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Vertical Triathlon: The Future of Climbing in the Olympics

How we ended up with a multidiscipline Olympic climbing event, what’s next for athletes, and whether the sheen of a gold medal reflects the future of the sport.

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Photo: (c) IFSC/Eddie Fowke
IFSC Speed Climbing Rock Olympics Tokyo

The confetti has settled, but not everyone’s smiling. After the initial announcement of climbing’s inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, athletes have come forward to express their unease about how climbing will be included.

The problem lies in the event format. Medal winners will be ranked based on a combined score from three disciplines: sport climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing.

It’s rare enough to find a climber that both boulders and leads sport at an elite level. Throw speed climbing into the mix? The number dwindles more drastically.

Sean McColl, one of the few climbers adept at each of the three—he finished the 2014 IFSC World Championships with the highest combined lead, speed, and bouldering score—believes the multidisciplinary approach is a good thing.

“[It] will showcase all of sport climbing’s disciplines without leaving any on the sidelines. I also think that to be the best climber, you must be versatile and able to adapt to any style of climbing,” he said. As the president of the IFSC’s Athlete Commission, the sector of the IFSC governing body dedicated to representing athlete interests, McColl says he “stands for all three disciplines equally and objectively.”

On an EpicTV interview, Adam Ondra professed uncertainty about the inclusion of speed climbing, saying that training on a contrived, universal route day-in and day-out “doesn’t have a lot in common with the climbing philosophy.” Ondra has proven himself an international powerhouse in both lead climbing and bouldering (he took home World Championship gold for both in 2014), and speed climbing would likely be the only event standing between him and an Olympic medal.

“That’s why I think anything would be better than this kind of combination,” he said, adding that he’d be putting some thought into his decision to either compete or intentionally boycott the 2020 Olympics.

“This seems kind of unfair since most climbers specialize in just one discipline with the exception of a few,” Daniel Woods mused on Instagram the day of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) announcement, saying that he’d prefer to see one medal for each discipline in addition to a combined ranking.

The new format would also require pros, many of whom are accustomed to making a name for themselves on rock rather than plastic, to give up outdoor climbing time to train on gym routes—not a shift that appeals to many elite climbers. Replacing first ascents and hard outdoor sends with gym time could also limit the interest of sponsors promoting gear or Instagram followers looking for picturesque routes.

Even IFSC Sport Director Jerome Meyer confessed the current situation isn’t his ideal. He, too, hopes for more medals and more disciplines should climbing be chosen for the subsequent Olympic Games. To get there, though, the IFSC needed a foot in the door, and that required some compromises.

The Birth of the Vertical Triathlon

The IOC’s inclusion of climbing represents the culmination of years of effort on the part of the IFSC, which began in earnest after the IOC granted the IFSC provisional recognition in 2007. That’s an honorary title more than anything; it simply means a sport can go on to the next round of decision-making for full Olympic inclusion. The move made sense—according to counts of signed liability waivers, more than 1,000 new climbers try their hand at scaling plastic every day in the U.S. alone, and 62 countries are IFSC-registered, demonstrating a broad appeal.

Then the IOC and Tokyo Organizing Committee gave climbing the nod for 2020 but only offered two medals; one for men, and one for women. The IFSC had originally proposed three individual events in addition to a medal for combined rankings, but an IFSC representative wasn’t present for the actual deliberation.

“The Olympic games are already quite packed, and it was not a surprise that they came to us with one medal and 40 athletes,” said Meyer. That left the IFSC torn between their three disciplines.

“It’s true that the principles of speed performance are different from the other two disciplines,” Meyer admitted. “However, the logic of our decision was pretty simple: All our athletes [will be able to participate].” The IFSC’s primary motive, he emphasized, was to avoid leaving anyone out.

According to 2016 World Cup start lists, the average ratio of qualifying speed to lead climbers is about 1:3, so for every three lead climbers, there’s one speed climber. The ratio of speed climbers to boulderers is 1:5.

Despite its smaller athlete base, speed climbing’s inclusion might have been key to the IOC’s acceptance of the whole package. In fact, speed could actually be considered the most suitable for televised coverage for a non-climbing audience. To viewers, the goal—get up the wall as fast as possible—is obvious, and the score—fastest time—is objective.

