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It might be surprising to hear that we’re already four months removed from climbing’s debut at the Olympics, inarguably one of the most significant moments in the sport’s history. And since the Tokyo Olympics’ glitzy conclusion, we’ve seen the completion of the World Cup season, the end of a slew of North American Cups, and the punctuation of a multi-event National Championship. Suffice to say, it has been a sensational autumn for competition climbing fans, and all the action is starting to push the summer’s Olympic whirlwind into nostalgia territory. I mean, remember the anticipation and excitement during the Olympics’ qualification pathway, especially when Americans Brooke Raboutou, Kyra Condie, Nathaniel Coleman, and Colin Duffy punched their Olympic tickets? Remember the many behind-the-scenes glimpses and updates that USA Climbing provided on Instagram when those American competitors finally arrived in Tokyo to train in the pre-Olympic days? Remember when all eyes were on Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret to see whether she could live up to the Olympic expectations that came with being one of the all-time greats? Good times, good times.
There were more peculiar Olympic moments too, like the confusion of where—and how—to watch the climbing rounds with the glut of livestreaming and broadcasting options. For North American fans, in particular, there were odd start times for the climbing rounds too, necessitating bleary-eyed viewing in the wee hours of the morning. Heck, there was also the strange Olympic format itself, combining Speed, Boulder, and Lead climbing into a triathlon-type succession of events; let us not forget how initially controversial this combined Olympic format was to many fans and athletes alike.
But all in all, the climbing events at the Tokyo Olympics delivered exactly what they needed to deliver: A fun and captivating debut of the sport, with some great drama and unforgettable performances. Here’s a look back at some of the highlights. This is not an exhaustive list, but all these moments are even more memorable now that we’ve had some distance from them.
- “Clutch Colin” is born
The Olympics had several clutch moments, but none were more momentous in the men’s qualification round than Colin Duffy staying persistent on the second boulder. Duffy swung from the boulder’s pocket zone hold into the requisite undercling press at the top, but he dropped back down to a hanging position from the zone when an initial effort at snagging the top proved unsuccessful. Eventually, tenacity paid off; Duffy tried again and was able to secure the top. As he did, one of the commentators described Duffy’s face as “a mask of pain.” It was a demonstration of Olympic grit and perseverance at its finest.
What made it memorable? Duffy had been clutch in previous competition situations, but this send at the Olympics was undoubtedly the instance with the largest and broadest audience. Fittingly, just several months later, he would prove to be ever-so-clutch again, as the only competitor to top the final boulder at USA Climbing’s National Championships en route to a national title.
- Mickael puts on a qualification clinic
The fact that brothers Mickael and Bassa Mawem of France were the only siblings to earn Olympic berths in climbing’s debut provided some great narrative preamble, but few pundits expected Mickael, in particular, to perform as well as he did (considering he was not a frequent World Cup finalist in previous seasons). Yet, Mickael was masterful in the Olympics’ qualification portion, rallying from an early slip in a Speed race (against eventual Olympic gold medalist Alberto Ginés López) to flash the second boulder of the round. “This could well be [Mickael Mawem’s] Games,” one of the broadcast commentators aptly proclaimed, a sentiment that was given further validation when Mickael flashed the next boulder as well. Mickael was so darn good in the Boulder round that he secured a place in the finals before the lead qualification portion even got underway.
What made it memorable? Mickael’s performance in the men’s qualification round was described as “remarkable and superb” on commentary. All true. But Mickael’s brother, Bassa, got injured during the qualification round and, as a result, could not start in the finals. Thus, everything Mickael had done somehow carried more weight, and it felt like Mickael’s ensuing finals were a poignant tribute to his injured brother.
- Alberto shocks the world by winning Speed
Every Olympics has its jaw-dropping moments, and no occurrence was more surprising than Spain’s Alberto Ginés López—far from being a Speed specialist—winning the Speed portion of the men’s finals. His dramatic journey began with a win in a Speed heat against Colin Duffy, when Duffy false-started. In Ginés López’ next race, he edged out Adam Ondra with a winning time of 6.56 seconds—despite the fact that Ondra set a new PR (7.03 seconds). In the last Speed heat, a low slip from opponent Tomoa Narasaki of Japan allowed Ginés López to cruise to victory and clock an even better run of 6.42 seconds.
