Five Ring Circus: What Climbing in the Olympics Will Look Like - Rock and Ice

The lights are dim in Cafe Bar Mustache and it’s loud. I’m half-yelling to talk.

Intimate, with eclectic sets of wooden tables and chairs, psychedelic stencils on the ceiling and faux portraits of Tom Selleck with his fantabulous mustache, the bar could be mistaken for a Brooklyn hipster joint—Bed-Stuy, not Williamsburg. But I’m in Innsbruck, Austria, and the World Championships have just ended.

In the corner behind me is the Korean national climbing team. They are sitting in a circle, their Team Climbing Korea jackets on but unzipped, about 10 of them, the coaches too, singing songs and clapping and having a riot and there’s maybe a lone drink or two on the table.

The rest of the athletes—names and faces you will see on your television set when climbing goes Olympic in Tokyo in 2020—are busy tossing as many shots as possible down their throats, the Americans especially, but the Koreans pay zero attention to everyone else.

Jakob Schubert, the Austrian powerhouse and winner of the Combined gold medal this very night—not to mention snagging gold in the individual lead comp a few days earlier—comes over and slaps his arm around me.

“You want to arm wrestle,” he says in a friendly, confident, drunk manner. His English is good. He is all smiles.

Schubert is small, about 139 pounds. I can take him, I think. This is my chance! His biceps gotta be destroyed from 10 days of brutal competition. I’m 175 pounds and can use my weight to my advantage.

I eye Schubert up. I considered it, really, I did.

“No, no,” I say, grinning and pointing to Brandon. “This guy wants to arm wrestle!!” Brandon Pullan, of Gripped magazine, said he wanted an arm-wrestling photo op with Schubert, a potential future Olympic gold medalist.

I forget what happens next.

“Adam Ondra isn’t here,” Kevin Corrigan, of Climbing magazine, observes.

“He’s probably training,” I reply, half-serious. Were you, Adam? Were you training the night after the comp?

Schubert is in full frat-boy drinking mode, organizing a massive round of shots, positioning himself at the bar’s end, putting his arm around the bartender, smiling widely, hollering across the bar … and, for good reason—this is his night.

Behind me, the Korean team orbiting the lonely drinks is joined by some Japanese competitors. They all laugh uncontrollably. It’s a cultural thing and we Yankees have no idea what’s so funny. No one else at the bar is wearing their team jackets, only they, but they have, like the other Asian teams, worn the jackets all week, a reflection of how “Olympic” other nations already are.

American music, interspersed with global house and funk-jazz, plays loudly, and I’m on my fourth, or is it fifth?, cocktail. I know I need to slow down, I think, but I ignore that. Everyone is here, all the climbers and winners and runner-ups. It’s the last night.

The next morning I fly home, conflicted, hesitant and tired, but above all wondering what is to become of climbing when it funnels into every phone, TV and screen to nearly four billion sets of eyes. The Olympics are coming.

***

Adam Ondra (CZE) on the first move of an insane triple dyno in the Bouldering qualifier. Photo: Björn Pohl.

It’s early September in Innsbruck, an alpine town of 100,000, elevation 1,800 feet. A few hours’ drive south of Munich— though it took us five—and abutting the Alps on their northern edge, Innsbruck is a major competition climbing hub for Europe, if not the hub. Home of the Kletterzentrum Innsbruck, a climbing gym so massive it employs three full-time hold washers, and with numerous colleges to boot, it’s a town that seemingly does everything better than America. My salami sub for lunch each day could have been from Tuscany, and each evening the Old World vibe of its historic downtown led to one result—sipping ale in quaint beer gardens framed by narrow alleyways and medieval grottoes.

I’m here for the 2018 World Championships, the dry run for the 2020 Olympics. I’m here with fellow media gents Brandon and Kevin—both fine drinkers with a writing problem—and John DiCuollo, the Philly-born Black Diamond maestro who is our generous host and ensures we never make it anywhere without getting lost.


SIDE BY SIDE

Side by side they stand, the six athletes for the men’s combined finals. It’s Sunday, the last day of competition, and this is what we are here for—to witness the new combined format, the type of format proposed, and accepted, for rock climbing’s Olympic debut in Tokyo.

