For starters, let’s all agree on something: It felt weird to have an IFSC lead World Cup in Briançon, France, this past weekend. Weird because the world is being gripped by a pandemic. Weird because the most-recent World Cup prior to this one was a very long 10 months ago—and a substantial chunk of this year’s circuit has been cancelled or postponed. (The Briançon portion of the World Cup circuit traditionally takes place in mid-July rather than late August.) Weird because this year’s lead World Cup circuit was supposed to be garnished with post-Olympic reverence and an abundance of new fans. Instead we have a postponed Tokyo Olympics and an uncertain future for all spectator sports. Weird because competitors from the USA, Canada, South Korea, Japan, China, and other countries could not take part at Briançon due to travel restrictions. And weird because COVID-19 case numbers in France have spiked recently.

Taking all of that into account, I suppose opinions will vary on whether or not holding this competition (and labeling it a World Cup) was appropriate. I'll let you make up your own mind on that. For the purposes of this article we’ll settle on calling the event “weird.”

Now that we’ve shaken hands on all that, let’s talk about the climbing.

A strong trio in the men’s division

One of the biggest ancillary storylines leading into this event was how Germany’s Alex Megos and Austria’s Jakob Schubert spent their recent pandemic months—and how their respective accomplishments would translate to the World Cup scene if/when the competition circuit started up. Megos famously sent his multi-year 5.15d project Bibliography at the beginning of this month, and Schubert won three out of four competitions in July deemed the Austria Summer Series.

At Briançon, the two competitors were neck-and-neck near the top of the scores in the men’s qualifying round. In the semi-finals, Schubert was one of the few men on the roster to progress through the 45-degree overhanging midsection and onto the headwall. There, he cleverly found a rest on a large sloper before unsuccessfully vaulting for the top. The effort was lauded on commentary and by the socially-distanced Briançon crowd, and it was ultimately enough to nudge Schubert ahead of Megos and into second place heading into the finals.

However, constantly looming around the weekend-long scoring coupling of Megos and Schubert was the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra. Ondra might not have received as much press during the recent pandemic months, but steady comp training in Innsbruck, Austria, has improved his comp fitness—something that even commentator Charlie Boscoe noted.

Ondra led the scores in the qualification round. Then, an uncharacteristically slow start up the yellow feature volumes in the semi-finals soon changed into the rapid sequencing that Ondra is known for on lead routes. Although he fell reaching for the same headwall move as Schubert, he sat in first place due to countback in the scores. The finals, too, proved to be a three-way showdown between Ondra, Schubert, and Megos. However, Megos fell at a spot midway up the finals route—near scored hold number 27—when he inadvertently cut his feet and could not regain stability. He would finish in fifth place. Schubert, along with Slovenia’s Domen Skofic, made it further and onto the headwall before being stymied in a collection of green slopers. Only Ondra successfully progressed through the headwall’s green handholds and reached the top in the finals. In doing so, he claimed victory—the 15th World Cup event win of his career.

A new Italian star in the women’s division

Heading into this first (and possibly only) World Cup event of the 2020 season, all eyes were on Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret in the women’s division. Although Garnbret’s lead season last year was overshadowed by several breakout victories by South Korea’s Chaehyun Seo, Garnbret is still the best competition climber of the modern era—a fact bolstered by her 26 total career World Cup event victories. And Garnbret began the competition at Briançon with a strong showing in the qualification round. However, in the semi-finals, she struggled and fell low amid a collection of green slopers for a score of 26+. It was not terribly costly in the moment; she still advanced to the finals. But it would prove to be a crucial error in hindsight.

On Garnbret’s heels the whole weekend was 19-year-old Laura Rogora of Italy. As a former double Youth World Champion (and the recipient of a 2020 Olympic berth), Rogora was primed for a chance to take the spotlight in a lead World Cup event and grow her starpower even more. Like Garnbret, Rogora topped one of the qualification routes and nearly topped the other. Yet, where Garnbret faltered in the semi-finals, Rogora stayed in total control through the green sloper section. By the time Rogora fell on the headwall in the semi-finals, she led the women’s field by a substantial seven points.

Both Garnbret and Rogora climbed exceptionally well in the final round. Both women cruised through a mid-wall 360-degree move, but it was Garnbret who wowed the crowd by chalking up while hanging casually partway through the move. In fact, Garnbret and Rogora were the only two women to reach the top of the finals’ route. However, in determining the winner, their scores counted back to the semi-finals, in which Garnbret’s low fall proved to be detrimental. Rogora was deemed the victor—the first lead World Cup win of her career—with Garnbret having to settle for second place. Rounding out the podium was France’s Fanny Gibert. At one point in the finals, Gibert slipped while in a bathang position, but she had managed to stay hanging on the wall—and even calmly unraveled the rope that had become wrapped around her head in the process. The entire sequence was a remarkable demonstration of veteran poise.

