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The biggest stars of the recent World Cups were not the Olympians—and that’s great for the future of the sport

Did you notice something peculiar about the most recent Bouldering World Cup event in Salt Lake City? Of the 12 competitors who advanced to finals in the men’s and women’s divisions, only a quarter of them will be participating in this summer’s Tokyo Olympics. Looking closer, perhaps you realized that the World Cup winners—Americans Natalia Grossman and Sean Bailey—are not qualified Olympians.

Olympian Janja Garnbret (SLO) had her gold-streak broken when she lost to non-Olympian Natalia Grossman (USA) at the Bouldering World Cup in Salt Lake City on May 30. Photo by Jan Virt/IFSC

That might seem somewhat strange when coupled with how the early portion of this World Cup circuit is being framed—either formally (covered by outlets like the Olympic Channel) or informally in undeniable fan interest. Make no mistake that this portion of the World Cup circuit is being hyped as a precursor to this summer’s Olympics, an amuse-bouche of elite global comp climbing action. And it is absolutely providing some tantalizing hints of how lauded climbing might be at the Olympics. Regarding the recent Bouldering World Cup event, the Olympics’ own website stated, “With sport climbing making its Olympic debut this summer at Tokyo 2020 in 2021, the event in Utah saw 21 Olympic athletes—of the 40 qualified—compete across the three-day competition.”In fact, there are plenty of big-name stars of this season’s World Cup whirl who will play no part in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics: France’s Oriane Bertone, Fanny Gibert, and Mejdi Schalck; the United States’ Zach Galla; Japan’s Kokoro Fujii, Yoshiyuki Ogata, and Rei Sugimoto; Indonesia’s speed world record holder Leonardo Veddriq and his compatriot (and former world record holder) Kiromal Katibin; American speeders John Brosler and Merritt Ernsberger. The list goes on. The reasons are many and varied, from age ineligibility at the time of qualies, to simple disinterest, their countries’ quotas already being filled, their own failure to qualify at some point, and so forth.

Rising star Oriane Bertone (FRA), another non-Olympian who took a podium, grabbing silver at the SLC Bouldering World Cup on May 22 and silver at the World Cup in Meiringen in April. Photo: Daniel Gajda/IFSC

True, but “competing” is not the same thing as performing well … or making finals … or winning. Beneath the exciting veneer of this year’s World Cup action is the fact that this season—so far—has not told us that much about how the Olympics will play out. For all qualified Olympians—like Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret, the United States’ Brooke Raboutou, Japan’s Tomoa Narasaki, or the Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra—who have performed well at a World Cup event this season, there is a qualified Olympian who has failed to advance out of a World Cup event’s qualifying round, hovering in the prosaic middle of the end results. And with that, there are likely some casual fans and Olympic pundits left scratching their heads.

However, to those who do know the sport, none of this is all that surprising. The novel Combined format of the Olympics, along with the fact that athletes essentially have to choose (in training regiments) whether they want to peak at the Olympics or at a World Cup event, along with the monkey wrench of the pandemic and the Olympics’ yearlong postponement, can only mean that this season’s results were bound to be capricious. You could even say we saw some discrepancy coming. More than a year ago, in writing about American Lauren Bair’s stellar performance at the Pan-American Championships, I wrote, “Bair is undeniably one of the best American women at the Combined discipline—let’s not forget that she won this year’s Combined Invitational as well—but sadly the tight Olympic quota means that she won’t get to represent Team USA in Tokyo.”

Olympic team member Brooke Raboutou (USA) had a strong showing, with a bronze at SLC on May 22 and another bronze on May 30. Photo by Jan Virt/IFSC

Aside from Bair, Grossman, in particular, is a fascinating case because her elite skills at the international level seem to have blossomed just this year—long after the Olympic qualification pathway has concluded. A similar statement could be made about American speed star Emma Hunt—who earned a silver medal (and broke her own national record) at the Salt Lake City Speed World Cup event … but was nowhere near that level when the Olympic qualifications were in progress.

Such discrepancy in World Cup stars and Olympians actually makes a strong case for the Combined format being a viable discipline: Its conglomerated structure—sequentially joining speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing—was once universally maligned, but now we see evidentially that it produces an entirely different cohort of standouts than its individual disciplines would. Comparably, the best triathlete is not necessarily the best swimmer, the best cyclist, or the best runner, but equally deserving of acclaim.

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While we mull over this irrefutable divergence between World Cup stars and destined Olympians, one of the real winners is USA Climbing. Suddenly—particularly thanks to the World Cups at Salt Lake City—the United States is flexing team depth seen previously only in powerhouse nations Japan and Slovenia. Specifically, in the pair of Salt Lake City Bouldering World Cups, Slovenia produced a total of three finalists, Japan six, and the United States six.

USA Climbing now has someone—in Grossman—who can compete with Garnbret in bouldering; someone in Bailey who can appeal equally and authentically to comp aficionados and the “real rock” fan base; competitors like Galla, Brosler, and Hunt who can be in the mix at any high-level international event; and a four-person Olympic team that can continue doing the Olympic publicity thing and growing the sport through non-endemic outlets. An embarrassment of riches would be the colloquial phrase for such national team depth, but there is nothing to be embarrassed about. This should be celebrated because it speaks to the foundation of gyms, coaches, trainers, local teams, and volunteers around the United States that fostered such an abundance of talent and did not collectively stop at Olympic qualification.

Sure, a lot of the United States’ elite competition climbers might not be in the Olympics—but that just means the whole system is working.