I’m sitting front stage with the best view in the house. I’m wearing a black “Press” vest but I don’t have one of those $100K cameras the networks have—the ones right and left of me—and if there’s any litmus test or indicator of “climbing going global,” it is in the cost of these cameras and the professionals behind them. So much for dirtbags with camcorders, I think. Stateside, ESPN 2 will be airing the 2019 Sport & Speed Open National Championships, 2019 Combined Invitational, and the Bouldering Open National Championships.

In front of me, one by one, the men’s combined finalists step onto the mat. Techno thunders in the stadium, and the polyglot announcer seems to be a mix between a South American soccer emcee and Adam Levine.

Bookending the right side of the athlete lineup is Jan Hojer, the German V16 bouldering legend who, with disheveled hair and a five-o’clock shadow, looks like he had a hard night of drinking. With a long, muscular frame, he’s the tallest and stockiest of the bunch. To his right is Adam Ondra, a bit gangly, wearing leather sandals and a tight red-and-black tank top. Aside from his momentary lapses of concentration, which is when he inspects his skin—Ondra takes his skin very, very seriously—he seems focused, per the usual Ondra. Most everyone is talking about the Czech phenom.

Bookending the right side of the athlete lineup is Jan Hojer, the German V16 bouldering legend who, with disheveled hair and a five-o’clock shadow, looks like he had a hard night of drinking.

Ondra made the combined finals, a surprise since he’s kept himself busy outside rather than seeking World Cup podiums, establishing the first 5.15c and 5.15d, repeating Yosemite’s Dawn Wall. Ondra is the world’s best rock climber, hands down.

On a recent visit to the United States, he onsighted Just Do It, America’s first 5.14c, and then moseyed down to Indian Creek, where he onsighted Dean Potter’s crack testpiece Concepcion (hard 5.13) and sent Belly Full of Bad Berries, Brad Jackson’s 5.13b wide-crack horror fest, whose chains are typically reserved only for lifelong devotees of the wide.

Laura Rogora (ITA) on the final route of the Women’s Lead. Rogora, who climbed 5.14d at age 14, would place 10th in Lead. Photo: Eddie Fowke.

Ondra represents one of two things. He is either the last of the great rock climbers to be competitive in indoor competitions, or he is the first of a breed of modern athletes able to slide into the upper echelons of Spanish limestone as easily as the World Cup circuit. My hunch is that he is the former, since to be competitive in the future world of indoor comp climbing will require full commitment. You wouldn’t expect Usain Bolt to trail run most of the year and still win the 100 meters, would you?

And yet, despite being an early critic of the Olympic format, Ondra is here, on plastic, when he could be outside projecting.

“Yes, I will definitely sacrifice my outdoor climbing a lot for the Olympics,” Ondra told me. “Not because I like the format, more kind of despite that. But it is the Olympics.”

Next in the men’s combined final lineup is Kokoro Fujii, with those nervous eyes, who climbs as if an internal spring wants to exit his limbs. Jakob Schubert, the hometown hero who won the lead-climbing final a week prior, is next; he wears a smile that is uncomfortable at times, except when he tops out, then it turns to the grin of a thief. “You see that? … cuz I did,” says his face when he knows he just stole the podium. Fifth in line is Tomoa Narasaki, the Bruce Lee incarnate, lean, nimble, with a studied smirk, the most agile and athletic of the bunch, who moves as if he was shot out of a cannon. He climbs with such bravado and swagger that you’re stunned when he falls.

Last is Kai Harada, who just last night won the men’s bouldering comp
in a dominating performance. Harada is small, about 5-foot-6 and 128 pounds. His lips seem forever pursed and he appears to absorb all of the tension in the stadium, a dew drop reflecting the world type of thing. His eyes are watery and either he was just cutting onions or thinks he is about to meet his maker … and doesn’t trust the latter.

That Japan has three athletes in the top six men’s combined positions isn’t lost on anybody. Climbing is all the rage in Japan, and, from a country the size of California with roughly the same number of gyms as the entirety of the United States, they are killing it. As I look at the line-up, a dominating thought comes to mind. No American made the combined finals, in men’s or women’s. When the combined competition would end, the best placing female competitor would be Margo Hayes, at eleventh, and Drew Ruana at seventeenth for the men … which is excellent by the way. To get a sense of the stiffness of the competition, consider for a moment that Hayes was the first woman to climb a confirmed 5.15a, and that Ashima Shiraishi was the first woman to boulder V15.