The challenges of comp climbing in the COVID-19 era

Underpinning the entire competition was the question of how the IFSC was mitigating the risk of COVID-19. (A unique IFSC competition earlier this month called the Connected Speed Knockout saw speed climbers from seven different countries compete virtually, but the separate locations negated the need for any new COVID-19 safety protocols).

At Briançon, all competitors wore face masks while previewing the routes, but the masks did not have to be worn while climbing. The wall at Briançon resides outdoors, which made it possible for the spectators to attend. The crowd was kept capped at 5,000 as a precautionary measure. Yet, the travel restrictions—which prevented the participation of so many of the usual powerhouse lead competitors (such as Team USA’s Brooke Raboutou and Kyra Condie, South Korea’s Jain Kim and Chaehyun Seo, and Japan’s Akiyo Noguchi and Miho Nonaka)—could not be ignored. As a result, the IFSC stated that no actual World Cup points would be awarded for taking part at Briançon and the results would not count towards competitors’ world rankings. “It’s a World Cup by name, perhaps not by nature,” commentator Charlie Boscoe uttered at one point during the broadcast.

Athletes had mixed opinions regarding the COVID measures. Ondra praised the IFSC. "A big shout out to the organization [IFSC] who had the courage to go for it and organize yet another amazing event in Briançon," he wrote on Instagram. Meanwhile, Megos was more critical. He wrote:

Looking back at the comp now I'm really starting to question though if there had been put a lot of thought into this comp and it's regulations. Does it make sense to tell some athletes they can't warm up or cool down on an empty wall because of [coronavirus] regulations and then on the other hand have 5,000 people standing side by side in front of the wall? Does it make sense to let the athletes warm up side by side without masks in the isolation area but then make them wear masks as soon as they enter an area where the public can see them? In my eyes a lot of the restrictions and rules were questionable and didn't make much sense when you allow a crowd of 5,000 people to come and watch.

I also don't think it is fair towards many athletes to call it a World Cup if pretty much only Europeans can attend due to international travel restrictions. All in all this comp was not as fun as I was hoping it would be. If future comps look like this I'm not sure I want to continue.

If there was a silver lining to the dearth of the usual lead circuit competitors, it was that the Briançon event allowed for some lesser-known names to shine. No national team exemplified this more than that of the host country, France. At one point in the men’s semi-finals, five French men climbed in a row. The finals featured the aforementioned Fanny Gibert, as well as Nina Arthaud, Mejdi Schalck, and Nao Monchois all representing Team France in the women’s and men’s divisions. One of the highlights of the event was 18-year-old Alistair Duval of France getting creative in the men’s semi-finals and clipping a quickdraw while hanging upside down on a volume. Duval did not reach the finals, but the “incredible” move cemented Duval as a flashy competitor worth watching in seasons to come.

It’s also worth noting the heartfelt tribute that Team France paid to their former compatriot Luce Douady, the 16-year old standout who was tragically killed in a fall in June. The women on the French team put their hair in the same braided style that Douady often did while competing. The IFSC also paid tribute to Douady at the conclusion of the finals.

The fact is, this might be the only World Cup competition we will get to see this year—the two scheduled China events have been cancelled and the Salt Lake City and Seoul events are listed as postponed. If that’s the case, it was very enjoyable and the Douady tributes were touching. It will likely go down in history as something of an event oddity; due to the fault of no one in particular, the lack of international depth in the field made the competition frequently feel more like a Europe-heavy exhibition. Regardless, it was a successful jumpstart to the IFSC’s truncated 2020 circuit and solid proof that climbing competitions can still exist (in some form) in this COVID-19 world.

Results

Men

  1. Adam Ondra (CZE)
  2. Domen Skofic (SLO)
  3. Jakob Schubert (AUT)
  4. Luka Potocar (SLO)
  5. Alex Megos (GER)
  6. Mathias Posch (AUT)
  7. Mejdi Schalck (FRA)
  8. Nao Monchois (FRA)

Women

  1. Laura Rogora (ITA)
  2. Janja Garnbret (SLO)
  3. Fanny Gibert (FRA)
  4. Jessy Pilz (AUT)
  5. Vita Lukan (SLO)
  6. Tjasa Kalan (SLO)
  7. Nina Arthaud (FRA)
  8. Giorgia Tesio (ITA)
  9. Lucija Tarkus (SLO)

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.