Climbing is coming to the Olympics for the very first time in Tokyo. Rock climbing has been around since — well, since the first time someone tried to climb something rocky. But modern recreational climbing started in the 19th century, with sport climbing only emerging in the 1970s and ’80s.
In the Olympics, climbing will take place on engineered or indoor routes. They practice in pursuit of physical perfection and strategy as opposed to vertical height.
Rock climbing has evolved as a catch-all term for many different sports, including everything from free soloing to . With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know about sport climbing at the 2020 Olympics.
When to watch climbing at the Tokyo Olympics
The Olympic master schedule has already been released, with sport climbing qualifying events on Aug. 3 and 4.
Here’s the breakdown for the men…
- Qualifiers for men’s speed climbing take place August 3 at 4 a.m. EDT (1 a.m. PDT).
- Qualifiers for men’s bouldering takes place August 3 at 5 a.m. EDT (2 a.m. PDT).
- Qualifiers for men’s lead climbing takes place August 3 at 8 a.m. EDT (5 a.m. PDT).
And for the women…
- Qualifiers for women’s speed climbing take place August 4 at 4 a.m. EDT (1 a.m. PDT).
- Qualifiers for women’s bouldering takes place August 4 at 5 a.m. EDT (2 a.m. PDT).
- Qualifiers for women’s lead climbing takes place August 4 at 8 a.m. EDT (5 a.m. PDT).
The finals will be on Aug. 5 and 6. In the US, NBC will broadcast events, with the BBC securing rights in England and Channel Seven, 7Mate and 7Two in Australia. All events will take place at the Aomi Urban Sports Park in Tokyo.
How climbing works at the Olympics
Sport climbing will be broken up into three separate disciplines: speed climbing, lead climbing and bouldering. Not every country will be represented; only 20 athletes per gender (40 climbers total) will be allowed to compete at the Games, and only 2 athletes per gender per country will compete in any given event.
FYI, the International Olympic Committee currently recognizes only two genders — female and male. There are currently stipulations for athletes that identify as transgender, both female and male, to compete. But there aren’t any guidelines or rulings for athletes who don’t identify as female or male — including those who are nonbinary, agender and genderqueer.
The combined nature of climbing at the Olympics has been somewhat controversial. Speed climbing requires a completely different skillset compared to bouldering and lead climbing. In the next Olympics speed climbing is being broken out as a separate event, leaving bouldering and lead climbing as a combined event.
Speed climbing is relatively simple: there are two climbers with safety ropes and one 15-meter wall set at a 95-degree angle. The climbers race against each other to get to the top, with the fastest one winning. The speed route is the exact same at all times: the same holds in the same position at the exact same angle. The addition of speed climbing has been somewhat controversial in the climbing community, because it requires a completely different skillset compared to other climbing disciplines.
Bouldering takes place on an shorter wall, where climbers take turns attempting to scale as many routes on a four-meter-tall wall in 4 minutes. Each route (also called a bouldering problem) is laid out with hand and foot holds in a specific color, and they vary in difficulty based on the size of the holds and the way they are spaced out. A climber completes a problem by grabbing the top hold with both hands.
Bouldering has traditionally been about power and finger strength, but recently competition route setters have been creating problems that require delicate co-ordination and explosive gymnastic movements. This one will be fun to watch.
Lead climbing is arguably the most recognizable of the three events. The climber has six minutes to climb as high on a wall that is taller than 15 meters. They use safety ropes that attach to quickdraws on their way up, allowing the rope to run freely while they stay anchored to the wall. If two athletes reach the same point on the wall, the person who got there first is the winner.
In both bouldering and lead climbing, climbers are not allowed to practice climbing on the routes before they compete or watch each other scale the wall, and they only have a couple of minutes to study the routes and decide their strategy before the timer begins.
If you thought the qualifying system was a bit complicated, take a deep breath. There’s only one set of medals awarded per gender, so all three events will go into determining which country gets the gold, silver and bronze.
The speed climbing discipline will be done in a bracket format, with athletes competing head to head, while bouldering is in a leaderboard format. Lead climbing will have a point system in which each hold on the wall counts as one point and the athlete who climbs the highest will obtain the highest score.
Once all the athletes are ordered by placement per event, their placement numbers will be multiplied, and the climbers with the lowest scores will win medals. Because of the scoring format, each climber will compete in each event. For example, if an athlete gets second place in speed climbing, third in bouldering and first in lead climbing their overall score would be six (2 times 3 times 1 equals 6).