***

Ondra represents one of two things. He is either the last of the great rock climbers to be competitive in indoor competitions, or he is the first of a breed of modern athletes able to slide into the upper echelons of Spanish limestone as easily as the World Cup circuit.

That Japan has three athletes in the top six men’s combined positions isn’t lost on anybody. Climbing is all the rage in Japan, and, from a country the size of California with roughly the same number of gyms as the entirety of the United States, they are killing it. As I look at the line-up, a dominating thought comes to mind. No American made the combined finals, in men’s or women’s. When the combined competition would end, the best placing female competitor would be Margo Hayes, at eleventh, and Drew Ruana at seventeenth for the men … which is excellent by the way. To get a sense of the stiffness of the competition, consider for a moment that Hayes was the first woman to climb a confirmed 5.15a, and that Ashima Shiraishi was the first woman to boulder V15.

***

Ekaterina Kipriianova (RUS) , 22nd in Combined, displays her road rash, the result of sliding down a volume during qualifications. Photo: Eddie Fowke.


It’s time to begin the men’s combined finals.
First up is speed, followed by bouldering, then lead. This trifecta is what the world will witness in Tokyo, and it has been the most controversial part of climbing becoming Olympic.

The gist of the disgruntlement is that the “Olympic” format requires the world’s best indoor lead climbers and boulderers to compete in speed—their scores for all three disciplines will be combined for the only medals awarded. No individual medals for bouldering, for instance.

Feedback has been colorful. Hayes, an American hopeful, has called the format an “extra challenge,” while Lynn Hill, who dominated World Cup climbing in the 1990s, has stated “I am not in support of the format that imposes that all climbers must compete in speed climbing.” Ashima Shiraishi said she was “skeptical” but that the format “makes sense.” Alex Honnold called the inclusion of speed climbing a “bummer.” Ondra has been vocally critical of the format, citing the obvious, that competition boulderers and lead climbers don’t speed climb, while American bouldering legend Alex Puccio decided against going for an Olympic berth due to the amount of time it would require to master speed.

Hannah Schubert and Jessica Pilz working through beta at the Women’s Lead finals. Photo: Alexander Pauli / KVOE


What’s the problem? Most comp climbers don’t train for speed, and few American gyms have a speed wall. It’s just not a thing in the States, or Western Europe in general.

Where speed is a thing is in Russia, Poland, Ukraine, China and a smattering of countries many Americans have trouble locating on a map. The current speed world-record holder, the self-coached Reza Alipour, is from Iran. For the women speedsters, of the top five Innsbruck speed finalists, four were from Poland and one from Russia. The nearest American, Kelly Piper, placed 23rd, 1.3 seconds slower than Aleksandra Rudzinska of Poland, who won. For the men, Russia had six athletes in the top 20. Team USA had five in the top 100. For 2018, the National Team Ranking for speed was, starting with first: Russia, Indonesia, France, China and Poland in fifth. We have some catching up to do.

Of course, most commentators have failed to mention that speed climbers are just as miffed about not having a medal of their own, and most speed specialists—the Mawem brothers (Mickael and Bassa, from France) an exception—feel they have been effectively shut out of Olympic medal contention, whereas lead and boulderers are basically having to add a few more speed workouts to their routines and risk getting alpine legs or a losing few hours when they could be doing something else. And, yet, according to Shiraishi, “I don’t dislike speed climbing as much as I thought I would.” Adaptation, she says, is the name of the game. That’s right.

Lest it be forgotten, the same outdoor climbing community shunning speed climbing, which is Olympic in its athleticism, is also the same community captivated with El Cap speed records, where climbers pull on as much gear as they can—slings, fixed pro, biners, chains—to dash to the top of a classic El Cap route.

Andrea Rojas (ECU) psyches up for her attempt at the Speed qualifications. She finished 28th. Photo: Björn Pohl.

“OUTSIDE INTRUDERS”

Implicitly or explicitly lodged within the “speed is artificial” criticism is the concern that “outsiders” are intruding into our sport—Olympic committees, international federations and “suits”—and deciding the way our athletes train, what they train for, who will be cast as “the best climber in the world,” and so on. The concern is about power. Imposition. A once-outsider band of roustabouts, or at least the perception of such, worried that the thing they love is slipping out of their hands.

