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The Idiot’s Guide to Olympic Climbing

Don't know speed from lead climbing, or want the finer points on how Olympic climbers will be scored? Here's what you need to know.

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It’s a catchy title, but you’re not an “idiot” if you’re trying to wrap your head around how climbing can be put into an Olympic context; the format and the rules have confused even some of the most die-hard fans ever since it was first announced that climbing would be making its Olympic debut.

And before we go any further, climbing at the Olympics will technically be called “sport climbing,” so if you’re browsing alphabetized TV listings and Olympic broadcast schedules, make sure you’re searching appropriately.

Also read: Olympic Climbing Schedule, Dates and Times to watch

Let’s start by panning out. Climbing is a really diverse assortment of activities that can range from ascending mountains (“mountaineering”) to scaling frozen waterfalls (“ice climbing,”) to doing the stuff seen in the film Free Solo. But in all cases, the goal is generally always to move upwards.

Some activities in that broad assortment take place on artificial climbing walls (usually made of plywood and steel) and using artificial handholds and footholds (usually made of plastic). That is the kind of climbing that takes place in climbing gyms around the world, and it is also the type of climbing that will take place at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

More specifically, climbing at this summer’s Olympics will feature three different types of climbing—three “disciplines,” to use climber lingo—but, again, the objective is broadly the same for each of them: move upwards on the climbing wall.

Also read: What You Need to Know About the Olympic Climbing Wall

The three Olympic climbing “disciplines” will be speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing. Remember the above note about the Olympic climbing format confusing a lot of fans? That’s because the Olympics will combine those three separate climbing disciplines into a single event. This means the Olympian climbers will participate in all three disciplines—speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing—in sequential order. It will be like climbing’s version of a triathlon, and that was a totally new thing when it was first announced … new for the climbers, new for the spectators, new for everyone.

Also read: Who’s Who: Meet Olympic Teams USA, Japan, Slovenia, Czech Republic

What is speed climbing?

Speed climbing will be the first climbing discipline contested in that sequential order at the Tokyo Olympics. The broad goal is still to move upwards on the climbing wall, but the key is to climb upwards as fast as possible…hence the name, speed climbing.

Olympic climbers will race side-by-side up a 15-meter climbing wall. In order to win, a climber will have to hit a buzzer near the top of the wall before his opponent does. Think of this buzzer like the finish line in a sprint.

Also read: The Complete Guide to Olympic and World Cup Speed Climbing

Speed climbers race side by side—the fastest to the top of the wall wins. Photo: Dimitris Tosidis/IFSC

The climber who wins a given side-by-side race will advance to another round of side-by-side races, and then to another round, and so on. Basketball fans can think of it like March Madness…a bracket-style elimination format, but with climbing races.

In case you’re wondering about safety, each climber will be attached to a rope (technically via a device called an autobelay), so if a climber falls during a speed race, he/she will be safely lowered to the ground via the autobelay.

Also read: Who’s Who: Meet Olympic Teams Austria, Great Britain, Germany, France and Canada

What is bouldering?

Bouldering will be the second climbing discipline contested in the Olympics’ sequential order. The goal is still to move upwards on the climbing wall using a particular set of handholds and footholds, but the tricky part is that those holds will be designed and arranged in a way that make any ascent really difficult; meaning, the handholds might be really far apart, or they might be really small, or they might just be weirdly shaped and angled.

Remember when you were a kid climbing trees and certain trees were really easy to climb, but others were really difficult? That essence—a certain tree being really hard to climb—is basically the same idea with bouldering: challenging movement, weird body positions, poor grip, etc.

In Bouldering, climbers perform gymnastic moves, unroped, on a wall no more than 20 feet high. The winner is determined by who reaches the highest point on the wall with the fewest attempts. The climbers perform the most difficult moves in bouldering, as shown here by Austria’s Johanna Färber. Photo: Jan Novak

In a given bouldering round, an Olympic climber will attempt to climb three separate bouldering routes (i.e., three “boulders”). Unlike speed climbing, bouldering will not be done as a race. Instead, points will be awarded if a climber reaches the top of a boulder. And, even if a climber does not reach the top (remember, these boulders will be really difficult), partial points will be awarded if a climber reaches a de facto halfway point on the wall—known as the “zone” handhold.