“In speed climbing, competitors could actually set world records,” said Alex Puccio. Despite reservations about the event format (She’s primarily a boulderer and would prefer to be recognized for her specialty discipline), Puccio still dreams of competing for Olympic glory.

What’s more, the adrenaline and visual appeal of speed climbing align with the IOC’s professed rationale for selecting new sports like surfing, skateboarding, and climbing: drawing in the youth audience.

All About Reach

Besides, giving climbing a little more limelight couldn’t hurt. Even Puccio, arguably one of the strongest boulderers on the planet, coaches a youth team on the side, unable to support herself with sponsorship dollars alone.

“There isn’t a lot of money in our sport,” she said. “Climbing getting to the Olympics will drive more sponsorship, and sponsorship from bigger companies that haven’t historically been dedicated to climbing.”

Climber and Prana ambassador Olivia Hsu agrees, adding that more sponsorship dollars would allow more athletes to focus entirely on climbing, driving the bar of cutting-edge performance.

“I don’t think that climbing has touched on what it can be athletically,” she said.

The publicity would not only push the sport farther; it would open it up to those who could benefit from it most.

Though climbing participation has enjoyed steady growth for the past 20 years, and now features about a 50/50 gender split among participants according to USA Climbing President Kynan Waggoner, it’s not growing in all areas.

“In terms of ethnic diversity, that’s where we completely miss the mark,” said Waggoner. Putting climbing on a global platform could change that. Waggoner said that, unlike football or baseball, the relatively much younger sport of competition climbing hasn’t been broadcast on national television, and plenty of groups simply aren’t aware that it exists.

“Any amount of increased reach to the general public is going to be good for us,” he said.

Road to Tokyo

A climber’s road to the Olympics is still unpaved, but since pro/sponsored athletes are allowed to compete in the Games, the roster may already be determined. A number of professional climbers including Shauna Coxsey, Sean McColl, and Ashima Shiraishi have professed interest in competing at the Olympic level, and with 20 spots total available to each gender, regardless of nationality, only the elite will make the cut.

Other details of the selection process will be finalized at the IFSC Plenary Assembly in March 2017. The guest list will include the individual sport climbing federation of every IFSC member nation, which will gather to discuss the finer points of competition rules and event format as well as Olympic team selection.

Rumors are circulating that, since the number of athletes is independent of their respective countries, Olympic Trials will take place in the global arena, even suggesting that the World Cup and 2018 World Championship winners will be automatically qualified to compete in the 2020 Olympics and that those already-established competitions will take the place of traditional trials. According to Meyer, it’s a complex topic the IFSC and IOC have yet to discuss in full.

“We will probably use different ‘tools’ that the other Federations use to do the selection, such as using competition results, but it’s still a work in progress,” he said. “I cannot deny we won’t consider it.”

The Future of the Sport

Worries that the sport will venture too far from its roots are unfounded, said Meyer. “I don’t think this will marginalize rock climbing,” he said. Instead, the IFSC predicts general growth in all areas, especially since the athletes, federations, and brands that benefit from the Olympic inclusion all tend to be passionate about outdoor climbing as well.

The U.S. climbing boom has already raised some disgruntled heads; it’s hard to be pleased about the prospect of a local crag becoming overrun with gym-minted newbies. But the problem isn’t a new one, and any number of Olympic-inspired newcomers will be a drop in the bucket compared to the surge of interest that climbing clubs and environmental organizations are already managing.

Though many new climbers will venture outdoors, as Meyer predicts, many more will happily remain gym rats. Indoor and competition climbing have already arrived and made themselves quite at home. Regardless of the outcome of the 2020 Olympics, plastic-focused climbing disciplines are here to stay.

One Olympics at a time

Whether media attention and athletic focus will trend indoors in the future is yet to be determined. In the meantime, the IFSC couldn’t be happier to be included in the world of gold medals and multicolored rings—at least for now.

In 2024, the bid process will begin all over again to the new host country. That acceptance (and the number of medals allotted) will depend, in part, on how things go in 2020.

“Climbers and fans need to show how strong we are together as a community and show the strength of our sport,” said McColl.

We’ve got our foot in the Olympic door, but keeping it there is a function of having enough stoke and shoe rubber to make it stick.