the best lead climber in the world, and one of the two or three best boulderers. He finished 18th out of 20 in the speed portion of the qualifying round on Tuesday and might finish last in the final. Since the scores are combined to determine the winners, that deficiency might cost him a medal.
Some of his rivals have managed to find good rhythm on the speed wall, none more than Tomoa Narasaki of Japan, a boulder specialist who managed to finish second in the speed qualifier. But others who seemed to have a good shot at a medal were knocked out in the qualifying round, including Alex Megos of Germany, Jongwon Chon of South Korea and Kai Harada of Japan.
The women’s competition is all about Janja Garnbret of Slovenia, who dominates the climbing circuit. She finished at the top of the leaderboard in qualifying, and it will be an upset if she does not capture the gold medal in the final.
Akiyo Noguchi of Japan, who placed fourth in qualifying, could join her on the medal stand. Others who will scramble to get there include Miho Nonaka of Japan and Brooke Raboutou of the United States.
How does the scoring work?
Sport climbing is a test of physics and geometry, but the scoring is straight arithmetic.
Each athlete will compete in the three disciplines on a single day during the final: first speed, then boulder, then lead. What matters is their rank, or order of finish. The athlete’s place in each of the disciplines is multiplied together. The goal is the lowest score.
A sweep of all three disciplines would be a perfect score of 1. Finishing second in each would score 8 points (2×2×2).
The math gets complicated in a hurry. If Ondra wins bouldering and lead but finishes eighth in speed, his total would be 8 points (1×1×8=8). That would put him well ahead of someone who finishes third in all three (3×3×3=27).
The key to the gold medal is to finish first in at least one discipline. Multiplying a score by 1 instead of 2, obviously, is a huge advantage, and more important than the difference between, say, 7 and 8.
What about the heat?
One more wild card that is affecting the entire competition: It is being held outdoors, in Tokyo’s notorious heat and humidity, making climbing conditions difficult.
Climbers often hang by a finger or two, and one sweat-greased slip could be the difference between champion and also-ran.
Most prefer cool and dry conditions. It is why the Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park was scaled in winter, for example. Most sport climbing competitions are held either outdoors in shady mountain environments or in air-conditioned halls.
The Olympic competition is being held at a temporary venue at Tokyo’s Aomi Urban Sports Park. Most of it takes place at night, but that hasn’t provided much relief from the summer temperatures.
Climbing is happy to be included in the Olympics. It just may not be under the terms that much of the climbing world wanted. Among other things, it may prevent the world’s best climber from capturing the ultimate prize.
How and when can I watch the climbing finals?
The men’s final is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 5, at 5:30 p.m. in Tokyo, or 4:30 a.m. Eastern time. A livestream will be available for early risers on NBCOlympics.com, and NBC will replay the competition later in the afternoon. (The New York Times will also cover the final.)
The women’s final is on Friday, Aug. 6, with the same timing.