In January, the IFSC released its list of officials who had been nominated to preside over climbing at the 2020 Olympic Games. The three nominated judges were Tim Hatch of Great Britain, Ying Cheng of China, and Paul Ledet of Canada. Together, these officials will have the weighty job of officiating the first-ever Olympic climbing event. In between the Pan-American Championships and the start of the IFSC’s World Cup circuit, I reached out to Ledet to learn more about what it means to be an Olympic judge and how he is gearing up for the historic occasion.
The IFSC doesn’t have bios for its judges, so I’d love to know a little about your background and how you found your way to climbing and IFSC judging.
Paul Ledet: So, as far as judging and climbing goes, I got my start climbing in the late 1980s when I was a student at the University of Alberta. The U of A put in a great indoor wall in the corner of the athletics center. It was tall—there was bouldering as well, but that didn’t interest me as much as climbing high. It was a great way to spend some time and inject a little excitement in those long days at school. When I started teaching [in 1993], I lucked into a school that was just building a small climbing wall. My colleague, Peter Mason, and I spent a lot of time there, teaching kids to belay and climb, hosting innumerable birthday parties, and dreaming of what we could do to make this successful wall even better! Fast forward to 2010, we now had two climbing areas, and were just getting ready to open a third wall, all as part of a public school.
I got my start judging small local bouldering competitions in our second phase, and then larger rope comps in the third phase (look up the Boulders Climbing Gym in Saanichton, British Columbia). I think it was in late 2010 or in 2011 that the National Jury President, Moira Bradford (mother of Alannah Yip) saw some sort of potential in me and started mentoring me to take on the role of a Jury President (JP). I apprenticed with her at the lead and speed National Championships in Montreal in 2012 and began my IFSC training at an IFSC bouldering World Cup in Hamilton—and finished my aspirant training successfully at the 2013 Youth World Championships, which were held at The Boulders [climbing gym], at my high school (Stelly’s Secondary)!
I continued to judge for a little while but transitioned to being the head judge/JP at around that time. Now most of my work, both nationally and for the Pan-American Council, is as a JP. Internationally, I work as an IFSC judge, assisting the JP in all aspects of running a competition. I have worked at Youth World Championships in Canada, Italy, and Austria, and at bouldering World Cups in Canada and the United States. In the last two years I have had the tremendous opportunity to be involved as a JP for the Youth Pan-Am Championships in Montreal, and as an IFSC judge at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, The World Beach Games in Qatar, the Olympic Qualifying event in Toulouse, and the recent Continental Championships in Los Angeles.
I really value the support that both my gym, my provincial association, and my national federation have given me on my journey, and I continue to volunteer some time with them, teaching intro judging courses, mentoring new head judges and JP’s, and even just judging at a bouldering or rope comp. I really enjoy the work.
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So, what would someone have to do if they had ambitions of becoming an IFSC judge someday but were starting from zero. Just your average gym climber…
Well, obviously the first thing to do is to start judging. In Canada, judging is a volunteer position. Lots of parents judge because it gives them a way of participating in their child’s activities. We will also get a number of people who are just curious and want to help out and see a comp from the best seats in the house.
In order to gain enough experience, however, you need to put in a significant amount of time. The [Climbing Escalade Canada] Technical Committee has put together a (draft) road map that takes someone from provincial-level judge through to national level JP. This is a multi-year journey, as a judge apprentices as a head judge or JP at a provincial-level championship before taking on the role—and then must demonstrate strong skills at that level before repeating the process at regional events and finally at a national level. We are currently working with the IFSC and the Pan American Council to facilitate a judges course for 8-10 national-level JPs from across the Americas, with a goal of preparing them to be continental judges and JPs, and then international judges and eventually JPs.
What are the most challenging aspects of being an IFSC judge?
Remember that an IFSC judge is different than what we traditionally think of as a judge. The IFSC judge assists the JP in all aspects of running the competition, and must be ready to take on any aspect of a comp—whether that means managing and supporting the result service, problem solving in the isolation zone, managing and supporting the judging team, reviewing video and making decisions on appeals, or managing a technical incident—the list goes on. So, I guess one of the most challenging aspects of being an IFSC judge is being able to quickly decide how to address the issue of the moment in a way that ensures that we continue to offer the fairest possible competition experience for all the athletes.
It goes without saying that you need to know and understand the rules for each of the disciplines, but some of the skills that I find just as important are the ability to stay cool under pressure, and the capacity to work through stressful situations without sacrificing relationships and goodwill within and outside of the team.
Speaking of the rules, is there any particular issue or type of infraction that you—as an IFSC judge—deal with the most? Proper starts? Going out of bounds? Touching bolts?
