What the World Championships and Youth Olympics Can Tell Us About the Tokyo Olympics

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Innsbruck World Championships Janja Garnbret Lead Combined Winner Climbing Competition IFSC

Janja Garnbret won the women's combined round at the Innsbruck World Championships after initially placing first in bouldering and second in lead, but 26th in speed.

During the men’s combined finals at the IFSC’s World Championships this September, the crowd cheered as commentator Charlie Boscoe uttered something honest and accurate on the livestream broadcast: “Nobody’s got any idea about the combined,” he said. “All of this is new to everyone—athletes, routesetters, commentators…we know how the climbing works, we know how the individual disciplines work, but how they work with each other is the real unknown.”

Since then, we’ve witnessed the exciting conclusion of the men’s and women’s combined portions of the Innsbruck World Championships as well as the combined format at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The latter marked the first official Olympic medals awarded to climbers. We’re finally starting to get some answers about how the Olympic format works on the grand stage, and we can make some predictions based on the results. Here's what we've learned:

Speed Climbers Get Left Behind

The biggest takeaway from those two recent marquee events that have featured a combined format—the World Championships and the Youth Olympics—is that speed specialists are going to have a really hard time medaling at the 2020 Olympics.

In fact, that might be putting things mildly. Let’s take the results of one of those events, the men’s combined finals at the World Championships, as a microcosm. The finalists there were Japan’s Kai Harada, Tomoa Narasaki, and Kokoro Fuji, along with Austria’s Jakob Schubert, Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra, and Germany’s Jan Hojer. All of those competitors are lead and bouldering specialists—with some, like Ondra and Hojer, having won IFSC events in both disciplines. What all those competitors are decidedly not is speed specialists. Most of them clock personal best speed climbing times that are approximately two seconds slower than the speed climbing world record of 5.48.

The women’s combined finals at the same event featured an analogous field of lead and bouldering crushers—Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret, Austria’s Jessica Pilz, Japan’s Akiyo Noguchi and Miho Nonaka, Switzerland’s Petra Klingler, and South Korea’s Sol Sa. The Youth Olympics were slightly more diverse; for example, Austria’s Laura Lammer, who placed third in the Women’s Combined, trains speed extensively. But still, the men’s and women’s fields were mostly populated by lead climbers and boulderers who have only recently started dabbling in speed, presumably out of an Olympic obligation. The winner of the men’s combined at those Youth Olympics, Keita Dohi, has historically had his best results in bouldering competitions, such as victories at the 2017 Asian Youth Championships and the 2016 World Youth Championships.

The irony is that in trying to be all-inclusive, the Olympic format may still leave speed climbers out. Until we reach an era when every competitor is truly an all-arounder, an ideal finals of six competitors would—and should—include two bouldering specialists, two lead specialists, and two speed specialists. Parity is important if any combined format is to be widely accepted. Otherwise, for kid crushers with Olympic dreams, what’s the point of training speed at all?

Perhaps Boscoe said it best when describing the lead and bouldering specialists during the speed climbing round of the Innsbruck combined finals: “They’re all competing to be the least bad.”

That might be true, but it’s not exactly the Olympic ethos.

The Combined Format Favors the Youngsters

The ages of IFSC competitors—and, thus, the ages of those who will be vying for coveted spots on the Olympic lineup—vary wildly.

But that age spread starts to shrink considerably when looking at the finalists at the World Championships’ combined portion. In the men’s division, the average age was 24, and in the women’s division it was 23. Couple that with those young competitors from the Youth Olympics who will have already had extensive combined event experience heading into 2020, and we can deduce that the Olympic finals are likely to skew young. 

That’s not to say that veteran savvy won’t play a part. Decorated competitors like Schubert (who is currently 27 years old), Ondra (who is 25), Klingler (who is 26), and the speed world record holder, Iranian Reza Alipourshenazandifar (who is 24), will still be favorites to make the Olympic team for their countries.

But none of the competitors in the finals at the World Championships were over the age of 30.

This puts a number of competition climbing’s most accomplished superstars in peculiar spots. France’s Bassa Mawem will be 35 years hold when the 2020 Olympics kick off, Canada’s Sean McColl will be pushing 33, Korea’s Jain Kim will be 32, and Noguchi will be 31—certainly not old, but they are in an atypical statistical category.

More than anything, the plight of veteran competitors should be seen as an asset to the fans, as it lays the foundation for some great drama. The Olympics can market and promote storylines around the various generations rivaling for combined supremacy. Imagine the vignettes and the lead-up interviews, as well as the Rocky-esque build. Look at American Alex Puccio’s victory at this summer’s Vail World Cup for an example of just how stirring it can be when a veteran battles the odds—and wins.

The Format Actually Works

When the announcement was first made about climbing’s inclusion in the Olympics, the format was universally panned. There is legitimate criticism, but the World Championships and the Youth Olympics have proven that the strange bedfellows of speed, lead, and bouldering are compelling together, and refreshingly assorted in the spectacle they present.

USA Climbing clearly thinks so as well. The organization recently made waves when it announced plans to host a their own national Combined Invitational Championships to mimic the Olympic format.

The United States and the rest of the world now have confirmation that the three disciplines keep a broadcast moving at a quick pace, akin to the three narrative acts of any good movie. There’s always a feeling that a shift in tone might be forthcoming; just because a competitor is having a good day on the bouldering wall doesn’t mean success in the other disciplines is a gimme.

And maybe that’s the most important extrapolation of all at this juncture: The Olympics-style combined format is certainly wonky from a climbing perspective [Ed. . But from an entertainment perspective, it might be pure gold.

Rosters Can Be Predicted (Sort of…)

Each country will get up to one male and one female competitor into the Olympic climbing event, and the final roster will be comprised of 20 competitors for each gender. While there’s still a year’s worth of lead-up that might change the key players, we can start to pinpoint some competitors likely to be Olympians in 2020. Based on this year's World Cup season, the Innsbruck World Championships, and the Youth Olympics, here are ten of the most-likely competitors for each gender: 

Men

  • Jakob Schubert (AUT)
  • Jernej Kruder (SLO)
  • Jongwon Chon (KOR)
  • Kai Harada (JPN)
  • Sascha Lehmann (SUI)
  • Sam Avezou (FRA)
  • Sean McColl (CAN)
  • Jan Hojer (GER)
  • Adam Ondra (CZE)
  • Stefano Ghisolfi (ITA) 

Women

  • Jessica Pilz (AUT)
  • Janja Garnbret (SLO) 
  • Sol Sa (KOR)
  • Miho Nonaka (JPN) 
  • Petra Klingler (SUI)
  • Hélène Janicot (FRA)
  • Alannah Yip (CAN)
  • Laura Rogora (ITA)
  • Stasa Gejo (SRB)
  • Anak Verhoeven (BEL)

Of course, not everyone gunning for an Olympic slot competed in those events, due to injury, scheduling conflicts, or other issues (notably, no U.S. athletes competed in the Youth Olympics because USA Climbing was not recognized as a USOC partner in time). It's still anyone's game. Expect to see fierce competition in the 2019 World Cup circuit as the athletes prepare for the big event in 2020.

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