***

On Friday morning, two days before the combined finals, Black Diamond organized a panel discussion between stakeholders. Ondra, Jerome Meyer (IFSC), myself, Kolin Powick (Black Diamond), Heiko Wilhelm (Austria Climbing), and Silvia Verdolini (IFSC) took part. Dicuollo was our moderator. The panel provided insight into the logic behind the International Olympic Committee’s decision making, and most specifically, at least for me, the why of the format.

Meyer, a former bouldering World Cup winner, pulled no punches. “Basically, the Games are quite packed,” he said. “And simply since there is some limit at some point, things are super huge. At some point, there’s a crack in terms of number of athletes, number of events. The number of events is basically the number of medals. And they wanted to fit it into the existing program.”

So, that answers it. Not a conspiracy by global sporting elites, nothing sinister, but a matter of programming and television allotments per sport. Individual climbing events and medal ceremonies would have added too much broadcast time—the combined format, with only one medal, is a marriage of practicality and efficiency. As a side note, it should not be forgotten that Olympic medals were awarded in Alpinism in the 1924, 1932 and 1936 Olympic games, but was dropped in 1946, after the war. A later attempt was made to award Reinhold Messner and Jerzy Kukuczka a medal for summitting the 8,000 meter peaks, all 14 of them, but Messner rejected the medal on the ground that he didn’t consider mountaineering a competitive sport.

***

During the World Championships, Black Diamond organized a panel discussion to allow everyone discuss the finer points of climbing's entrance into the Olympics.
Akiyo Noguchi (JPN) gets an interesting view of the final problem in the Women’s Bouldering finals, where she claimed the silver. She was 49th in Speed, 8th in Lead and placed 4th in Combined. Photo: Ani Manova/walltopia

Likely, you know nothing about speed, so here’s the gist—climbers clip into an auto belay below a slightly overhanging 15-meter route (around 5.10d), step onto a sensor and then wait for the buzzer. Don’t make a false start, because one and you’re done.

When the buzzer goes, the top male speed specialists can slap the top button in under six seconds. Record holder Reza Alipour can clock a blistering 5.48. Iuliia Kaplina, of Russia, and Anouck Jaubert, of France, have raced (yes, I mean raced) to the top in 7.32 seconds.

As I watched the first event in the combined finals, the brutality of the false start reared its head.

“The fastest man from the qualifiers, Tomoa Narasaki, has false started.”

Narasaki, 22, the Japanese favorite, is out. This disqualification would, hours later, cost him. He appeared bewildered as the auto belay lowered him.

Now the combined format is showing itself, I think. Drama is unfolding across events and within an event, as in a decathlon. In this sense, the combined format is a good show. Strategy, dealing with exhaustion, pacing, general fitness—all rise to the surface with greater exigency in the combined format.

At Innsbruck, as in Tokyo, the podium spots will be determined by how you place in each discipline via simple multiplication. For instance, first in speed, fourth in bouldering and sixth in lead is tabulated as 1 x 4 x 6 = 24 points. The person with the lowest points wears the crown. Hypothetically speaking, replace that sixth in lead with a first, giving you 1 x 4 x 1, then you’ve got 4 points. Narasaki is disappointed: though he couldn’t know it yet, he already has more combined points than the climber who will stand atop the podium in a few hours.

Akin to the rules in Track and Field, the one-and-done false start is tough love. In a millisecond an athlete can be virtually tossed out of Olympic contention after four years of sweat-and-blood training. I felt Narasaki’s disappointment.

Next up is Hojer versus Ondra. They’re off. Hojer takes Ondra by 1.3 seconds, and it’s clear Ondra has some work to do on speed. He looks heavy compared to the others, without the pop in his legs and arms, and he knows it and doesn’t show the let down. As the races continue, Hojer puts in consistent runs without mistakes and advances to the speed finals.

Hojer vs. Schubert for the combined speed final—the latter looks flushed, his cheeks rosy and sweaty, and his darting eyes reveal a bit of worry. Their backs to the wall, they await the starting buzzer, staring out into a crowd of 5,000. Jan looks steely.

