Olympic Climbing 101: Everything You Need to Know About Climbing at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics

A guide to climbing’s inaugural appearance at the Summer Olympic Games
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Climbing will be included in the Olympics for the first time in history in summer 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. This is a huge deal for the sport, and anticipation has been building ever since the monumental announcement was made back in 2016. This landing page is your guide for all-things Olympics climbing, and will be updated continually until the event. (Note: The Tokyo Olympics were originally slated for 2020, but have been rescheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic.)

The Basics: Olympic Climbing Cheat Sheet

If you’re just here for the quick-and-dirty version, here it is. See also the illustration above for a visual elaboration.

Where

Aomi Urban Sports Park, Tokyo, Japan

When

The Games have been rescheduled for July 23 to August 8, 2021, due to the coronavirus pandemic; we'll update this page once the specific timing of the climbing event has been made public.

What

20 men and 20 women (two maximum per gender from any given country) will compete in three combined disciplines:

Speed climbing

Competitors race each other in heats on two side-by-side, standardized climbs on a 15-meter wall; the first climber to tag the buzzer at the top advances to the next heat until a winner is determined.

Bouldering

Competitors try unroped “boulder problems” on shorter walls, usually 3–5 meters. The emphasis is on physical/gymnastic difficulty, and the problems will feature unique, new sequences unknown to the climbers. The goal is to reach the finishing hold and demonstrate control with both hands.

Lead climbing

Competitors, wearing harnesses attached to a climbing rope, move up a taller wall (15–20 meters) with a unique, new climb featuring 40–60 holds. While the goal is the top, competitors will be scored on how far they progress, with each handhold earning 1 point.

Scoring

The combined score is a multiplication of each competitor’s placement in the three disciplines. So if you were first in speed, third in bouldering, and fourth in lead climbing, your score would be: 1 x 3 x 4 = 12. The competitor with the lowest overall score wins gold.

The Event, In-Depth

Dates

Climbing is scheduled to begin with the men’s qualification round and will conclude with the women’s final round . The Tokyo Olympics will be broadcast on NBC; however, at present, it is unknown when climbing might be featured on the American broadcast. Stay tuned to Climbing.com for updates to the TV schedule.

The Disciplines

There will be three disciplines, comparable to the different disciplines often offered in a climbing gym: speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing. However, what is unique about the Olympics is that all three types will be grouped together as separate (and mandatory) rounds of an all-encompassing “combined” discipline. Think about it like a climbing triathlon: multiple events brought together as a singular, sequential contest.

The merger is a fairly new idea, but it will not be totally foreign to the climbers at Tokyo. As a way to prepare the athletes, the International Sport Climbing Federation (IFSC)—the global governing body for competition climbing—began including a combined discipline (as its own entity) in climbing’s 2018 World Championships. Youth championships have also merged the events into a single collective discipline. And beginning in 2019, USA Climbing—the main governing body for competition climbing in the United States—started holding an annual Combined Invitational on par with its other national championships.

This is not to imply that most climbers like the idea, and many in fact have been openly against it. The disdain comes mainly from two aspects: Firstly, lead climbing and bouldering entail a degree of problem-solving, of figuring out the proper way to the top. Speed climbing, in contrast, takes place on a standardized route—every climber already knows how to get to the top. This makes training for speed climbing, and even the races themselves, monotonous or even boring for some competitors who otherwise specialize in lead climbing and bouldering. Secondly, speed training is often very focused on developing and improving explosiveness (not only in the arms, but also in the legs), which is in direct contrast to training for lead climbing—often focused on endurance; in other words, the training for the different events can clash. Some competitors even floated the idea of boycotting the Olympics given the seemingly forced combining of events otherwise thought to be very incongruent. Nonetheless, by the time the Tokyo Olympics kick off, all competitors will be very used to the official format. Some have even warmed up to it. And ultimately a collective reverence for the Olympics seems to have taken precedence over any misgivings.

Speed Climbing

Speed climbing will be the first event, as it generally necessitates more power and quickness than bouldering and lead climbing. I.e., it behooves the competitors to be completely fresh when trying to post good results.

