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Recap and Photo Gallery: The First IFSC World Cup During the Pandemic

How I learned to stop worrying about COVID-19 (temporarily) and watch some comp climbing

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.

Gallery: 10 Photos From the 2019 Briançon World Cup

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© 2020 Jan Virt/IFSC

Nina Arthaud of France cuts feet during a powerful move on the finals route at the Parc des Sports during the 2020 IFSC World Cup in Briançon.

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© 2020 Jan Virt/IFSC

Laura Rogora of Italy making a clip during finals en route to her first World Cup victory. Beyond her competition prowess, Rogora is also the second woman to climb 5.15b outdoors.

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© 2020 Jan Virt/IFSC

Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret had a phenomenal finals round at Briançon, cruising through a 360-degree move with ease and fighting hard through the headwall crimps while clearly getting pumped. Garnbret topped the route, although countback to semi-finals awarded the victory to Rogora. 

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© 2020 Jan Virt/IFSC

If I want to get nitpicky about Garnbret’s record, a discussion could be had about how she lost last year’s overall lead season title to South Korea’s Chaehyun Seo, and Garnbret has lost what will likely be the only lead World Cup of 2020. But none of that should be taken as an indication that she is somehow entering a career slump. After all, she did top the finals route at Briançon, and she still has an Olympic berth. I just wishes there could have been a full World Cup circuit this season—to properly gauge where Garnbret is at. 

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© 2020 Jan Virt/IFSC

The women’s podium (left to right): Janja Garnbret of Slovenia, Laura Rogora of Italy, and Fanny Gibert of France.

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© 2020 Jan Virt/IFSC

Czechia’s Adam Ondra topped both qualification routes, nearly topped the semi-finals route, and topped the finals route at Briançon. Ondra’s victory prompted commentator Charlie Boscoe to declare, “There is a reason people call [Ondra] the greatest climber of all time.” 

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© 2020 Jan Virt/IFSC

Belgium’s Loïc Timmermans did not advance to finals at Briançon; he finished in 25th place. But as a veteran of the lead World Cup circuit, he deserves a nod. He indicated that this event was to be his last World Cup appearance, as he will retire from competition to begin a new phase of life as a lawyer. Timmermans is only 25 years old, but his competitive climbing career included high finishes at a number of previous events—10th place at Imst in 2016; 5th place in Chamonix in 2017; and 7th place at Inzai in 2019, among many others.

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© 2020 Jan Virt/IFSC

At this point, it should not come as a surprise to hear that all competitors were required to wear facemasks at Briançon. Spectators were required to wear masks too, and social distancing was enforced by French police.

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© 2020 Jan Virt/IFSC

Alex Megos was a favorite going into this competition, coming off his recent success of climbing the world’s second 5.15d route. Unfortunately, his finals run ended with a surprising fall low on the wall.

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© 2020 Jan Virt/IFSC

The men’s podium (left to right): Domen Skofic of Slovenia, Adam Ondra of Czechia, and Jakob Schubert of Austria.

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:

https://www.instagram.com/p/CEP6bzwKibH/

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.