Published on: 05/25/2023
Despite climbing’s origins as a counterculture adventure sport, today it’s becoming one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities. In 2020, over 10.5 million people (1) participated in climbing’s various disciplines (sport, indoor, boulder, traditional, ice, and mountaineering), and the number has only grown since then! Critically-acclaimed and commercially successful films like Free Solo, The Alpinist, and 14 Peaks have further cast a spotlight on the sport of climbing.
Along with that burgeoning popularity has come an increased interest in climbing as a competitive sport, and with that, sport climbing’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games!
Is Rock Climbing an Olympic Sport?
Yes, climbing is an Olympic sport. However, the climbing practiced at the Olympics is not rock climbing (on natural rock formations) but sport climbing on artificial climbing walls similar to those found in indoor climbing gyms.
2020 Tokyo Premiere
Climbing premiered at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games (which were actually held in 2021 due to coronavirus concerns), along with karate, sport climbing, surfing, and skateboarding.
Normally the term “sport climbing” refers to leading bolted climbs either outdoors or indoors (on an artificial climbing wall). But in the 2020 Olympics, sport climbing referred to a hybrid of three disciplines: Bouldering, Lead, and Speed. Sport climbing athletes received an aggregate score based on their performance in all three disciplines, and gold, silver, and bronze medals were awarded for each gender (male and female).
NOTE: This format has changed slightly for Paris 2024. See the section titled “What to Expect for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games?” below.
What Do Climbers Think of Olympic Sport Climbing?
The vast majority of professional climbers were initially opposed to the hybrid sport climbing format, combining three disciplines into one event. This is because, particularly in the case of speed climbing, the technique, fitness, and training required are vastly different than that used for climbing hard boulders or lead routes.
An “Artificial Discipline”?
American free climbing pioneer Lynn Hill famously said the inclusion of Speed was like “asking a middle-distance runner to compete in the sprint.”
This is illustrated very clearly in the IFSC World Cup. Many strong competitive boulderers are also strong lead climbers and vice versa, but there is almost no overlap between the best speed climbers and the other two disciplines.
Czech climber Adam Ondra, widely considered the strongest climber in the world, famously derided Speed as an “artificial discipline.” When I interviewed Adam Ondra in quarantine (2) in early 2021 for my Rock and Ice column, “Away from the Wall,” he told me that he was struggling to implement Speed into his repertoire. “If I could turn back the clock I would have started training Speed much earlier,” he said. He had started training in the spring of 2020, but “should’ve started a year earlier.”
He added that had also plateaued when training Speed, “because unless I learn how to be explosive with my feet and start running the route, not just climbing it fast, I will not improve. This winter I started training Speed over again, from the very beginning, and I found it’s much more complicated than I thought. I thought I had the route dialed, but I had it dialed for climbing it fast… not running it. That’s a big difference.”
…Or Stroke of Genius?
Other Olympic climbers, like Australian Tom O’Halloran, who I interviewed for a Gym Climber feature the same year, were pleased with sport climbing’s combined competition event because it leveled the playing field. “I think it’s a stroke of genius,” O’Halloran told me. “I didn’t want to do speed climbing initially. I thought, ‘Speed climbing doesn’t count.’ But I’ve come around. I’m in favor of it.”
O’Halloran clarified that this is because “the answer to the question, ‘Who is the best rock climber in the world?’ is the climber who can do the best across the most disciplines, not the one who is the most niche. This [combined] format gives you the ability to answer that question. It brings more people back into the mix.”
The format has changed for Paris 2024, however, and Speed will now be a separate event from Bouldering and Lead. More on this below.
What Are the Olympic Climbing Disciplines?
Speed climbing involves two competitors racing up identical neighboring 15-meter (49-foot) walls, vying for the fastest time. The walls have an estimated difficulty of 5.10c. Current speed climbing records sit at 4.90 seconds for men (Veddriq Leonardo of Indonesia), and 6.25 seconds for women (Aleksandra Mirosław of Poland).
Bouldering involves attempting to climb a series of boulder problems within a given time limit (five minutes for qualifiers, four minutes for finals). The bouldering wall was 4.5 meters (14 feet) tall. Competitors receive points for topping out a problem, and failing that, reaching various “zone” holds part of the way up. The Olympic qualification event consisted of four problems. Finals consisted of three.
In lead climbing the athletes climb a 15-meter (49-foot) lead wall under a six-minute clock. Each climber received points based on how high they made it up the wall, with ties broken by the fastest time.
How Do Climbers Qualify for the Olympics?
