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This article is part of our ongoing coverage of the 2020 Olympic Games. For more news as it happens, and for unlimited online access plus a print subscription to Climbing, join us with an Outside+ membership.
The Olympics are underway and most of the climbers have arrived in Tokyo for last-minute training and preparations as August 3 and 4 loom on the calendar (as the men’s and women’s qualification dates, respectively). Two of the most familiar names on the Olympic roster are the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra and Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret. Both have spectacular World Cup credentials, and that makes them popular picks for winning Olympic gold. More to the point, Ondra and Garnbret are undeniably all-time greats, and we’re certainly not going to disagree with anyone who considers them to be the Olympic favorites. However, there’s also value in looking closer at their greatness, considering what it would take for others to overtake them in the Olympic scores…and tossing out a few names of competitors whose skills pose the biggest threats, at least on paper.
GARNBRET THE GREAT
There are plenty of reasons why Janja Garnbret is the heavy favorite for Olympic gold. Her greatness is arguably the biggest allure of climbing’s entire Olympic debut, fashioned through previous World Cup dominance in two disciplines, multiple World Championships, and star power that is unrivaled in the women’s division. No matter what country you’re from or which particular Olympians you’d like to see shine, you can’t help but root for Garnbret because she is the GOAT, or Greatest Of All Time. But let’s take a look at some names that could challenge her at the Olympics.
- Laura Rogora: If there is any Olympian whose results in the lead climbing division have been almost on par with Garnbret’s in 2021, it’s Italy’s Laura Rogora. Garnbret won two Lead World Cups earlier this season; Rogora won one. In fact, at the Villars World Cup, Garnbret and Rogora were the only two women in the field to reach the top of the finals route. At last year’s Lead World Cup in Briançon, Rogora actually beat Garnbret—something that not many competitors on the Olympic roster can say. Stylistically, Rogora is far less dynamic than Garnbret, making their rivalry an interesting study in contrasts. Given the Olympics’ Combined format, Rogora has to have the Speed run of her life (as well as her best Boulder results ever) to stay in the hunt for an Olympic medal. But definitely don’t count Rogora out if the scores are really close heading into the Lead portion of the Games.
- Akiyo Noguchi: Let’s go back in time to the first Olympic qualification event, the World Championships in Hachioji in August 2019. Garnbret placed first in the Combined discipline with multiplied ranks from the Speed, Boulder, and Lead portions. It was a remarkable achievement, prompting commentator Charlie Boscoe to say, “[Garnbret] is the Greatest of All Time—she is the World Champion!” Certainly well-deserved praise. But it’s easy to forget that the competitor who placed second at this first Olympic qualification event was Japan’s Akiyo Noguchi. Moreover, the final multiple scores weren’t actually that far apart—Garnbret’s winning score of 12 compared to Noguchi’s score of 21. That is irrefutable evidence that Noguchi is capable of getting very close to Garnbret in the results, and perhaps Boscoe himself said it best on that broadcast: “You could look at every boulder, every slip on the speed wall, everything that happened on the lead wall and say, ‘if…,’ ‘well…,’ ‘but this…’” At the Olympics, Noguchi, who will retire after the Games, gets the chance to figuratively say and consider those types of utterances…and try one last time to beat the Greatest.
- Chaehyun Seo: It’s worth reiterating how much of a fascinating mystery South Korea’s Chaehyun Seo is at these Olympics from a performative level. Seo beat Garnbret four times(!) on the Lead World Cup circuit in 2019, but then the pandemic forced the world—and the World Cup circuit—to be put on hold. We have no idea what Seo’s skills will be like once the sport climbing event begins at these Olympics. We do know that Seo has been training hard in South Korea, and we know that she recently won a Korean national lead title. If she has improved significantly over the past 17 months at speed climbing and bouldering as well, she could very likely continue the streak of greatness that she started on the World Cup circuit in 2019 and earn an Olympic medal.
Also Read: 10 Things to Watch for at the Olympics
- Miho Nonaka: Japan’s Miho Nonaka has done something that not even Garnbret has done: won World Cup medals in both the Boulder and Speed disciplines. Nonaka has also proven to be perfectly adept at the Lead discipline, recently earning fifth place at the Lead World Cup in Innsbruck. As with her compatriot Noguchi, it’s easy to overlook Nonaka’s stellar result (fifth place) at that first Olympic qualification event back in 2019 because it feels like it happened so long ago at this point. But as all those World Cup medals attest, Nonaka is the prototypical all-around climber—and there are more than a few pundits thinking she could steal the show.
- Brooke Raboutou: Continuing the discussion of competitors who have earned medals in multiple World Cup disciplines, this season Team USA’s Brooke Raboutou earned two bronze medals at the Boulder World Cups in Salt Lake City and a silver medal at the Lead World Cup in Innsbruck. Keep in mind that the competitor directly ahead of Raboutou in the scores on several of those occasions was Garnbret. It’s hard to think of another Olympian who has met the moment of this World Cup season better than Raboutou, in the sense of peaking in performance and climbing as good as ever. It is not outlandish to think that ultimate Olympic glory could come down to a nail-biting contest between Raboutou and Garnbret in the scores.
