How Can You Set a World Record and Not Medal in the Olympics?
Implausible as it sounds, Aleksandra Miroslaw of Poland did just that in Tokyo 2020's Sport Climbing combined event.
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“So if Schubert beats Ginés López but loses to Ondra, then Ondra gets gold. But if Schubert beats both Ginés López and Ondra, then Ginés López wins and Ondra doesn’t medal and Schubert goes from seventh place to winning bronze…right?”
For those of us following along with our calculators, the combined scoring format made watching Tokyo’s Olympic finals intensely anxiety-provoking—in part because we were constantly having to readjust the scores of our favorite athletes, and in part because we were always half-convinced (or at least I was) that we’d made a mathematical error and were entirely misunderstanding the state of the competition.
How the combined scoring worked
In the Olympic Sport Climbing combined event, athletes competed in three disciplines—speed, bouldering, and lead—for one medal. At the end of each discipline, climbers were given points correlating with their finishing rank, and the combined score was reached by multiplying the results from each of the disciplines. For instance, in the Olympic final, Adam Ondra placed fourth in speed, sixth in bouldering, and second in lead, so his combined score was 48 (4 x 6 x 2). Alberto Ginés López won gold with a score of 28, having placed first in speed, seventh in boulder, and fourth in lead.
One strange thing about the multiplication structure is that scores can change drastically with slight variations in finishing order. For instance, if Ondra had taken first in lead, his final score would have shrunk by half—to 24—which would have gotten him a medal, possibly even gold, depending on how the other competitors (Ginés López, foremost) fared below him on the route. We’ll get to speed climbing in a moment, I promise, but first we need to talk about how the combined scoring system played out during the competition.
How Ondra almost won gold but didn’t medal
Going into finals, the combined point standings were:
- Mickaël Mawem: six points (third in speed, second in boulder)
- Tomoa Narasaki: six points (second in speed, third in boulder)
- Nathaniel Coleman: six points (sixth in speed, first in boulder)
- Alberto Ginés López: seven points (first in speed, seventh in boulder)
- Colin Duffy: 20 points (fifth in speed, fourth in boulder)
- Adam Ondra: 24 points (fourth in speed, sixth in boulder)
- Jakob Schubert: 35 points (seventh In speed, fifth in boulder)
Despite his qualms with speed—he’s been a vocal critic of the combined format—Ondra surprised himself by marking a personal best in speed (6.86 seconds) and placing fourth. But he had an uncharacteristically hard time on the boulders and placed sixth. (They’re finicky, those comp problems, almost as hard to do as they are to set.) As a result, he entered finals in sixth position, with a combined score of 24 points. Yet because of the scoring structure, Ondra still had a viable path to an Olympic gold.
This is complicated, so bear with me.
For Ondra to win a gold medal, a couple of things had to happen, not all of them within his ability to control. First, he had to win the discipline. A first place in lead would have left him with a combined score of 24 (4 x 6 x 1). But 24 points was only enough for a gold medal if Mickaël Mawem, Tomoa Narasaki, Nathaniel Coleman, and Alberto Ginés López all placed fourth, fifth, or sixth in the lead discipline. If Mawem, Narasaki, or Coleman placed second in lead, it would give them 12 points, which would beat Ondra’s 24. If they placed third, they’d have 18 points, which would also beat Ondra’s 24. If they got fourth, they’d tie Ondra, which hurts my brain. (To be honest I have no idea what would have happened if this had happened). Ginés López, meanwhile, had seven points, which meant 14 points if he got second and 21 points if he got third—both of which, again, beat Ondra.
Long story short, a victory for Ondra required him taking first, and then both Colin Duffy and Jakob Schubert filling the second and third place positions.
That didn’t happen obviously—but it almost did.
When Jakob Schubert started up the wall, climbing last, Ondra was in first place in the lead discipline, having reached the route’s 42nd hold; Duffy was in second, having reached the 40th hold; and Ginés López was in third after falling on hold 38. If Schubert fell below hold 38, Ginés López would take third in lead and win the competition with a combined score of 21, and Ondra, with 24 points, would come in second. But if Schubert passed Ginés López’s 38th hold, yet fell short of Ondra’s 42nd, then Ondra would have taken gold with 24 points and Lopez would have taken the silver, having finished fourth in lead and getting a total score of 28 points.
There were, amazingly, an intense few seconds when this seemed possible.
Even after Schubert, climbing brilliantly, passed Ginés López, four hard moves still separated him from Ondra. But then Schubert, a certified boss, climbed above Ondra’s highpoint and topped the route. This doubled Ondra’s combined score, and with 48 points instead of 24, he fell from 1st place to 6th. By having Schubert instead of Ondra take first place, Ginés López entered climbing history as its first Olympic gold medalist.
But enough math; let’s do some criticizing.
What does all this have to do with speed climbing?
The combined system has faced a lot of criticism since its announcement in 2016—less because of the math involved in the scoring than the fact that speed climbing and lead/bouldering were put under the same umbrella. A common refrain among non-speed climbers is that the combined format is the rough equivalent of making marathon runners compete in the 100 meter and vice versa. For purely imagistic reasons, I personally prefer another analogy: it’s a bit like making short track speed skaters also compete in figure skating—a radically different sport that also happens to involve ice.
But because some of our sport’s greatest celebrities—at least from the vantage of the United States—are at the top of the field in speed and bouldering, we have had a tendency to focus on how the inclusion of speed climbing bungles the scores of the lead and boulder folk. But the format is actually far more disadvantageous to speed specialists.
The fact is that even though bouldering and lead are very different, and it’s the rare athlete who is equally dominant in both disciples, they still have a lot more overlap with each other than speed does with them. Janja Garnbret, Brooke Raboutou, Akiyo Noguchi, Adam Ondra, Tomoa Narasaki, Jakob Schubert—all of these Olympic finalists have won medals in both bouldering and lead events in IFSC World Cups. Of the three speed specialists who advanced to the Olympic final, none had medaled in any discipline at the IFSC World Cup level except speed.
So there was another mathematical problem with the combined format—one that exceeded the sheer difficulty of figuring out who was winning. The boulderers and sport climbers might have bemoaned the speed event’s ability to throw a wrench in their results, but the speed climbers very literally had a mathematical disadvantage when it came to getting medal recognition. They might reign dominant in one discipline, but crushers like Janja Garnbret and Adam Ondra got to dominate them in the other two.
In the women’s Olympic speed final, Aleksandra Miroslaw of Poland established a new world record in women’s speed (a mind-boggling 6.84 seconds); but she came in last in both bouldering and lead and didn’t podium.
A world record and no gold? That, I think, was the real problem with the combined format—more annoying, to me, than the annoying math.
Thankfully, this won’t be a problem at Paris 2024, where medals will be awarded in two categories: speed and lead/bouldering.
“Specialists! Keep specializing. Calculator! Back to your drawer.”