Ideally, it is the national judge that deals with the infractions on the wall. The JP or IFSC judge brings the team of judges together prior to the start and makes sure all are on the same page and are ready to deliver a consistent experience for all climbers and deliver the fairest competition possible. Unless we see a glaring error, we let our experienced judges make the call.
We work hard ahead of time and behind the scenes to make sure that all is in place to deliver a seamless competition experience. We test, we check, we examine, we discuss … all before the comp starts … to make sure everything is in place to ensure a smooth competition. But, of course, we step in when things go wrong. Timing system failures in speed climbing, technical incidents on the bouldering wall, managing the athletes (keeping lines of communication open) while routesetters are fixing a volume that has been torn off a lead wall (Toulouse, 2019).
I’d like to know more about the whole nomination and selection process for judging the Olympics. Did you have to toss your hat in the ring? And what sort of stuff did the IFSC ask you, in regards to the Olympics’ selection process?
I don’t know if I had to throw my hat in the ring or not, but I absolutely did! At the very beginning, when it was announced that climbing might be in the Olympics, I let the director of sport know that as a North American, I felt I was well-positioned to be on the team of international judges at the event. I was not thinking of being one of the event officials. As time went on however, and as it became clear that we would be using national judges to do the route and boulder judging, I started to believe that there could be a place for me on the team of officials. The IFSC didn’t really ask me much about the Olympics but [jury president] Stanley Yeo, Jamie Ying [Cheng], and I all worked together at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires. I suppose that was a trial run, and a good way to evaluate the team in advance of selection for the Olympics’ officials team.
Have you had any interaction with the other two Olympic judges [Tim Hatch and Ying Cheng] to discuss the Olympics specifically?
I have worked with Jamie [Ying Cheng] once before, and with Tim a number of times. We have not spoken about the Olympics but we did spend some time together as a large group at the IFSC Officials’ Seminar, just prior to our Continental Championships. There were some discussions about the event that time, with more to come in the future. It was exciting to hear that the first two open-air [Olympic] sports to sell out were tennis and sport climbing. And have you seen pictures of the new wall? It looks amazing!
We will also be arriving in Tokyo a few days before the competition starts. I’m glad for the extra days, at least for me, as the time shift is significant, adding 17 hours compared to my home [time zone] in British Columbia. The extra time will also allow for opportunities to get together and make sure we are all on the same page and understand the tight Olympic timelines that we will have to work within.
When will you start prep for the Olympics, and what might the prep entail?
Prep started years ago, and it continues to entail practicing the work at the high level comps that lead to an event like this; national and continental championships, Youth Olympic Games, and Olympic qualifiers.
How much interaction will you have with the routesetters prior to the Olympics? In particular, I’m wondering if routesetters ever give you a heads up about areas on the boulders or routes that might cause some particularly sticky judging situations.
I will not have any interaction with the routesetters leading up to the comp, other than the interactions at that Officials’ Seminar. (Routesetters had a concurrent event in Torino, Italy.)
The Olympics’ combined format was not met with universal praise from competitors when it was first announced. What’s your opinion of combining all the disciplines into a single event? Will you be sad to see it go if Paris 2024 features Lead and Bouldering together, and Speed separately?
You know, I think the main thing with the combined is that the International Olympic Committee said they wanted sport climbing in the Olympics but they could only give us two sets of medals [male and female]. Since the IFSC recognizes the three disciplines, this was a way of including climbers in all three disciplines. I am excited for the future though, when we will have two events and four sets of medals. Speed climbers really do train for a different type of climbing. They are tremendous athletes, and they work so hard to eke out an extra tenth or even just a hundredth of a second. They deserve to have their own event, and it is such an exciting show. We are much more likely to see boulder and lead climbers train and compete in both disciplines, so to have a combined event for those two disciplines seems much more natural to me.
The IFSC makes subtle changes to its rulebook every year—and as a judge, you know the details of the rulebook arguably better than anyone. Is there one rule change or edit over the past few years that sticks out in your mind as being really positive?
Hmm… this response may not resonate with the others out there, but I don’t see it as my job to determine what is a good rule or a bad rule, a positive change or a negative change. We do have an opportunity to share some feedback at our annual seminar, and we have some very experienced officials and athletes that sit on various commissions, providing input to the board on these matters. My job, at least as I see it, is to make sure the rules are followed so that we have, as I mentioned before, a fair and even playing field for all of our athletes.
Aside from just making sure the rules are followed at the events, do you do anything else that informs your judging?
I was fortunate to be a high school teacher for 25 years, and I now work as a vice-principal (still at the high school level). I think that work is what prepares me the most for the work of judging and running a comp.
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.