The climbers will engage in one-on-one speed “runs” (aka “heats”) up a 15-meter-wall on two identical, side-by-side climbs. The route will be the exact same route that has served as the standard speed course in competitions for almost 15 years, a collection of red, amoeba-shaped holds placed in a standardized sequence. Although this route has never been assigned a difficulty grade, most estimates put it at approximately 5.10b—nowhere near the physical limits of the competitors. (See Glossary for more about climbing grades.)

Since each competitor will be climbing the same course for every “run,” their tactics will be fully memorized, demonstrating a skill that has been fine-tuned through countless hours of rote practice. To win each run, a competitor will have to reach the top of the wall and slap a buzzer before his/her opponent does; the goal is to climb as quickly and efficiently as possible, which usually involves frog-like leaping or dyno’ing (see Glossary) between the holds. The time it takes a competitor to reach the buzzer will not be a determining factor—to advance, he/she merely has to be faster than their opponent. Fast races and record-breaking times are more like icing on the cake. False starts in speed climbing can be fairly common and result in a disqualification.

Given the bracket tournament structure, the competitor who wins his/her run will advance to the next heat until eventually there will be just two competitors going head-to-head for the coveted first-place spot. A good sports reference would be the NCAA’s March Madness: Many head-to-head matchups pared down to a “final four,” and eventually to a thrilling final two and then a victor. Meanwhile, on the safety side, the competitors will be attached to an auto-belay (see Glossary)essentially a long, mechanical tether, like a giant seat belt. If they fall or when they reach the top, they will be lowered safely back to the ground. In the past, speed climbers had belayers (see Glossary) securing them via a more traditional climbing rope, but given how hard it was to keep up, eventually specialized auto-belays were developed

The climbers will be aiming for really fast times. The men’s world record is 5.48 seconds (held by Reza Alipour of Iran; watch it here.), so expect the best times in the men’s division to hover around—or below—6 seconds. The women’s world record is 6.995 seconds (held by Aries Susanti Rahayu of Indonesia), so the fastest women will likely clock low-7-second runs. The women’s world record was broken twice last season, so there is a good chance that new world records will be set in Tokyo.

Even though modern competitive speed climbing is unique and quite different from the other Olympic climbing disciplines or outdoor rock climbing, an argument can be made that speed climbing—in a broad sense—is the oldest form of climbing: Who can get up the mountain the fastest? That question has formed the basis for not only the speed event at the Olympic level, but also such things as quickly ascending the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite, which has its own world record (held by Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell) at sub-2-hours on the 3,000-foot climb. And head-to-head speed climbing races have been around for nearly 50 years in some form or another, including appearances in the early X Games.

Bouldering

The bouldering portion is next. In bouldering, a climber attempts to scale shorter sequences (commonly called “boulders” or “problems”) without a rope. Since the boulders are not very tall—13 vertical feet at most—any fall will result in the climber landing safely on a cushioned floor or mat.

Unlike speed climbing, the boulders’ set sequences—the problems—will be unknown to the climbers prior to the event. In fact, all climbers will be sequestered in an isolation zone before their respective turns, unable to watch the previous competitors try. Thus, there is an element of problem-solving on the fly, as competitors must first figure out how to climb the boulder (the beta—see Glossary), and then properly execute their planned sequence. Also, there is no buzzer at the top. To get credit for the problem, a competitor has to have both hands firmly matched on a designated top handhold. Competitors can also get credit for reaching one scored handhold midway up the boulder called a zone hold (see Glossary).

The climber will be allowed to attempt a given boulder as many times as he/she wishes within a 4-minute time limit. However, when those 4 minutes are up, the climber must move on to the next boulder. In the final round, climbers will have to attempt to climb a total of three different boulders. (The Olympics will include a qualifying round and a final round; there will not be a semifinal round.)

The difficulty of the boulders at the Olympics will vary from one boulder to the next. There are various grading systems for assessing a boulder’s physical difficulty—in the United States, this grading system is called the “V-Scale.” V0 and V1 are the easiest, while boulders graded, say, V15 or V16 would be astronomically difficult—even for the best climbers in the world. Yet, the boulders at the Olympics will not be assigned a V grade because the extraneous factors of competition (i.e., a climber’ nervousness, the crowd noise, the ticking clock, etc.) make it impossible to accurately assess “difficulty.” So, while none of the Olympics’ boulders will be close to the climbers’ (or the sport’s) limits, reaching the top in the allotted time period will still be a formidable challenge.