What made it memorable? Winning at Speed was crucial in Ginés López eventually securing the Olympic gold medal. The fact that Ginés López’ Speed heat victories came primarily as a result of stumbles from his opponents—Duffy’s false start, Narasaki’s low slip—became a big talking point in post-Olympic analysis. But it was all part of the unpredictability of sports; anyone can win on any given day, and Ginés López personified that in Tokyo.
- Nathaniel sticks a toe-catch for the ages
The Boulder portion of the men’s finals featured an undercooked, slabby first boulder that saw six tops. But anyone who tuned out after such an abundance of ascents missed a star-making moment on the second boulder. A run-and-jump across a trio of volumes, this boulder featured a tricky coordination move at the top that no competitor could manage—except Coleman. The key to Coleman’s success on the boulder proved to be a fully extended toe-catch with his right foot at the precise moment of launching for the top handhold. Unlocking this subtle beta and earning the ascent was an adrenaline-charged few seconds, and it saved the boulder from being an overcooked dud.
What made it memorable: Coleman’s lone ascent of this second boulder undoubtedly became a critical component for his eventual Olympic silver medal. But even if there had not been any Olympic podium implications, the toe-catch move was a fantastic display of coordination that young competition climbers should study.
- The world record goes down
No sport’s Olympic highlight reel would be complete without the shattering of a world record. For climbing fans, this came in the Speed portion of the women’s final when Poland’s Aleksandra Mirosław broke her own previous world record (of 6.97 seconds) by clocking a new record time of 6.84 seconds. The landmark moment occurred during Miroslaw’s race against France’s Anouck Jaubert. Of course, with Jaubert and Miroslaw both being Speed specialists, a fast winning time was expected. But Miroslaw’s 6.84-second blitz up the wall was faster than anyone had anticipated.
What made it memorable? Miroslaw needed a good dance partner in the race, and she found one in Jaubert. In fact, Jaubert beat Miroslaw out of the start. Perhaps that slight, initial hole provided just enough extra motivation for Miroslaw to bear down, push even harder, and tap into a little extra something for the remainder of the climb.
- Brooke hangs with Janja
The women’s Boulder portion of the finals was not the most exciting affair. It was devoid of tops throughout much of the round, with the three boulders overcooked for most of the field. The stiff set allowed Janja Garnbert to prove why many consider her to be the greatest of all-time, as she was the sole woman to top two boulders. But it should not be forgotten that Brooke Raboutou was the competitor who stay closest to Garnbret in the Boulder scores. Raboutou managed to get both hands on the top of the first boulder, narrowly missing out on controlling the hold when her left foot popped. She came close to topping the wedge-and-press second boulder too, and secured a zone that eluded most other competitors on the third boulder.
What made it memorable? Raboutou placed second in the Boulder portion of the finals and proved to be a fun (and much-needed) rival for Garnbret from an entertainment perspective. The collective progress of Garnbret and Raboutou on the boulders kept the round interesting, and Raboutou came away from the Boulder portion an even bigger star.
- Olympic tears get shed
While we’re on the subject of Garnbret, how do we choose a single best Olympic moment for her when the whole Olympics was such a masterclass? She rallied from a less-than-ideal fifth place finish in the finals’ Speed portion to win the Boulder portion with two tops. Then she won the Lead portion, climbing nearly two scored holds higher than the nearest competitor. Maybe it’s best to simply cite the tears of joy that Garnbret shed on the Olympic podium in victory; the tears seemed to encompass all the great moments and all the dedication and training that preceded had them.
What made it memorable? It was fitting that Garnbret shared the podium with silver medalist Miho Nonaka—one of her good friends on the competition circuit—and Akiyo Noguchi, a longtime idol. When all is said and done, the three women will go down in history as some of the best and most popular competitors the sport has ever seen.