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Highs and Lows: 2020 IFSC European Championships

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A number of COVID-19 mitigation protocols were in place for the European Championships, including Coronavirus testing of all athletes prior to competition participation. Facemasks were often worn by many athletes while on the floor—exemplified here by Great Britain’s Will Bosi (center). Photo: Dimitris Tosidis / IFSC

The European Continental Championships that were originally scheduled for mid-April and then postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic finally took place last week in Moscow, Russia. Although the event was jam-packed with drama and storylines in all rounds for all disciplines, the aspects that will get most of the attention going forward are the two new provisional Olympic berths that were awarded at the competition’s conclusion.

In fact, these European Continental Championships marked the final opportunity for European climbers to earn Olympic invitations. (The 2019 World Championships and a 2019 Olympic Qualifying event in Toulouse, France, along with Olympic Tripartite Commission selections, were the previous avenues for Europeans’ Olympic inclusion). If that was not enough to make the event feel electric at the outset, there was also the fact that it was the only IFSC competition since the pandemic began nearly nine months ago, aside from a lone—and somewhat controversial—World Cup competition in Briançon, France. Perhaps commentator Matt Groom said it best as he kicked off the 10 days of the European Championships’ livestream: “If you’ve been missing comp climbing, welcome back!”

A New Name on the Scene

Russia’s Viktoriia Meshkova is not a rookie. Two years ago she was a national bouldering champion in her home country, and last year she finished in the middle of the pack in some World Cup events. She also participated in a number of Youth World Championships. Still, it is unlikely that anyone would have chosen Meshkova to be the breakout star of these European Continental Championships.

But beginning somewhere around the qualification round of the women’s bouldering discipline, everyone started taking notice of Meshkova. She topped three out of the four boulders in that round—and did the same in the subsequent semifinal round. Then, in the bouldering finals, Meshkova topped all four boulders to earn a 2020 gold medal for that discipline.

Next, Meshkova entered the lead event, where she topped the semifinals route and barely missed sticking a dyno [1:12:10 in the livestream] to top the finals route. Her score of 36+ (in a time of 3 minutes, 53 seconds) was enough to earn the lead discipline’s gold medal over the Czech Republic’s Eliska Adamovska, who also reached 36+ but at a slower time (4 minutes, 35 seconds).

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The European Continental Championships ran for a week, through multiple rounds and four disciplines. A common thread throughout it all was consistent success by Russia’s Viktoriia Meshkova in the women’s division. She won the Bouldering, Lead, and Combined disciplines, and will take part in the Olympics next summer. Photo: Dimitris Tosidis / IFSC

But, here’s the thing: All of those accomplishments, the “double championship” in the bouldering and lead events in front of her home crowd … that’s not even the true highlight of Meshkova’s week. That would come later, in the finals of the women’s combined discipline. There, Meshkova beat Great Britain’s Molly Thompson-Smith and Russia’s Elena Krasovskaia to finish in second place in the speed portion. Meshkova subsequently placed sixth in the bouldering portion and impressively topped the lead wall (and won the lead portion) for an overall multiplied placement score of 12 (2x6x1). It was good enough for a gold medal in the combined event and resulted in a well-earned Olympic invitation for Meshkova.

A Veteran Succeeds

Over the summer, I started to wonder whether there were any silver linings to the Tokyo Olympics’ postponement; I wrote that one positive aspect was that the extra months would allow competitors to rest and heal nagging injuries. But at the time, with the Tokyo Olympics’ future still uncertain and very much unspecified, it was mostly an abstract musing—an idea based in theory because we did not yet have facts about how the pandemic would play out.

However, at the European Continental Championships, Russia’s Alexey Rubtsov proved the idea to be true. Rubtsov was battling a shoulder injury for much of the past year and would not have been in optimal physical form if the event had happened when it was originally scheduled. The seven-month postponement gave Rubtsov—a 32-year-old veteran of the IFSC circuit—time to heal, and he climbed as well as he ever has. Granted, it took some time for him to find his groove: he looked stellar in the qualification round of the men’s bouldering event, but then failed to progress out of semifinals. And he did not take part in the lead event at all.

