5 Burning Questions Leading up to the 2019 IFSC World Championships

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Janja Garnbret chalks up en route to winning the combined event at the 2018 IFSC World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria.

Janja Garnbret chalks up en route to winning the combined event at the 2018 IFSC World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria.

The World Championships kick off on August 11. The multi-discipline competition (with bouldering, lead, and speed portions, plus a separate combined event that includes all three disciplines) is among the most prestigious in climbing. There will be Olympic implications too, with the top seven men and women earning berths to the Tokyo 2020 Games. Here are some things that fans and analysts alike are wondering as the extravaganza looms. 

1. How will Team USA do? 

The Americans have had an interesting year. The team kicked off the season with a strong showing at the bouldering World Cup in Meiringen in April. At that event, three Americans advanced to the semi-final round—and Alex Johnson and Kyra Condie barely missed making the cut to finals.

But results and placements in successive bouldering events for US men and women were up and down. The squad has been more consistent in the lead season so far. Ashima Shiraishi reached finals at the two most recent lead events, in Chamonix and Briançon, France. At the latter competition, Sean Bailey was in first place going into finals, and finished in sixth.

Such consistency is encouraging. There is reason to believe that the Americans will perform well in the lead portion of the World Championships.

But trying to predict how the Americans will do in the combined portion of the World Championships—which will determine the first batch of Olympic qualifiers—is trickier. On the IFSC circuit, there is no combined season, so we don’t have data to inform a prediction. Kyra Condie won a gold medal in the combined portion of the IFSC’s Pan-American Championships in 2018, and more recently won the women’s division at the United States’ Combined Invitational this year. But neither of those events had a global pool of participants like these World Championships.

In light of all that, Team USA’s results will depend on the given day. The team has not shown as much depth as other national squads, like the Japanese team or the Slovenian team. Furthermore, an American is not favored to win any discipline. But if this season has proven anything, it is that several Americans can get hot and fight their way into the highest tier. 

2. Which members of Team Japan will qualify for the Olympics? 

One of the most incredible storylines of the 2019 season has been Team Japan’s depth. The Japanese federation has created a veritable assembly line of elite-level competitors. Just look at the list of Japanese competitors who have made final it to finals at least once in the men’s division this season: Tomoa Narasaki, Rei Sugimoto, Kokoro Fujii, Tomoaki Takata, Yoshiyuki Ogata, Rei Kawamata, Keita Dohi, Meichi Narasaki, Yuki Hada, Kai Harada, Hidemasa Nishida, Hiroto Shimizu, and Shuta Tanaka. In the women’s division, the list of 2019 finalists includes Akiyo Noguchi, Futaba Ito, Ai Mori, Miho Nonaka, Mao Nakamura, and Natsuki Tanii.

Team Japan is almost too good. After all, only two women and two men from the country can earn Olympic berths.

It will be enthralling to watch Team Japan logjam the snug Olympic constraints. Some competitors are likely to stand out from the pack. Watch for Tomoa Narasaki and Kokoro Fujii to look strong in the men’s division, and Akiyo Noguchi and Miho Nonaka to flex some superiority in the women’s division.

When all is said and done, there will be a lot of heartbroken Japanese athletes watching the 2020 Games from the sidelines rather than participating in them. 

3. Who will prevail in the showdown between Janja Garnbret and Chaehyun Seo? 

Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret has emerged as the greatest competition climber currently on the circuit. Her sweep of the bouldering season, winning every competition of 2019, made a strong case for her being the greatest competition climber of all time. After her dominance in bouldering, she was expected to crush the lead season as well.

Enter South Korea’s Chaehyun Seo. The 15-year-old phenom did not even take part in the bouldering season, but she decided to toss her hat in the ring for the circuit’s lead competitions. In her first World Cup event ever, Seo took second place behind Garnbret. At the following lead event in Chamonix, she beat Garnbret—and then beat Garnbret again in Briançon. Seo’s rocket-like ascent in the World Cup standings has come as a shock, and it's no longer a given that 2019 will continue to be The Year of Garnbret.

The two competitors are primed for an epic battle at the World Championships. Garnbret will undoubtedly be seeking redemption after her recent lead losses. Seo, on the other hand, will be seeking success—particularly in the combined portion—to earn a coveted Olympic berth. Garnbret won the combined portion of last year’s World Championships. Seo is the one with all the momentum, but we've only seen her prowess on lead.

4. Is Adam Ondra back in top form? 

The Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra is arguably the most famous competition climber in the world, and fittingly, he stole the show at the first World Cup event of the year. There, in Meiringen, he utilized a hand-jam to flash a crack boulder that had shut down previous competitors. In doing so, he won the competition and gave the season its first highlight-reel moment.

The rest of Ondra’s bouldering season was solid, but he was plagued by a wrist injury that kept him out of the first lead event. He rallied to win the lead competition in Chamonix, but questions remain about whether he is back to 100 percent. Wrist injuries can be slow to heal, and his recovery was complicated by the World Cup grind. Only Ondra knows the status of his wrist.

To spectators, it is clear that Ondra has not had the most consistent 2019. For instance, that aforementioned victory in Meiringen was followed by a second place finish in Moscow, Russia, and then a decidedly low finish (for Ondra) of 14th in Wujiang, China. By all indications, Ondra is primed for the World Championships. He skipped the most recent World Cup, in Briançon, to prepare. But even with optimal preparation and healing time, Ondra will have to climb extremely well to earn an Olympic berth. He will have to climb even better to beat Team Japan and top stars like Austria’s Jakob Schubert and Germany’s Alex Megos.

5. What will the crowd be like—and why will that matter? 

The World Championships will be held in Hachioji, Japan, a sub-city within Tokyo’s massive sprawl. The 2020 Olympics will also be held in Tokyo. The crowd that shows up to watch these World Championships will give a glimpse of the local energy and cultural flare that the Olympic climbing crowd is likely to possess.

That will have implications beyond just the Tokyo 2020 Games. In unanimously voting to provisionally include climbing in the 2024 Paris Olympics, the International Olympic committee said it would monitor the popularity and success of global climbing competitions—including at the Tokyo 2020 Games and elsewhere—before making a final decision about 2024.

In other words, you can bet that members of the International Olympic Committee will be watching these World Championships—and then the 2020 Olympics—to see if climbing works as a modern spectator sport. The committee will be asking questions like: Does the crowd look excited or bored? Are there moments on the wall punctuated by Oos and Aahs from the audience? And, on a base level, are spectators showing up to watch in the first place?

It is not fair to say that the life or death of Olympic climbing will be up to the crowds in Tokyo. But whether or not the spectators are entertained and expressive will certainly be part of the equation. Those not in attendance in Tokyo can do their part by tuning in and adding to the buzz on social media. Relevant Twitter handles include @Olympics, @IFSClimbing, @NBCOlympics, @USAClimbing, and of course, @Climbingmag.

The World Championships kick off on August 11 with the qualification round of women’s bouldering. The combined portion will begin on August 18. Stay tuned to Climbing.com for the livestreams and coverage of the various disciplines.