In the end, clean runs, consistency and execution win the speed comp. Hojer didn’t make a mistake, didn’t rush, and though impressive, his victory, like everyone’s defeat, feels provisional, not quite real, speed being so new to these competitors—not a single, dedicated speed climber advanced from the combined qualifiers—that their smiling and laughing faces, even while lowering in defeat, underscore the fact that they are having fun with this “speed thing.”

Hojer 1 point. Schubert 2 points.

***

Francis Sanzaro and Brandon Pullan slaking thirsts after a hard day’s work. Photo: John Dicuollo.

PURE FIGHT


I grew up with an amputee climber, and he has my respect. On Wednesday, when I first entered the Olympiaworld Innsbruck, the venue for three prior Olympic games, there was yelling, lots of it. I had no idea what was going on. It was loud, except the audience was silent. Then I saw climbers tied into two ropes—one above and one below—and as I was walking toward the lead wall it seemed as if the climbers were scratching around looking for holds, as if they couldn’t see. I had stumbled into the visually impaired final, and they actually couldn’t see!

For the next hour, I was glued to my seat. It was the poetry of movement … chaotic, orderly, honest. One by one, the impaired climbers were brought out, arm in arm, with their partner. When they launched off, onto steep 5.12 climbing, their “caller” would yell beta—right crimp high, left foot low—and the climber, because they couldn’t see the next hold, would need to stabilize for each move, but that wasn’t always possible. Each move had a bit of panic as they pawed the entirety of the hold, feeling for the best part … they reach too high … too low … drop back down … where was that foot? … they go rogue, flustered in the melee until they settle, then the beta comes again.

Their caller knows when to quiet, then yells, either through a bullhorn or via wireless earbuds. I liked the bullhorn. You could feel the cadence and intensity. Blind climbing is full trust by the climber. It is the real deal—climbing’s dance: requiring full confidence, but needing to rethink, recalibrate, adapt. Hesitation mixed with gotta go and pure team work. Dicuollo and Pullan agreed, the latter noting that it was “the most emotional climbing event I can imagine.” Yep.

***

Gold medalist Hannah Baldwin (UK) gets set for the Women’s RP2 Paraclimbing Competition. Photo: Johann Groder/ EXPA/ Austria Climbing Presse.


Minutes after the men’s combined speed final, the camera panned to the bouldering wall for the second event of the night.

For the bouldering portion, Ondra redeems himself after a non-Ondra’esque performance in speed, and is ecstatic with each boulder top. He pumps his fist in the air.

Ondra has an excellent memory.

Before getting on a boulder problem, each competitor gets to visually inspect it. When it’s game time, Ondra frequently comes out (as he does with outdoor climbing) wearing two different shoes for every problem—one better for edging, another for smearing, etc. Not all of the other competitors do this.

In a fine morsel of drama, Narasaki, one of the competitors in last place because of his false start in speed, unlocks key beta to boulder #3, skipping three moves by lunging sideways off slopey feet and a right above-head thumb gaston to a small edge on the left side of a volume. It’s the most inspired bit of climbing of the competition thus far, and the fact that the subsequent competitors do not try his beta answers one question I have—is beta being shared backstage? Nope.

Combined bouldering is done—Schubert takes first, topping all the boulders, same with Ondra, but it took Ondra more tries. Hojer gets a disappointing fourth.

I am disappointed that the South Korean climber Jongwon Chon, a multiple Boulder World Cup winner, is not in the combined finals. The finals would have been an additional chance for him to practice his “dad moves,” i.e., his shit-eating-grin-while-hip-shaking-and-finger-pointing to his 5,000 admirers. Chon, who got second in the individual bouldering event last night, stole the stage. He loves the crowd and feeds off the noise and energy. He’s got an Olympic personality, the smirk, the showmanship, and he works it. The more Chon the better.

But now, the lead final is next, and it’s down to 44 moves. It feels like a horse race between Ondra and Schubert.


Francis Sanzaro (author) sampling some of the local granite in the Zillertal.

THE SLOVENIAN VIRTUOSO

Gorazd Hren, the Slovenian Youth Climbing Team coach, has been working with Janja Garnbret since 2008, when she was about 9 years old. Garnbret has been climbing since the age of 6. Films and online pics do little justice to the 5’5”, 104-pound candidate for the 2018 World Games Athlete of the Year.