The bouldering leaderboard will be determined by the number of boulders on which a competitor reaches the “top.” For instance, a competitor who tops two boulders will be in the lead compared to one who tops just one boulder. The total number of attempts and the total number of times reaching a “zone” hold will be used to further differentiate the scoring.

If you’re new to watching competition climbing but are familiar with outdoor bouldering, expect the Olympic bouldering to appear more dynamic (in general) than its outdoors referent. The fundamentals will be the same—a lot of crimps, slopers, pinches (see Glossary) and precision footwork. However, volumes (very large, geometric holds; see Glossary) have become extremely common in competition climbing. Also, competition bouldering in its current iteration borrows heavily from parkour movement, and the route-setting often reflects—and encourages—that, featuring big jumps and extremely difficult coordination moves you rarely do on real rock. Compare this example of American Kyra Condie reaching the top of a boulder in the Rocklands of South Africa (outdoors) to this example of her ascending a boulder at the American Combined Invitational (inside a convention center in Salt Lake City, Utah) last year. The Rocklands’ boulder entails a fairly straightforward progression up the rock face, whereas the competition boulder entails coordinated swings and swooping jumps on big volumes.

Bouldering did not always have a formal competitive component. When it first emerged, it was largely considered a way to train for climbing longer, roped or mountain routes. But over time this thinking changed, particularly as more people became introduced to climbing and realized that bouldering was a minimalistic alternative to lead climbing. (Bouldering does not require as much gear—no ropes, harnesses, carabiners or quickdraws, nor does it require belay instruction.) In many ways, it was the United States that led the charge for a bouldering boom that began in the late 1990s, aided by the eventual rise in a number of bouldering-focused competition organizations in America and the popularity of outdoor hotspots like Bishop, California, and Hueco Tanks, Texas. The boom has since gone global, with outdoor destinations such as Fontainebleau, France, contributing their own storied bouldering history to the discipline’s palette. It has all made bouldering arguably the most popular and the most common format for climbing competitions anywhere.

Lead climbing

The last event will be lead climbing. Here, climbers will get just one attempt to climb as high as they can on a route. If a competitor falls, he/she will be safely caught by the rope and a designated belayer, but his/her attempt in the round will be finished. As with bouldering, there will a qualifying round and a finals round.

Basically, each handhold will be worth one point, so the scoreboard will reflect the highest scored handhold reached by each competitor. (The route at the Olympics will likely include anywhere from 40 to 60 scored holds in total.) For example, a competitor who reaches handhold number 35 before falling would score 10 more points than one who fell at hold 25. The best result would be to reach the top of the wall. In an ideal lead event, only one competitor would do so.

As with the boulders, the lead routes will not be at any climber’s physical limit. There are grading systems for assessing a lead route’s difficulty. In the United States, this is done with the Yosemite Decimal System, which ranges numerically from 5.0 to 5.15, and with alphabetical designations used above 5.10 to further differentiate a route’s difficulty (such as 5.12a compared to 5.12b). However, much like bouldering, lead routes will not be graded at the Olympics. Much of the challenge will come in compartmentalizing the magnitude of the event itself while also doing the requisite problem-solving and sustained hard movement that lead climbing entails. Lead routes often feature geometric volumes intermixed with features that have outdoor aesthetics—such as stalactites, bulges, prominent arêtes (outside corners), and headwalls. Finding places to clip the rope into the quickdraws (see—Glossary) while working over and around such features provides an added challenge.

Scoring can get quite detailed, specifically related to whether a competitor has a firm grasp of the handhold (known as “control” in judging parlance) before falling, or whether he/she merely touched the handhold in a glancing manner. In such cases, partial points could be awarded. But because these situations can be highly subjective, there will be a panel of judges closely monitoring every competitor’s attempt, and there will also be the option for competitors to appeal any scoring decisions.

Any unintentional failure to clip the rope into a quickdraw—or any intentional skipping of a clip—will result in the end of a competitor’s attempt. Gripping or stepping on any item on the wall not designated for hand or foot placement—such as grabbing the quickdraws or accidently stepping on signage placards—will result in disqualification as well (this happens more often than you might expect). Certain sections of the wall can be designated as “out of bounds” too, and failure to adhere to such boundaries would likewise cause a DQ.