But Rubtsov’s performance in the men’s combined event overshadowed all of that. He finished the speed portion in fifth place—a respectable showing, yet one that meant he would have to finish even stronger in the subsequent disciplines to earn a victory. He soon topped all the boulders to win the ensuing bouldering portion. (His top of the third boulder as the clock ticked down [4:43:40 in the livestream] was one of the highlights of the entire event). And in a dramatic lead portion, Rubtsov fell at hold 35—and finished in fourth place—but ended up with an overall multiplied placement score of 20 (5x1x4). It nudged him ahead of the multiplied placement scores of Switzerland’s Sascha Lehmann and Russia’s Sergey Luzhetsky to earn the Olympic invitation.

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Russia’s Alexey Rubtsov did not have the abundance of victories in the men’s division that his compatriot Meshkova did in the women’s, but Rubtsov still earned an Olympic berth by winning the Combined discipline. He will join several other longtime IFSC circuit veterans like Sean McColl and Jan Hojer at the Tokyo Games next summer. Photo: Dimitris Tosidis / IFSC

The podium results for all the different disciplines are listed below, and here are some other aspects of the event that stood out:

Highs

A New Speed World Record

Russia’s Iuliia Kaplina is no stranger to having the fastest speed climbing time in the world. She has set the women’s world record on multiple occasions. But most attention in 2019 was given to China’s YiLing Song and Indonesia’s Aries Susanti Rahayu for battling back and forth to set the world record (and clocking 7.101 seconds and 6.995 seconds, respectively). So when Kaplina broke those times and set a new record of 6.964 seconds [1:24:50 in the livestream] in the qualification round of the speed event at the European Championships, it felt like a familiar face had returned to prominence. Song and Susanti Rahayu—both of whom were not present at the championships—are still in their prime, and former world record-holder Anouck Jaubert of France always looms in the picture. So we can expect some thrilling speed heats in the future. For now, Kaplina deserves some time back in the familiar spotlight.

The Return of the Live Chat

Beginning with portions of the competition that were broadcast on the Russia Climbing YouTube Channel, and later during the IFSC’s livestream of the combined event, fans were treated to the return of the live chat feature. The live chat used to be a mainstay for World Cup livestreams on YouTube—until bots and typical internet bickering made partaking in the conversations undesirable and eventually impossible. However, given how so many people are starved for a little human-to-human interaction as this horrible pandemic drags on, the return of the live chat feature was a nice surprise. It was even more of a surprise when some competitors and former competitors—like Germany’s Jan Hojer and Norway’s Magnus Midtbø—joined the online conversation. Fans really appreciated it and Matt Groom did a good job weaving discussions from the live chat into his broadcast commentary. The live chat adds an element of dialogue and community that is important for any sport to have—especially in a time where dialogue and community can be so hard to come by. Let’s hope the IFSC keeps the feature around.

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Sweden’s Hannes Puman did not earn an Olympic berth, but he is a crowd favorite because he has been on the IFSC adult circuit for a few years and he is one of his country’s most consistent World Cup lead climbers. He finished the Combined discipline in 9th. Photo: Dimitris Tosidis / IFSC

A Nail-Biting Bouldering Rivalry

If my aforementioned survey of Viktoriia Meshkova’s remarkable performance made her multiple victories in the women’s division sound easy, nothing could be further from the truth. The opposition for Meshkova that was the most rousing to watch came from Belgium’s Chloe Caulier. Particularly in the finals of the bouldering event, it seemed like Meshkova always had to chase the greatness that Caulier had displayed on the boulders. Both women topped all the boulders in that round, but the rivalry carried into the bouldering portion of the combined event too—with Caulier pulling away briefly in the scores by finding a sneaky toe-catch [2:34:50 in the livestream] and topping a slabby second boulder that proved too difficult for Meshkova. It is tough to think of a proper consolation for Caulier at the event’s end; for all the neck-and-neck drama, excitement, and entertainment, she ended up finishing the combined event in fifth place while Meshkova finished in first place and earned an Olympic ticket. That just doesn’t seem right, but it is. One just hopes that Caulier—and all the competitors—know how much their efforts mean to us fans, even if they don’t result in an Olympic spot.

Lows

Goodbye, Charlie

Earlier this month, longtime commentator Charlie Boscoe announced on Instagram that he would be retiring from his role behind the IFSC microphone. It is sad to see him go. Boscoe’s voice is synonymous with elite-level competition climbing, and he will rightly go down in history as a key figure in the IFSC’s growth and climbing’s Olympic entrée. If someone, someday, asks me for tips and advice on how to commentate competition climbing, I’m pretty sure my answer will be something like, “Just go listen to old Charlie Boscoe calls.” Cheers, Charlie—thanks for giving excitement and narration to so many incredible IFSC moments.