Per the Olympic Committee, “Apart from the quotas secured for the host [nation, France] (one for men and one for women) and the Universality places (one for men and one for women), there are three ways to qualify in the combined boulder and lead discipline: the World Championships in 2023, the Continental Qualifiers in 2023 and the Olympic Qualifier Series in 2024.”
What Are the Safety Measures at the Sport Climbing Olympics?
Sport climbing safety measures at the Olympics are identical to those found in most indoor climbing gyms. Lead climbers are roped up and belayed, and clipped into quickdraws for protection as they ascend the wall. Boulderers are protected by pads placed below the wall. Speed climbers are attached to an auto belay system which automatically takes slack and catches them in the case of a fall (or at the top of the Speed route).
Who Won Climbing Medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games?
Alberto Ginés López, of Spain, won the men’s combined sport climbing gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Ginés López came out of the Speed finals ranked first as the only climber without a loss or fall.
However, Ginés López performed rather poorly in the Lead and Bouldering finals, coming in fourth place in the former and seventh in the latter, as the only climber who failed to top a single problem. The aggregate scoring system, however, saw him come out on top as the men’s Olympic champion.
Silver and bronze medals for men’s combined event were grabbed by Nathaniel Coleman (USA) and Jakob Schubert (AUS), respectively.
Janja Garnbret, of Slovenia, won the women’s sport climbing gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Garnbret’s Speed performance was middling, ranking fifth, but she smashed the competition in the Bouldering and Lead events. Garnbret was the only climber to top a single problem in Bouldering (finishing not one, but two) and also achieved the high point on the lead climbing wall.
Silver and bronze sport climbing medals were earned by Miho Nonaka (JPN) and Akiyo Noguchi (JPN).
How Did Famous Climbers Do at the Tokyo Olympics?
Adam Ondra went into men’s combined finals ranked 5th, with a strong performance in both Bouldering and Lead that was enough to keep his poor Speed rank (18th) from holding him back.
However, he lost two out of his three Speed races in finals, and although he finished just behind first-place Jakob Schubert on the lead route, he performed rather poorly in Bouldering, with just a single top. He was also the only finalist to not secure any points on Problem #2. Ondra finished the combined final in sixth place.
Alex Megos finished the Olympic sport climbing qualifiers in ninth, so he was knocked out of the combined final by a single slot. This was largely due to his poor speed climbing score, which was 19th, putting him in second to last place. His Lead and Bouldering ranks (both 6th) were decent, but not as high as expected. Megos only secured one top out of the four boulder problems, and half of the finalists managed two.
Slovenia competitive superstar Janja Garnbret performed extremely well in the Olympics sport climbing, smashing the competition in both Lead and Bouldering. She netted the high point of 37+ on the Lead wall and topped two out of three problems on the Bouldering wall, while none of the other female climbers managed to top any.
Her middling Speed event ranking was not enough to push her off the top seat, and she secured the first Olympic gold medal for a woman climber.
British boulderer Shauna Coxsey was a strong contender for the finals but missed the cut with a tenth-place finish after qualifiers. Her bouldering rank was strong (4th), but her Speed (16th) and Lead (13th) scores held her down.
What to Expect for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games?
How Many Medals Will There Be?
As noted above, the format for Paris 2024 Olympic Sport Climbing is different. There will be four medals, two each for male and female categories. One medal will be awarded for a combined discipline of Bouldering and Lead, and the second medal will be awarded for Speed. The number of qualified Olympic sport climbing athletes is also increasing from 40 to 68. 40 climbers will come from Lead and Bouldering and 28 will come from Speed.
Who Are the Favorites?
Many of the same climbers in 2020 will be favored again in 2024 for the Olympic stage, and there are simply too many to list. Focusing specifically on favorites from Team USA, Colin Duffy, Brooke Raboutou, Kyra Condie, and Nathaniel Coleman will likely be back.
Likely American female contenders include Natalia Grossman, Cloe Coscoy, Sienna Kopf, Quinn Mason, Emma Hunt, and Thea Wulff. On the male side keep an eye on Ben Hanna, Ross Fulkerson, John Brosler, Kyle Cullen, and Sean Bailey.
Number of participants in climbing in the United States from 2006 to 2020
Statista (retrieved on 05/24/2023)
Away from the Wall: Adam Ondra
Rock and Ice (retrieved on 05/24/2023)
How to qualify for sport climbing (speed) at Paris 2024. The Olympics qualification system explained
Olympics (retrieved on 05/24/2023)
How to qualify for sport climbing (boulder and lead) at Paris 2024. The Olympics qualification system explained
Olympics (retrieved on 05/24/2023)