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Opinion: As Olympic Qualifiers Approach, Outdoor Sends Are Irrelevant for Comp Climbers

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Margo Hayes working up the volumes in the 2019 Briançon World Cup semi-finals, en route to a thirteenth place finish.© IFSC/Eddie Fowke

Margo Hayes’s 2019 Sport Nationals win—and more recently her strong 13th place at the recent lead World Cup competition in Briançon, France—have returned the attention to her competition proficiency. Hayes first rocketed to stardom in 2016 when she won that year’s Sport Nationals, but the monumental accomplishment for then-18-year-old Hayes—which included a $3,000 prize purse—was eclipsed by her historic send of La Rambla (5.15a) in Siurana, Spain, the following February. She followed that up by projecting Biographie (5.15a) in Céüse, France—one of the most famous outdoor routes in climbing history, thanks to Chris Sharma’s historic christening of the line in 2001. Hayes sent that route too. Suddenly her past competition success became an afterthought in her…biographie. (Thank you very much.)

For the next couple of years, whenever Hayes competed, her outdoor sends became the key on-air talking point. Even as she continued to crush on plastic—almost winning the 2017 Sport Nationals, almost making the podium at the 2018 Nationals—the outdoor routes, rather than her previous competition feats, were the analytical ballasts. In fact, the disconnect started far earlier. As Hayes was fighting for competition sovereignty back in 2016, on-screen analysis at Nationals included this cluster: “She’s climbed 14b in a couple weekends in Rifle, she recently sent Scarface—14a—in Smith Rock, a notoriously difficult one. She’s flashed 13c; she is just a well-rounded climber with goals that scope beyond indoor climbing.”

This always perplexed me. Outdoor accomplishments don’t apply to the indoor circuit. For starters, competition routes are not rated 5.15. The fact that Hayes—or any competitor—is capable of succeeding on the steepest outdoor grades would be apt only if competitions went on for weeks or months and record-breaking difficulty was paramount. Instead, lead comps measure onsight performance, and bouldering events test what a climber can do within a four-minute window.

Commentator Bryan Rafferty expounded on the decoupling of competition routes from their grades during the Tristate Bouldering Championships earlier this year, saying, “The mentality of the routesetter … is not just thinking about the grade, it’s thinking about what the climbers are going to do on them. It has really nothing to do with the number.”

Additionally, competitions invite or magnify stresses that are mostly absent from outdoor climbing. Sure, outdoor attempts can have time crunches due to camera crews, incoming inclement weather, or travel itineraries. But competitions exalt the time crunch. Everything is timed in competition, down to starting the climb. For instance, the USA Climbing rulebook states, “A competitor may be instructed by the Chief Judge to begin climbing, and if s/he has not begun within 30 seconds after this instruction, it shall be considered a delay of competition and may result in the competitor’s disqualification on that route/problem.”

Thus, if we’re going to reference a competitor’s biggest outdoor accomplishments, we should note how many minutes it took them to complete famous routes, how many seconds they stood at the base of the crag to decipher beta, and how well they compartmentalized nervousness and crag noise.

There’s also a parkour factor—particularly relevant at bouldering events. A competitor’s ability to do aerial vaults and expressive freerunning is more relevant given modern routesetting than their competency on crimp testpieces. There is such a pronounced difference between competition boulders and outdoor boulders at this point that some of the biggest names climb almost exclusively on plastic. Head over to the Instagram of South Korea’s Jongwon Chon, for example, and see how far you have to scroll until you find a video of climbing outside. Same for Japan’s Kokoro Fujii or USA’s Kyra Condie.

This is where climbing’s Olympic initiation comes in. The Olympics bring competition achievements to the forefront, more so than ever before. Previous results have become the key talking points because they laid the groundwork for the selection of national teams and they will dictate qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Games. The fact that Alex Johnson has worn World Cup gold, in the Olympic context, eclipses her flash of Bishop’s V9/V10 monster, Luminance. Margo Hayes might have sent Papichulo just days after winning the 2019 Sport Nationals, but competition fans cognizant of the Olympics’ Combined format should be more interested in her quickening speed times. Ashima Shiraishi’s sends of multiple V15 boulders outdoors is cool, but has she been training her acrobatic triple-clutch dyno?

The Olympics have always been institutions of statistics, everything in a given sport’s past somehow relevant to its forecasts in the present. They glorify competition lineage. Hayes sent La Rambla and Biographie and Papichulo, but she is also gearing up to represent the United States on the international circuit as a two-time National champion. That’s what matters. Sean Bailey has sent Joe Mama, but competition fans might be more stoked by the fact that he is currently ranked 24th in the world.

The World Cup season is well underway. With that, let the outdoor sends fade into the background for now, overshadowed by indoor highlights, results, rankings, and plausible dreams of American Olympic hardware.