Garnbret has dirty blond hair, quiet energy, like a ballerina, and an unrivaled economy of movement. She climbs with more confidence than I’ve seen from anyone, as if she is ordained for the top. Even in those rare photos of her falling, her face seems to be one of indifference, prayer even.

Hours before Narasaki false started at the beginning of the men’s combined final, the female competitors duked it out. The ever-graceful and legend in her own right, Sol Sa, 26, of Korea, won speed, followed by Jessica Pilz, 22, of Austria. Sa made her way through the speed field with ease. Garnbret got a disappointing fifth in speed, which meant she needed to win in lead and bouldering to have a shot at gold.

Gold medalist and World Champion Janja Garnbret (SLO) during the finals of Women’s Combined. Garnbret, only 19, seemed unbeatable. Photo: Johann Groder/ EXPA/ Austria Climbing Presse.

Onto the mat steps Garnbret, age 19, for the second women’s combined event: bouldering. She waves politely, mechanical, without emotion and with a forced smile that gets the job done. Nerves, those things that cause most of us to sweat and underperform … well, she appears to have given them to someone else. And, lucky them, the two female Japanese competitors who made the finals didn’t get them either. Meanwhile, as they climb, I’m nervous and shaking out in between taking notes.

When did climbers become so professional?

If they want to become Olympic athletes, they need to look more worried, I think half-serious. Horrified, in fact, yes, they need to look horrified like gymnasts do … stone faced, as if your life depended on the next 20 seconds. Like American gymnast Paul Hamm in 2004.

But then, these are climbers and the seriousness of it all, the global stage, the money that’s about to be unleashed into our sport, hasn’t sunk in yet and the corporate sponsors that will come knocking will likely change their faces, but for now, to me, the fun try-hard thing core to climbing is there. Intact.


THINK THREE TIMES, MOVE ONCE

Garnbret is unassuming and lean with a boulderer’s build, muscled but not sinewy. If God were to construct an ideal climbing body, Garnbret would be Eve.

When she smiles she hides her teeth, and that I noticed this seems to be explained by the fact that, according to her Instagram account—nearly all photos of plastic, with a few outdoors—she had braces as of July of 2018, and, so I reason, she, a teenager, is still self-conscious about her teeth.

Garnbret is a cerebral climber, not one to rush. As sculptors say, think three times, strike once. Garnbret thinks for a while, and doesn’t waste her time with pointless attempts. Think. Figure. Visualize. Try. Send. Wave to crowd. Repeat. She’s not the charismatic one … she’s the quiet professional.

Hailing from Northern Slovenia, a town called Slovenj Gradec with only a few nearby crags, Garnbret has admitted that she doesn’t get outside much, sending 9a, as the comps keep her busy, but she has eyes on Biographie (9a+). I don’t doubt she could send it rather easily. Over the 2017 World Cup season, Garnbret registered a record nine wins, and she’s just warming up. The stage, the pressure, it all seems familiar to her.

***

It’s Sunday, and Garnbret has placed first in bouldering’s individual event, on Friday two days ago, and got second in the individual lead final, the previous Saturday. For context, I’m still pumped from a session two days ago, when we roped up at a postcard granite crag in the Zillertal, a cows-with-bell-collars type of place, lush grasses, bomber rock, a nearby stream, the kind of place that makes you want to be an ex-pat, except for when you order the local dish—what seems to be sausage and potatoes—and you get a skinny hot dog and fries, as Pullan and Powick cheerfully discovered. Garnbret, meanwhile, has been climbing hard for roughly 10 days straight, including a speed comp on Thursday, when she qualified 47th with a time of 10.6, which is quite good.

For those competing in the combined, the regimen is savage. Miho Nonaka, of Japan, had four bloody tips on the last day from thin pads.

Boulder #4 of the women’s combined finals was a masterpiece. With two large volumes for feet, the women had to launch to a sloping hueco, then semi-campus down to another dual-tex hueco, the lack of texture for the thumb making it hard to hold the swing. Garnbret unlocked the sequence with a brilliant toe hook high and left, unused by all others, and it got her to the top.