Lead climbing has a competition history too storied to fully explore here, but one of the key points of origin was an outdoor contest on the limestone cliffs above Bardonecchia, Italy, in the mid-1980s. It was eventually agreed that outdoor crags were not ideal for large-scale, formal competitions—the massive crowd and the abundance of competitors put undue stress on the landscape itself, and unforeseen technicalities such as sudden changes in weather or damage to the rock face made it difficult to maintain level playing fields. But the rise of an artificial climbing-hold industry and the emergence of climbing gyms around the world helped lead competitions survive in a new context. The first large-scale international competition in the United States took place on the side of a hotel in Snowbird, Utah, in 1988 and continued for many years. A vibrant World Cup circuit appeared in Europe as well, eventually giving rise to the formation of today’s governing bodies at the national and international level.

Scoring

At the end of each event, competitors will be ranked according to how they performed in that respective portion: 1st place, 2nd place, 3rd place, 4th place, 5th place, etc. The overall score for the Olympics’ combined discipline—and thus the awarding of the medals—will be determined by multiplying a competitor’s placement in each event. The lowest multiplied score will earn the gold medal.

For example, let’s say Competitor A places 1st in speed, 3rd in bouldering, and 6th in lead. This competitor’s overall score would be 18 (1 x 3 x 6 = 18). Compare that to Competitor B, who places 2nd in speed, 4th in bouldering, and 2nd in lead. This competitor’s overall score would be 16 (2 x 4 x 2 = 16). In this hypothetical matchup, Competitor B would have the lower numerical score, and resultantly a better overall result.

The multiplied scoring system has resulted in extensive strategizing and discussion about the ideal ways to train for and participate in the event. Obviously, the ideal scenario for any competitor would be to place 1st in speed, 1st in bouldering, and 1st in lead to obtain an overall score of 1 (1 x 1 x 1 = 1). However, since the separate events require different skill sets, and since training for the combined format is a fairly new concept, relatively speaking, placing first in every portion is highly unlikely (never say never, though—incredible things happen at the Olympics!).

For this reason, there are two schools of thought. First, there is a strategy of trying to win one discipline and merely do well enough to stay in the mix in the others. For example: place 1st in speed, 4th in bouldering, and 4th in lead, for an overall combined score of 16 (1 x 4 x 4 = 16). This would be the likely approach for a competitor who is a “specialist” at a particular type of climbing. An alternative game plan would be to place fairly high in all disciplines without actually winning any. For lack of a better description, this would be the approach for an “all-around” competitor. For example: place 2nd in speed, 2nd in bouldering, and 4th in lead, for an overall combined score of 16 (2 x 2 x 4 = 16).

You can see in the above example that both strategies would result in the same overall score, which proves that either could be viable. Whichever strategy a competitor decides to employ will likely be based on the degree to which he/she excels at each separate event, as well as how he/she assesses the abilities of the other competitors. Regardless, the Olympics and its multiplied scoring have given the sport of climbing a degree of game theory that it has never had before.

The Venue

All sporting events for the upcoming summer Olympics will be held at various locations within Tokyo’s great sprawl. A number of sports will take place at an area east of Narita International Airport known as the Heritage Zone, which was also used in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Climbing (and other sports, such as three-on-three basketball) will take place at a temporary venue, the Aomi Urban Sports Park, in a more southern waterfront area known as the Bay Zone—just north of Tokyo International Airport.

The climbing walls—the metal-frame and resin-panel surfaces on which the climbers will compete—will be built by Entre-Prises, a venerable (founded in 1985) French wall, structure, and hold manufacturer. Last July, Entre-Prises released concept art of the climbing walls on its Instagram page. At this point, those renderings are the closest we have to any information on what the Olympics’ climbing area will look like. In this rendering, you see the speed wall at right, the bouldering area at center, and the lead wall at left. The speed-climbing route will be the standardized 15-meter route, while the bouldering and lead routes will be kept a secret until the event.

It is common for a set of competition boulders to be stylistically diverse. At the Olympics, there might be a very physical boulder on an overhanging wall, and a very technical slab (see Glossary), and perhaps a boulder that mixes various styles on a convex or concave wall. We can only speculate. The unpredictability of the route-setting for bouldering and lead climbing and how the competitors uniquely interface with that setting is part of what makes competition climbing so entertaining to watch.