Safety-wise, climbers will not be attached to a rope, but the Olympic bouldering walls won’t be nearly as high as the speed climbing walls. If climbers fall while bouldering—and they probably will, given the difficulty—they will land safely on padded floor mats, and will be free to try to climb to the top of the boulders again.

What is lead climbing?

Lead climbing will be the third—and final—discipline contested in the Olympics’ sequential order. Let’s go back to that tree climbing metaphor again. Remember when you and your friends would dare each other to climb higher and higher in a tree? (Editor’s Note: We’re not advocating this!) That’s basically the spirit of lead climbing: ascend as high as possible on the climbing wall.

In Lead Climbing, climbers perform difficult moves up a wall and uses a rope to catch them in case they fall, as demonstrated here by Japan’s Miho Nonaka. The winner is the climber who reaches either the top or the highest point on the wall. Photo: Lena Drapella/IFSC

The Olympic lead climbing wall will include anywhere from 40 to 60 handholds (which is a lot), so endurance will play a big factor in how far the climbers are actually able to progress upwards. The best outcome for any climber will be reaching the very top of the wall, but it’s unlikely that more than a few climbers (if any) will ascend that high on the Olympic wall.

Unlike in bouldering, Olympic climbers will only get one attempt in the lead climbing discipline. In other words, if a climber falls, he/she will be safely lowered to the ground on a rope and the attempt will be done. Game over.

So, how does someone win?

There’s a lot of nuance that can come into play with the Olympic scoring, mainly because of the odd combined/triathlon-type format. But the main thing that you will want to remember as you watch climbing at the Olympics is that the lowest overall score wins.

More specifically, at the end of each of the three events (speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing), climbers will be ranked according to how they did. (First place, second place, third place, fourth place, fifth place, etc.) A climber’s overall final score—meaning, the score that will determine whether he/she gets an Olympic medal—will be that placement in the three disciplines multiplied together. So, let’s say a climber gets first place in speed climbing, second place in bouldering, and fifth place in lead climbing. Multiplied together, those places (1x2x5) would be a final score of 10. Remember, the lowest score wins, so if another climber’s final multiplied score is something like 9, or 8, or 7…well, that’s a better score than 10.

Who should I watch for?

There will be 20 men and 20 women climbing in the Olympics. In the spirit of the Olympics, they will hail from many different countries, and of course they all have compelling stories. Most importantly, they will all have a shot at winning.

We’ll give you three Olympian names to start with, and then you can go down your own rabbit holes of research and intrigue.

Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret is the biggest star in the sport and a lot of people consider her the GOAT (Greatest of All Time). Whatever sports comparison or analogy you want to use—the Simone Biles of competition climbing? The Michael Jordan of the competition scene?—it’s Janja Garnbret. Competition climbing has a World Cup circuit, and Garnbret won every bouldering competition on that circuit in 2019—that’s almost unheard of. More recently, she won World Cup events in both the bouldering and lead discipline at Innsbruck this year. For those reasons, she has to be considered the favorite to win the women’s division at the Olympics.

Read: Team Crush: Behind the Curtain at Slovenia’s Success Factory

In the men’s division, Japan’s Tomoa Narasaki will be the main climber to watch. He has won bouldering World Cup events and he is incredibly fast at speed climbing. He hasn’t been as dominant as Garnbret (no one has—that’s why Garnbret is the GOAT), but Narasaki is nonetheless many people’s pick to win Olympic gold for the men.

Finally, pay close attention to American Brooke Raboutou. In fact, pay close attention to all four Americans—Raboutou, Kyra Condie, Nathaniel Coleman, and Colin Duffy. But we mention Raboutou because she is in the midst of her best World Cup season ever in 2021 (making podiums in both bouldering and lead climbing events). If that success and peak performance carries over to the Olympics later this summer, there’s no reason she cannot win an Olympic medal. She also has a really cool backstory of both parents being top-level climbers, which is explored here.

Where can I find more info?

This Idiot’s Guide is intended only to be the most basic primer. If you want to learn more, head over to our Olympic Climbing 101 page, which goes into more details about the disciplines and the Olympic scoring. It also includes a glossary of common climbing terms that you will probably hear Olympic commentators use.

If you’d like a full rundown of all 20 men and 20 women who will be climbing at the Olympics, check out our Meet the Athletes page.

And, if you’re a history buff and want to know more about how the sport of climbing got included in the Olympics in the first place, you might enjoy our Olympics historic deep-drive.