Get Well, Petra

With a number of Europeans having earned Olympic berths, and with COVID-19 travel restrictions making attendance at these European Championships challenging for others, the event was left with a lack of big names. The upside was that this allowed for some lesser-known and “newer” names to shine—Meshkova, case in point. But still, there is never any substitute for the allure that a superstar’s participation will bring. In light of that, it was great to see former Bouldering World Champion Petra Klingler of Switzerland taking part in the European Championships—especially because she already earned her Olympic berth at a previous event. Unfortunately, the fact that she did not have to be there, per se, to make an Olympic push made it all the more heartbreaking when she injured her shoulder and withdrew prior to the semifinals of the bouldering event. Thus begins the etching of a picture that nobody wants to see: An athlete qualifies for the Olympics but gets injured before she can take part. Let’s hope that Klingler fully heals in the coming months so she is 100-percent-ready for the start of the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2021.

Not Enough Tops … or Too Many

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Serbia’s Stasa Gejo missed out on an Olympic berth by a thin margin—three points, to be exact. On the bright side, she had been out of climbing for a long time with a bad knee injury. She appears to now be back to top form and will be a powerhouse on the World Cup circuit next summer. Photo: Dimitris Tosidis / IFSC

For the most part, the routes of the event were creative, engaging, and did a solid job of separating the field. The lead route in the finals of women’s combined comes to mind, in which the lowest-scoring competitor earned a score of 13+, a number of other competitors fell past the dual-texture mid-section of the route with scores in the 20s, and other competitors reached even higher—scoring in the 30s; and two competitors topped the route. Good stuff. Same for the lead route in the men’s combined finals. However, it is also worth pointing out total miscalculations, like the third boulder in the women’s combined final … where not a single competitor topped. On the flip side, there was the entire bouldering qualification round of the combined event—where six women and ten men topped four boulders. In the case of the men, that is literally half of the field topping every boulder. That is too many tops. I’m not pointing fingers at any of the individual routesetters; I know routesetting is incredibly hard to get just right. But when the commentator is having to put some spin on things (“Perhaps boulders [were] a little too easy, but we did get to see a whole load of sends”), it means the separation in a particular round was not ideal.

Results

Women’s Combined

  1. Viktoriia Meshkova (RUS)
  2. Stasa Gejo (SRB)
  3. Eliska Adamovska (CZE)
  4. Patrycja Chudziak (POL)
  5. Chloe Caulier (BEL)
  6. Elena Krasovskaia (RUS)
  7. Hannah Meul (GER)
  8. Molly Thompson-Smith (GBR)

Men’s Combined

  1. Alexey Rubtsov (RUS)
  2. Sascha Lehmann (SUI)
  3. Sergey Luzhetsky (RUS)
  4. Nikolai Iarilovets (RUS)
  5. Yuval Shelma (ISR)
  6. Marcin Dzienski (POL)
  7. Alex Khazanov (ISR)
  8. Will Bosi (GBR)

Women’s Speed

  1. Ekaterina Barashchuk (RUS)
  2. Elizaveta Ivanova (RUS)
  3. Iuliia Kaplina (RUS)

Men’s Speed

  1. Danyil Boldyrev (UKR)
  2. Lev Rudatskiy (RUS)
  3. Marcin Dzienski (POL)

Women’s Bouldering

  1. Viktoriia Meshkova (RUS)
  2. Chloe Caulier (BEL)
  3. Stasa Gejo (SRB)

Men’s Bouldering

  1. Jernej Kruder (SLO)
  2. Sergey Luhetsky (RUS)
  3. Nikolai Iarilovets (RUS)

Women’s Lead

  1. Viktoriia Meshkova (RUS)
  2. Eliska Adamovska (CZE)
  3. Molly Thompson-Smith (GBR)

Men’s Lead

  1. Sascha Lehmann (SUI)
  2. Nicolas Collin (BEL)
  3. Dmitrii Fakirianov (RUS)

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John Burgman is the author of High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing, which chronicles the history of American competition climbing.