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Who’s Who: Meet Olympic Teams Switzerland, Italy, Spain, China and Russia

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. 

40 climbers (20 men and 20 women) will compete at the Tokyo Olympics, and each country attending the games has been given a maximum quota of two competitors per gender. The climbers who have already qualified for the Olympics were selected through a series of Olympic qualification events, including the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) World Championships in Hachioji, Japan, and a combined contest in Toulouse, France.

It will be an eclectic roster. Some of the Olympians (such as the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra) are well known for climbing the world’s most difficult rock climbs—on revered cliffs in Yosemite, Norway, Spain, and elsewhere—in addition to participating in high-level competitions. While other Olympian climbers, such as Japan’s Miho Nonaka, rarely make publicized outdoor ascents and have carved out careers centered almost exclusively on World Cup competition.

Still, competition climbing requires a very specialized skill set; the challenge is not merely to climb, but to climb while also dealing with nervousness, scores, judges, a cheering crowd, and parkour-style route-setting that is generally not comparable to outdoor-climbing movement. In other words, attempting to compare outdoor climbing to competition climbing is somewhat like comparing a pickup basketball game by NBA players to an actual NBA league game; both scenarios would feature elite-level skills, but the contexts and the extraneous factors would be very different.

Here, meet the climbers from the Switzerland, Italy, Spain, China and Russia, who will compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in August.

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Team Switzerland

Petra Klingler of Switzerland celebrates during the semi-finals of the IFSC Climbing World Cup at Salt Lake City, Utah, in May 2021. Photo: Andy Bao/Getty Images

Petra Klingler (29)

Klingler’s career highlight aside from Olympic qualification is winning the bouldering World Championships in 2016. She has participated in a limited number of lead and speed events outside of the combined context, so she will be another competitor looking to have a spectacular bouldering performance at the Olympics buttressed by speed climbing and lead climbing performances that are adequate enough to advance into the finals.

Klingler happens to be one of the few Olympians who also participates at the highest level of ice-climbing competitions. In fact, in 2015 she became the first Swiss climber to win a gold medal at an event in Kirov, Russia, during that year’s Ice Climbing World Tour. She has indicated that she will skip the UIAA’s Ice Climbing World Cup circuit in 2020, but fans can expect her to pick up right where she left off on ice after the Olympics conclude.

Team Italy

Ludovico Fossali of Italy reacts after competing in the Speed during Combined Men’s Qualification on day nine of the IFSC Climbing World Championships in Tokyo, 2019. Photo: Toru Hanai/Getty Images

Ludovico Fossali (24)

Fossali punched his Olympic ticket at the World Championships in Hachioji, Japan, last August 2019. He is considered to be a speed specialist. He placed 3rd in the speed discipline at a World Cup event in Wujiang, China, last May, and 9th in speed at a World Cup event in Villars, Switzerland, not long after that. Compare those results to some of his placements in other disciplines last year: 91st in lead climbing at a World Cup competition in Chamonix, France; 99th at a bouldering World Cup competition in Meiringen, Switzerland. This means that Fossali’s best chance at winning an Olympic medal is a top-place finish in the speed portion of the combined discipline.

Given that Fossali is a strong and powerful climber due to his speed specialty, perhaps his greatest challenge will be mustering the requisite endurance needed for the longer lead climbing portion—and for the entire combined discipline itself.

Italian climber Laura Rogora competes during the women’s lead final at the Climbing IFSC World Cup lead event in Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Laura Rogora (20)

Rogora has been climbing since the age of four. She first made headlines by claiming some testpiece ascents as a youngster, but around 2018 she started winning a lot of youth lead climbing competitions in Europe. Then she won the Youth World Championships in Russia, and then she basically did it all again on the youth circuit the following year.

Rogora tends to post fairly uniform results in all portions of the combined discipline. Although she has homed in on the Olympics and competition, she still has an affinity for outdoor climbing—evidenced by ticking her fifth route rated 5.14 approximately a year ago. One of the developments to observe in her career, particularly following the Olympics, will be whether she stays on the competition track or returns to focusing on world-class outdoor sends.

Photo: Lena Drapella/IFSC
 

Michael Piccolruaz (25)

Among the climbers awarded an Olympic berth based on a Tripartite Commission selection was Italy’s Michael Piccolruaz. He doesn’t have the stellar results that a lot of other qualified Olympians do—for instance, Piccolruaz placed 36th at a Lead World Cup in Inzai, Japan, in 2019, and 47th at a Lead World Cup in Kranj, Slovenia, that same year. What’s noteworthy, though, is that he does seem to be improving at the right time—for example, he placed 12th at one of the recent Bouldering World Cups in Salt Lake City. And a 14th place finish at the the World Championships in 2019 prove that the Combined discipline just might suit him. 

If there’s any sweeping assessment of his results that can be made, it’s that he is yet to have a truly standout performance; he has never been a mainstay in the finals for any discipline. But there would be no greater stage for such a breakout moment than the Olympics this summer.

