How Climbers Will Be Chosen for the 2020 Olympics

An in-depth look at the busy schedule of climbing events that will determine the roster for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
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Update 3/15/2019: We've amended the article to state that each athlete may only compete in the Continental Championship event of their own continent.

Kai Lightner climbs during the bouldering round at the 2018 IFSC Pan-American Championship

Kai Lightner climbs during the bouldering round at the 2018 IFSC Pan-American Championship

In writing about the United States’ first Olympic team arriving in Greece in 1896, Jim Reisler, in Igniting the Flame, focused on the overwhelming sense of confusion. The members of the hardscrabble American squad (practically all of whom were Ivy League-educated men specializing in track and field events), were out of their element, wide-eyed to all the uncertainty of what the upcoming Olympics would entail. “No one in the Greek welcoming party spoke English, and only a few of the American contingent spoke more than a pidgin version of Greek,” Reisler reports. “But eager to be liked and not having much of a choice anyway, the Americans went with the flow, basking in the attention of the crowd and curious about what came next.”

Does it sound a little familiar? Although we are 123 years removed from the first Olympic Games—and glad that any national team is no longer a hoity-toity boys’ club—there is still a lot of uncertainty about how things will unfold as it relates to climbing. Sure, we’re going with the flow, and what we do know is that climbing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will be a peculiar blending of speed climbing, bouldering, and sport climbing disciplines for all athletes. We know from the recent USA Climbing Combined Invitational that Americans are primed and ready for the unique format. And we know how the athlete selection process will work.

How the Olympic Roster Will Be Selected

The most important number to keep in mind leading up to the games is 20; there will only be 20 men and 20 women competing in climbing at the Olympics. Each country will get a maximum of four representative competitors within its Olympic squad (two men and two women). The unfortunate takeaway from this is that not every country will have representation in climbing at the Olympics—not even close. And while some of the events granting Olympic entry will be international in scope (World Championships, Olympic Qualifying Event), others are limited to competitors from their specific continents.

As if it was not already going to be competitive, one out of those 20 prized spots for each gender will be reserved for a Japanese competitor (the host country), and another will be issued by the Tripartite Commission, a collective of committees and federations that can give Olympic bids based on special circumstances. Historically, American competitors have not been recipients of Tripartite Commission invites, so already that magic number of 20 competitors is whittled down to 18, in terms of available slots.

The first event that will see competitors earning a hallowed place in the Olympic roster will be the IFSC Combined World Championships on August 20-21, 2019, in Hachioji (Tokyo), Japan. Olympic invitations will be issued to the top seven men and the top seven women at the conclusion of the event. Remember, each country is allowed only two Olympians per gender, so if a large number of competitors from a single country finish in the top seven (say, if American women sweep their field and take all seven spots), only the top two will be invited.

By the completion of the Combined World Championships (and thanks to the host country and Tripartite Commission automatics), nine of the 20 Olympic spots per gender will be accounted for.

The next big event will be the Olympic Qualifying Event on November 28-December 1, 2019, in Toulouse, France—and will feature athletes not yet qualified via the aforementioned World Championships. The Olympic Qualifying Event will invite the 20 highest ranked athletes on the IFSC’s World Cup circuit (incorporating all disciplines)—which means that Olympic hopefuls will benefit from participating in the upcoming World Cup season. Again, Olympic invitations will be issued at the event’s end, this time to the top six men and the top six women. The same rules apply: if more than two competitors of the same gender from the same country finish in the top six sought-after spots, the invitations will proceed to other countries’ representatives further down the ranks.

If you’re keeping track, this means that only five of the total 20 Olympic spots per gender will be left vacant after those two events. The remaining spots will be divvied out across five separate Continental Championships in spring 2020. Athletes may only compete in the Continental Championship that their climbing federation is a member of. (US climbers may only compete in the Pan-American Continental Championship, for example.) The athletes who win the championships will receive invitations to the Olympics, assuming they haven’t already qualified and their home country has not already filled its representative cap.

For American spectators, the easiest of these five Continental Championships to attend will be the Pan-Am event on February 27-March 1, 2020, at Sender One in Los Angeles. Beyond that, ambitious travel-hungry fans can buy plane tickets to Russia (for the Europe Continental Championships on April 16-18, 2020), Australia (for the Oceania Continental Championships on April 18-19, 2020), Johannesburg, South Africa (for the Africa Continental Championships on May 1-3, 2020), and Japan (for the Asia Continental Championships on May 18-24, 2020).

By the conclusion of the Asia Continental Championships, the Olympics qualification process will be done and national rosters will be set. The rosters will be subject to change only if an athlete withdraws. In that case, still respecting the national caps, an Olympic invitation will go to the next highest ranked athlete from whichever event the withdrawing athlete earned the original invitation.

It has been three years since climbing’s inclusion in the Olympics was announced, and it feels like we’ve been caught in a holding pattern of vague anticipation ever since. But everything is picking up steam now—and with some concrete scheduling, the Olympics finally feel like a reality.

Olympic Selection Calendar

August 20-21, 2019

IFSC Combined World Championships

Hachioji (Tokyo), Japan
Olympic placements: 14 (7 men, 7 women)

November 28-December 1, 2019

Olympic Qualifying Event

Toulouse, France
Olympic placements: 12 (6 men, 6 women)

February 27-March 1, 2020

Pan-American Continental Championships

Sender One, Los Angeles, California, USA
Olympic placements: 2 (1 man, 1 woman)

April 16-18, 2020

Europe Continental Championships

Moscow, Russia
Olympic placements: 2 (1 man, 1 woman)

April 18-19, 2020

Oceania Continental Championships

Sydney, Australia
Olympic placements: 2 (1 man, 1 woman)

May 1-3, 2020

Africa Continental Championships

Johannesburg, South Africa
Olympic placements: 2 (1 man, 1 woman)

May 18-24, 2020

Asia Continental Championships

Morioka, Japan
Olympic placements: 2 (1 man, 1 woman)