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Opinion: The Olympic Qualification Process Has Been One Big Mess

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Despite qualifying for the Olympics, Japan’s Miho Nonaka was not awarded an invite by her federation—highlighting just how confusing the qualification process has been for fans.© IFSC/Eddie Fowke

In many ways, climbing’s Olympic qualification process has been rife with problems. The issue is coming to a head leading up to the Olympic Qualifying Event in Toulouse, France, but it started when the World Championships in Hachioji, Japan, concluded in August. In the aftermath of that competition, Japan’s national federation was not forthcoming to the international media, the global fanbase, or seemingly the competitors themselves about which of its qualified athletes would receive the country’s Olympic invites. The reluctance stemmed from the fact that four Japanese competitors—the maximum number allowed—had provisionally qualified via their performances in that event. But as the 2020 Olympics’ host country, Japan also held a couple of automatic Olympic berths that could possibly be played like a strong poker hand on an international table at a later date.

A perfect personification of the issue was Japan’s Miho Nonaka, who qualified for the Olympics at Hachioji below her compatriot Akiyo Noguchi in the scores. With their performances at the World Championships, both Nonaka and Noguchi proved to be Japan’s two best multi-discipline competitors. But Nonaka was coming off a series of shoulder injuries that had plagued her for the better part of a year. Awarding her an Olympic invite right after the World Championships would be a gamble from a federation’s perspective. Could Japan’s national governing body accept Nonaka’s berth and, in doing so, trust that Nonaka’s shoulders would remain injury-free for the ensuing 12 months of grueling training that would lead up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games?

As the dust settled in the days that followed those World Championships, Akiyo Noguchi and Tomoa Narasaki were awarded the initial Olympic berths for Team Japan as the two highest ranking competitors. It was speculated that the country also awarded berths to Nonaka and Kai Harada, but then word spread that a forthcoming Japan Combined Championship might be utilized to determine the country’s remaining berths instead. Despite qualifying once already, Nonaka and Harada would need to prove themselves again to snag Olympic invites.

If that would have been the end of it, the whole story would have been a weird footnote in climbing’s Olympic journey.

But as the weeks and months went on, the problems and confusion continued. Japan’s national federation filed a complaint against the IFSC regarding the whole 2020 Tokyo Olympics pathway. One central query was which Japanese competitors, if any, might be allowed to compete as part of the 20-person roster (per gender) in Toulouse. Due to a lack of transparency at the federations’ level, and, frankly, the untranslated nature (Google Translate doesn’t count) of much of the international reportage, the issue soon went viral in fandom circles. Discussion threads were created, rife with puzzlement and frustration; many posts started with phrases such as: “This is rather hard to understand…” and “To me it is not really clear…” One poster in a thread put it more bluntly: “The whole mess is a consequence of ignorant behavior and lack of communication of IFSC with not only the climbing community and media, but obviously also with national federations.”

Fans’ bafflement was temporarily eased, as the IFSC had by this time indicated that Kai Harada and Miho Nonaka were indeed given the remaining Japanese Olympic slots. And quelling any residual confusion, they announced that the starting rosters for the Olympic qualification event in Toulouse would be definitive. The fans could collectively sigh: all of this hullabaloo would soon be a thing of the past.

But when those starting rosters for Toulouse were released to the public, they contained a new batch of curiosities. Several competitors planning to take part in Toulouse had seemingly had their invites revoked, and other competitors thought to be beyond Toulouse’s cutoff (American Margo Hayes among them) had been invited as a result of a country/athlete quota being rescinded. American fans were delighted to see Kyra Condie, Ashima Shiraishi, Nathaniel Coleman, and Sean Bailey also on the starting rosters for Toulouse, but that didn’t alleviate the confusion. Japan had a number of athletes listed as starters for the Toulouse event, too: Ai Mori, Futaba Ito, Kokoro Fujii, Meichi Narasaki, Keita Dohi, Rei Sugimoto. Since Toulouse is an Olympic qualification event, some fans wondered what the point was (and, more seriously, what the ethics might be) of allowing Japanese competitors to participate. Japan’s Olympic lineup—Noguchi, Nonaka, Narasaki, and Harada—was set. Or was it? Again, fans were left to wonder.

The ongoing public bafflement about the Olympic qualification process has been nothing short of a PR headache for the IFSC, at least if fan sentiment is any metric. There are major problems that still must be addressed, like the fate of those poor competitors who had their Olympic invitations rescinded. Through all the aforementioned tidbits that have come at near-regular intervals since August’s World Championships, fans’ patience has worn thin, as has trust in the competition climbing powers-that-be. So there is also a degree of image repair that must be done by competition climbing’s bureaucratic entities going forward.

More than anything it has been a bad look for competition climbing, as Olympic officials and pundits might start to think the sport is too riddled with problems for future Games beyond 2020. Lawsuits, angry online posts, and sudden rule changes are all unbecoming optics.

To fans, in particular, the entire Olympic selection process has felt like it is being improvised day-by-day. Of course, parts of it likely are, as this is the first time the sport of climbing has ever had to put into practice any sort of Olympic qualification pathway. Regardless, in what should be a time of collective excitement, the most hardcore enthusiasts of competition climbing have been left scratching their heads. The action on the walls in Toulouse cannot start soon enough. If nothing else, maybe it will help us forget much of the obfuscation that has led up to it.

The Olympic qualification event in Toulouse will kick off on November 28. Stay tuned to for the livestreams and coverage of the competition.

John Burgman is the author of High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing, which chronicles the history of American competition climbing. Available March 3, 2020.