Team Spain

Alberto Gines Lopez in the men’s semi finals in first place, advancing in good shape to the finals in Villars, Switzerland during the IFSC Boulder World Cup in July 2021. Photo: Lena Drapella/IFSC

Alberto Ginés López (18)

In 2019, López had one of the best rookie seasons ever. Highlights included being one of only two competitors to reach the headwall in a lead climbing World Cup competition in Inzai, Japan, in October, and a 3rd place finish at a lead climbing World Cup in Kranj, Slovenia, around the same time. Because López is so young, we don’t have a substantial body of work on which to base Olympic predictions, but that also makes López one of the most exciting competitors to watch.

What struck many pundits during the 2019 World Cup season was López’s charisma on and off the wall. Far from a stoic climber, his youthful exuberance could easily make him one of the fan- and sponsor-favorites at the Olympics. And a medal-winning performance by López would dovetail nicely with the recent gym openings in Spain by Chris Sharma, perhaps the world’s most famous rock climber. With such climbing accolades on a national level, it’d be hard to argue against Spain being the current climbing epicenter of the world.

Team China

YuFei Pan of China competes during the International Federation of Sports Climing (IFSC) World Cup at Olympiastadion in Munich, Germany, in May 2019. Photo: Sebastian Widmann/Getty Images

YuFei Pan (20)

Pan was China’s big lead climbing standout of the 2019 season. One of his most impressive performances was a 2nd place finish at a World Cup in Villars—ahead of Germany’s Alex Megos, Slovenia’s Domen Skofic, Austria’s Jakob Schubert, and other far more experienced competitors. He also earned 8th place at a bouldering World Cup in his home country. His speed-run times are also respectable too, often hovering around 7-seconds-flat.

Pan is China’s quintessential all-arounder; he appears calm and comfortable in any climbing format and will likely be a megastar as competition climbing continues to boom in his home country.

YiLing Song at the 2018 Climbing World Championships. Photo: IFSC

YiLing Song (19)

Song broke the women’s speed world record last year with a time of 7.101 seconds. Although that record was later broken by Indonesia’s Aries Susanti Rahayu, Song should still be considered the fastest speed climber on the women’s Olympic roster. And like Poland’s Aleksandra Miroslaw and Russia’s Luliia Kaplina, Song will have to win the speed portion of the combined discipline to best situate herself for a strong overall showing. Of course, only one of those three competitors can actually win the speed portion, which is what will make that segment so darn compelling.

Beyond the speed-climbing races, the world record, and snapshots on Instagram, there has not been a lot of information filtered to the press about Song. She has no Wikipedia entry; there are no extensive interviews readily available. In a way, this makes her even more fascinating as a competitor, as her breakout success last season happened like an unexpected whirl of energy. Perhaps Olympic success will happen with the same sudden verve. But don’t say we didn’t inform you ahead of time.

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Team Russia

Russia’s Iuliia Kaplina and Ukrania’s Alla Marenych compete during the final women lead at the indoor World Climbing and Paraclimbing Championships 2016, n Paris. Photo: MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

Iuliia Kaplina (28)

Kaplina is one of the few competitors on the women’s roster who is a speed specialist. But saying she is a specialist is an understatement. She is one of the best speed climbers of all time, having won multiple World Cup events and having previously held the women’s speed-climbing world record (of 7.32 seconds, which she set at the World Games in Poland in 2017).

It’s unfortunate that much of Kaplina’s Olympic narrative might be clouded by her home country’s ban due to a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) ruling; as it stands, Kaplina will likely have to compete under a neutral flag. But those ancillary details should not detract from her ability on the wall, and her potential to make the Olympic podium if she can reign supreme in the speed-climbing portion.

Aleksei Rubtsov of Russia competes during the finals of the IFSC Climbing World Cup, Meiringen Switzerland. Photo: Marco Kost/Getty Images

Aleksei Rubtsouv (32)

Alexey Rubtsov won the men’s Combined portion of the 2020 European Championships to secure a spot on the Olympic squad. He is a veteran on the scene and a former bouldering World Champion, so his Olympic berth was not surprising. However, it was impressive considering that he had been battling a shoulder injury for much of 2019 and hadn’t really been much of a force on the World Cup scene for a couple years. Like his Russian compatriot Meshkova, his success at the European Championships relied on an all-arounder’s approach (fifth place in the speed portion, first place in bouldering, and fourth place in the lead), and it’s likely Rubtsov will use that tactic in Tokyo too.

Rubtsov is one of the few Olympians who is over 30 years old (which is old for a competition climber) but he has proved that he is back in top form (he even placed seventh at the recent Innsbruck World Cup). Don’t be surprised if he does great things at the Olympics.

 

Photo: Lena Drapella/IFSC

Viktorilla Meshkova (20)

Viktoriia Meshkova earned her spot on the Olympic roster with a victory at the 2020 European Championships. Even prior to that monumental win, she was a rising star on the scene, largely due to a Russian bouldering national championship to her name. So, it was not wholly shocking that Meshkova qualified for the Olympics; rather, it was how multi-faceted she looked in doing so. At those European Championships, she finished in second place in the speed portion, sixth in the bouldering portion, and topped the lead route in the finals. It was the epitome of an “all-arounder” performance in the Combined discipline.

If there is any big question surrounding Meshkova heading into Tokyo, it is how she will do among the Olympic field. Those European Championships featured a limited roster, but the Olympics will feature far more big names and…arguably stiffer competition. Being able to shine as a veritable all-arounder at the Olympics will be much harder.

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