Glossary

Here’s a list of key climbing terms both to help you understand this article and what the commentators will be talking about during the Olympics. Climbing is certainly one of the most lingo-intensive sports in the world. If you want to learn more, there’s a handy reference called the Climbing Dictionary.

Auto-belay

The roped system (and the device itself) used in speed climbing to ensure that a competitor is lowered safely and slowly to the ground in the event of a fall. The auto-belay only lowers the climber; it does not in any way assist the climber, i.e., pull her up the wall. 

Example

Sarah fell midway up the speed wall and was lowered by the auto-belay.

Belayer

The person who controls the rope’s slack and tension, and arrests any falls, while the climber is on the wall. In the Olympics, the belayer will be standing on the ground the entire time while the climber ascends.

Example

When the climber fell, he was caught by the belayer.

Beta

Information or general strategizing about the best way to decipher the moves/sequences on a route.

Example

Her beta of trying to jump to the next handhold is proving to be ineffective.

Crimp

A type of handhold (and the corresponding way of gripping it—usually with the thumb wrapped over the index finger) that is usually a small horizontal edge or lip. Technique for properly “crimping” will vary, but in all types of crimps, climbers must load a significant amount of their body weight onto their fingertips.

Example

He is reaching for the crimp. [or] He is crimping the edge of that yellow volume.

Deadpoint

A type of climbing movement in which the competitor lunges toward the next handhold but does not fully give up all points of contact with the wall—usually maintaining three.

Example

Nathaniel Coleman can probably deadpoint from the first hold to the zone hold.

Dyno

A type of climbing movement in which the competitor all-out jumps to the next handhold, essentially becoming airborne and briefly giving up any points of contact with the wall.

Example

Nathaniel Coleman will dyno to the top of the boulder problem.

Flash

To climb to the top of a route or boulder without any prior knowledge (or beta) of the proper sequence. In competition, this means coming out of the isolation zone and climbing to the top on the very first attempt.

Example

Brooke Raboutou flashed the first boulder.

Grade

A difficulty rating assigned to a roped climb or boulder problem. There are many climbing-rating systems the world over; a full explanation can be found here.

Example

While the setters didn’t give this problem an official grade, those who’ve tried it so far peg the difficulty around V10.

Pinch

A type of hold gripped between the fingers and an opposing thumb, in any orientation.

Example

The route starts with a big pinch and then turns into a collection of volumes.

Quickdraw (aka Draw)

Gear used in lead climbing to secure the climber to the wall and help arrest a fall. One end of the quickdraw will be anchored to the wall; the other end will be a carabiner that’s “clipped” as the climber ascends, clipping her rope into successive quickdraws (usually spaced a body-length apart) and thus limiting the distance of any fall. Here is an example of South Korea’s Jain Kim clipping the rope into a quickdraw with her left hand as she climbs.

Send

Climbers’ slang for a successful ascent.

Example

Her send of the third boulder was quick and impressive.

Slab

A climbing wall that’s typically vertical or slightly less than—think obtuse angles from geometry class. Climbing on slab generally requires slower, technical movement and balance on small or poor holds.

Example

The second boulder is a slab, which is generally something she struggles with in competition.

Sloper

A type of handhold that’s usually rounded and must be gripped by using the full surface of an open hand, almost like palming a basketball.

Example

That right-hand sloper will help her stabilize her body so she can reach for the top.

Top

The end of the climbing route or the boulder. Note that the “top” in competition is not literally the top of the wall but rather a handhold that’s been designated as the “top” handhold.

Example

Adam Ondra won the bouldering event with three tops.

Volume

A type of hold that’s too large to be designated as just a handhold or foothold, but is more of a feature. Volumes are often extremely large, hollow, and geometrically shaped (prisms, spheres, pyramids).

Example

If she can press away from the volume with her feet, she will be able to reach the next handhold.

Zone

A scored handhold approximately halfway up a boulder. There is one zone hold per bouldering problem. [Note that the scoring for IFSC bouldering competitions—and, thus, bouldering in the Olympics—is different from the scoring of USA Climbing competitions. So, if you’ve watched any USA Climbing Bouldering National Championships in which there are holds that are worth 10 points, 15 points, etc., be aware that the scoring for the bouldering portion of the Olympics will not be comparable.]

Example

She didn’t get the top, but she got the zone on her first attempt. 

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.