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Garrett Gregor is an IFSC setters for the Olympic bouldering event, the director of setting for the Bouldering Project for two years, and was previously the head coach of Team ABC.
What happened today with a security breach of the bouldering wall?
Someone filmed the wall and the forerunning of two of the qualification boulders, and it ended up on Youtube. The organizers then worked to take it down, put up another protective cover to shield the boulders from view, and in the end had to reset two of the boulders.
Having the competition in an outside venue without complete lockdown and security of the routes, and wanting to keep people from yelling beta and code in different languages, it’s hard to keep people from doing these things. Even if it was a sealed building with protected access, it’s still unsure that it would be completely effective, because there’s always loopholes in a format that is premised on not knowing the field of play. In the latter scenario, and even in general at competitions, you’ll see competitors peek at the boulders when they walk in and out between them and we know they do this sometimes. For me, the real question is not how we keep people from doing this, but how do we move to a different format that keeps the spirit of onsight and problem-solving in climbing but also provides a fair and engaging spectacle?
Is there a different strategy or process for the Olympic competition compared to the IFSC setting for World Cups and other events ?
There’s a heightened sense of stress since so many people will be watching. This is the first time that the audience is not just core climbing fans, so we are also making boulders for a much broader audience that may have never even seen or heard of climbing. Certain moves, like something eye-catching and understandable for a non-climber, have some value; a difficult tension or crimping move is hard for the average spectator to understand as compared to hanging from one finger or something of the like. Our primary focus is always the function of the boulder over its form, but these kinds of things are taken into account since the audience is different this time and we want them to find a way to engage with the sport. There’s also some preferences from broadcasting about where climbs should go for optimal angles and which color holds show up best.
What does a perfect Olympic round look like in terms of tops and spreads?
I want every boulder to get at least one top and to otherwise have separation through attempts. We’re setting for a diverse set of styles and skills and it feels like a loss if one doesn’t get topped. In the end though, a clean separation without any ties amongst the competitors is the goal.
That being said, it is a limited format: four boulders for the Qualification round and three boulders for the Finals whereas in a typical round of boulders at a World Cup you would have between four to five problems. The disparity in skill level is wider in this event than in most World Cups, too. We want to create a ranking that accurately reflects a climber’s ability since their scores are amplified with the Olympic Combined format – their ranking overall is a literal product of their ranks in each of the three disciplines. To further complicate matters, each boulder only has one zone so we must use those strategically to effectively create two different climbs in each problem that require a diverse skill set and create separation for all 20 competitors in each gender.
What grades are you aiming for in setting the boulders?
I mean, the grades are very high in my personal opinion. At the same time, grades are highly subjective, but for me the bouldering grades range from about V10-V13. The women’s boulders might be barely dialed back, V9-V13 let’s say, and the men’s more like V10-V14, but these are pretty slight differences we’re talking about and there’s a lot of overlap. The main difference between the genders is that the women’s boulders are adjusted for sizing since the majority of competitors are slightly smaller in the women’s category. Grades help people relate to the climbs, but putting a number so concretely to such a nuanced thing is reductive. We want to provide a balance of difficulty versus risk, and obscure body positions; these things have to all be incorporated to comprehend the grade or the difficulty and in general we talk about things in this way rather than distilling it down to just one number.
What are some challenges you’re facing in the setting of the Olympic bouldering event?
Conditions are a little difficult because it is so hot and humid. Working within a certain time frame and wanting to test them in the right time and space and yet, the window is limited since we are setting during the day when it’s hot or evening when it’s more humid and you don’t really just test the boulders since the setting process is very iterative – you are constantly trying something, making an adjustment, trying again and then before you know it the narrow window of when the competitors will be competing has passed and you’re still stuck trying to get this certain movement to work. Conditions have affected how the problems feel, which has caused adjustment and eventually you just have to accept how it is and make your best judgement for how it will feel on the day of the competition since nothing is guaranteed. Everyone is climbing on the same boulders and routes in the end though, and while they may be linked to grades, any climber that has tried a climb on a hot, humid day and then gone back in crisp, cloudy conditions knows the impact that can have.
Do you feel like the Olympics will have a big influence on the immediate future of the climbing world ?
Depends which country you’re in. Depending on which countries win Olympic medals this time, we might see a marked push for the sport in those countries, so participation rates could go up even more if an American gets on the podium. Medals are consequential but it’s not that exclusively; there’s growth and reach happening on lots of levels, accessibility has already been increasing in the US as the expansion of ever bigger and more inclusive gyms has made it more enjoyable for people.
Having coached some of the athletes, how does it feel?
In my position as a route setter, you have to be impartial because you can have so much impact on the competition, and there’s potential for cheating by sharing information. So in that regard, I’ve always made an effort to limit my enthusiasm. In fact, as part of the contract to set at the Olympics, no individual Olympic setter could set any private events or trainings – anything that was set by an Olympic setter needed to be publicly accessible and made widely known ahead of time so that athletes were on a more even playing field. The ability to give anyone an edge, that opportunity is very real and we have a huge responsibility to honor that and the ethics of climbing and routesetting, and that is strictly respected. But I am still a human and I’d be lying if I said I could separate myself completely from my emotions. I spent 10 years or so coaching Brooke, when I started she was less than ten years old; and nearly as much time coaching Colin as well. It is beyond words how I feel to see them come into their own and be successful in their climbing here, I couldn’t be more proud or excited for them.