Others in women’s division: Garnbret’s Slovenian compatriot and teammate is Mia Krampl; in that sense, there is no competitor who has more insight into Garnbret’s training—and, thus, more awareness of the kind of climbing it will take to outperform Garnbret at the Olympics. Also, never count out Austria’s Jessica Pilz—even with the unfortunate timing of a recent pulley injury. And Team USA’s Kyra Condie has proven to be distinctively great at the Combined discipline.
Also Read: Team USA Is Having Its Best Year Ever
ONDRA THE ICON
Adam Ondra’s results on the World Cup circuit speak for themselves: He has won Boulder events, Lead events, and World Championships. If you want to get specific, he won this season’s Boulder opener in Meiringen, and he won last year’s Lead event in Briançon. But most importantly for this discussion, he has improved a lot at the Combined discipline over the last couple years, even clocking a 7.464-second speed run at the Olympic qualifier in Toulouse in 2019. Still, it’s no secret that speed climbing is not Ondra’s bailiwick, and that could make him vulnerable in the Combined scores at the Olympics. Here are some names to consider when discussing Ondra’s most likely challengers.
- Tomoa Narasaki: If you want to find the Olympian who is not a speed specialist but has warmed up to speed climbing the most, look no further than Japan’s Tomoa Narasaki. Not only has Narasaki trained to become incredibly fast on the speed wall, but he has also innovated in the discipline—popularizing the step-up dyno beta in Speed that now bears his name (the “Tomoa Skip”). It’s not ridiculous to imagine Narasaki placing first or second in the Speed portion of the Olympics. Additionally, he is a multi-time Boulder World Champion, so he’d be a solid pick to win the Boulder portion as well. He has also medaled on the Lead World Cup circuit in the past and could do well in that discipline too. It’s hard to find any competitor on the Olympic roster—including Ondra—with a better Combined resume than Narasaki. Frankly, if Narasaki can perform to the best of his ability in all disciplines in Tokyo, he’ll likely win gold.
- Jakob Schubert: Consistency in modern results on the World Cup circuit—especially beyond the results of Garnbret and Ondra—is rare. However, Austria’s Jakob Schubert is unique in that sense, the pinnacle of constancy. Consider that he has earned a medal in every Boulder World Cup season for the past several years. He’s done the same thing in the past several Lead World Cup seasons too. And he was among the first batch of competitors to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics—thanks to a fantastic (silver medal) performance at the 2019 World Championships. Whenever Schubert is on the roster at a World Cup event, he is considered to be one of the favorites, and there is no reason that that same logic shouldn’t apply to these Olympics.
- Rishat Khaibullin: Given what we said about Ondra’s speed climbing, it makes sense to put an actual speed specialist on this list. There are several worth considering—Ludovico Fossali and Bassa Mawem, for instance. But let’s give Kazakhstan’s Rishat Khaibullin the spotlight because he qualified for the Olympics by placing third at the 2019 World Championships—the highest of any of the “speed specialists.” Most surprising at that event was not that Khaibullin won the Speed portion, but that he impressively placed eighth in the Boulder portion and fifth in the Lead portion. In doing so, he proved to be way more of an all-arounder than anyone had expected. We’re wiser to his array of skills now, and because of that, we’re curious to see how his results compare to Ondra’s at the Olympics.
- Kai Harada: There is a lot of curiosity surrounding Japan’s Kai Harada. His recent results this season haven’t been astounding—24th in Lead and 13th in Boulder at the Innsbruck World Cup, for example. But we also know that he is likely training to peak in the Combined discipline at the Olympics, not in a single discipline at a World Cup. A fourth place finish at the 2019 World Championships to earn an Olympic berth proved that Harada can be among the very best in the world when he’s firing on all cylinders, and something tells us we could see a similar standout performance at the Olympics.
- YuFei Pan: One of the results of all the pandemic’s travel restrictions has been that we haven’t seen China’s YuFei Pan at an elite-level intentional competition since he earned his Olympic berth at the Olympic qualifier in Toulouse in 2019. He performed really well at that event, and there’s no reason to think he has not made great gains since then. Most intriguing is that Pan’s results were on a steady incline prior to the pandemic; he was irrefutably getting better and better. There would be no greater stage than the Olympics for Pan to show the world that the time away has not only made him even better—it has made him the best.
Others in the men’s division: Don’t forget about the veterans in the men’s field, such as South Korea’s Jongwon Chon, Canada’s Sean McColl, and Germany’s Jan Hojer. The experience they each possess could go a long way in helping to calm Olympic nerves—and that could ultimately aid in a winning performance. Conversely, the younger competitors like Team USA’s Colin Duffy and Spain’s Alberto Ginés López could prove that youthful zeal is the secret to Olympic success. Finally, never discount Team USA’s Nathaniel Coleman. At 24 years old, Coleman is far removed from his rookie days, but he is also not in the twilight of his competition climbing career. The Tokyo Olympics could prove to be just the right event at just the right time for Coleman to become even more of a legend than he already is.