In combined bouldering, Garnbret handily secured first, Sa second and Pilz sixth. To recap, in speed, Sa took first, Pilz second and Garnbret fifth. Thus tallied after two events: Sa with 2 points, Garnbret with 5, Pilz with 12. With lead next, a few outcomes present themselves. The points are multiplied and the lowest score wins. If Sa gets second in lead, she gets gold, because Garnbret already has five. If Pilz gets first, then she remains at 12, but she needs Garnbret to place third (15 points) and Sa to get sixth (12 points), which would tie Pilz with Sa. It’s all confusing, and not.


SPEED CLIMBING IS HARD


Speed climbing is hard. It’s not about technique, but execution. Of course, how you do it involves technique, but as soon as you start, you have to be on autopilot. You have to toss the holds to your feet with a primitive ferocity while trying to kick the footholds to the floor and propel yourself upward without botching your footwork. Imagine running as fast as you can with a glass of wine in your hand.

For my first attempt on the speed wall, I was fortunate to have the American team present and training on the wall. Great—time to show them a thing or two! I stood beneath the route and made an adult decision. I chickened out and opted not for the actual route, but an adjacent ladder of jugs, the speed warm up. I tried to climb fast, not looking down, and got a decent rhythm. I liked it.

Kolin Powick, the top BD engineer who designs all their fancy climber gear, said my inaugural run wasn’t bad. I’ll agree with him … but, of course, he was lying.

Sol Sa (KOR) and Alexandra Elmer (AUT) during the women’s Speed qualification. Sa finished 2nd in the Combined final, with an impressive 1st in Speed and 2nd in Bouldering. Photo: Johann Groder/ EXPA/ Austria Climbing Presse.


I decided to up the ante. For my second go, I figured I would look at my feet, since they slipped a few times the first time around. Off I went. Look down at feet. Within seconds I fell. I fell again. Then again. Damn!

I learned two things—looking at your feet takes time. Not looking down and simply remembering where your feet go is easier than looking down and remembering where your hands go.

I also realized that speed climbing is about rhythm. Once you fall, it’s incredibly hard to get back “into it,” which is why when you see someone fall on a speed run, they typically fall again and again as they try to regain momentum. That happened with Schubert on the finals’ run against Hojer, and many others. During all of the qualifiers and final runs, I didn’t see anyone recover from a foot slip. Third, I learned that speed shares more with modern, parkour-style climbing than anyone lets on, at least in a few ways—maintaining momentum across moves, explosive power, dynamism, precision, tenacity, coordination.


FACE OF A NATURAL

Let’s move now to the lead wall. If you’re a competitor, you have six minutes to send.

For the women, Pilz tops the route, but Sa feels like the one to beat. Garnbret needs to top, which she does commandingly. It’s not flashy, but composed, pro rock climbing. Without mistakes, she gets the job done. Gold is for Garnbret. After lowering, she sports a proud, satisfied smile. Chris Sharma used to have that face. Ondra too. It’s the face of a natural.

***

Now for the gents. After the first two events, it feels like a three-way race. Ondra has 10 points, Schubert 2 and Hojer 4. In my mind, Schubert has it. In order for him not to secure gold, he would have to get fifth and Ondra not win. Both are unlikely, especially for the Austrian—Schubert is no stranger to the top podium in lead comps.

Ondra ties in and nearly tops the route, two moves shy of the anchors. It will be the high point. Hojer falls early, all but knocking him out of second. Schubert is up last. He has everything to lose. About 15 feet up the route, Schubert reaches a good rest. Except the next move is an all-points-off dyno that looks to be about V5. Should be easy for him … but it’s a hueco, and if he misses, Schubert doesn’t wear the crown. Looking nervous, he paces around the jug. Bounces his feet. He coils up … and latches the dyno. It’s a wrap. Schubert for gold.

***

In the ensuing hype that will be Olympic climbing, in Tokyo in 2020, it’s about one thing: the athletes. It’s not about the growth of the sport, which doesn’t make sense anyway—sports are not corporations that need to grow. The Olympic dream is basic. It’s about inspired and dedicated athletes, training hard and fighting through the ups and downs. It’s about those who want to be the best and how they inspire the rest of us. Forget everything else.

To answer the question that was nagging me—will climbing be “Olympic” in 2020? Turns out it already is.



Francis Sanzarois the Editor of Gym Climber, Ascent and Rock and Ice magazines.



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