Climbing in the 2020 Olympics, Explained

8 Apr

In 2016, the International Olympic Committee voted to include climbing in the 2020 Olympics. But when it announced that it would combine the three main forms of competitive climbing—speed, boulder, and sport—into a single format and offer only one set of medals, many climbers were understandably apprehensive.

To get a better understanding of the format and how climbers qualify for the Olympics in the first place, we talked to the chief executive officer of USA Climbing, Marc Norman.

The Format

The combined format requires every climber to compete in all three disciplines. Twenty men and twenty women will earn spots, and each country has a maximum allowance of two athletes per gender. Norman says that athletes will first complete in speed, then boulder, and finally sport.


Speed climbing is the most controversial style and is basically a 15-meter (49.2-foot) vertical race. Two competitors go head to head on a standardized route; the fastest to the top wins. Speed walls around the world are standardized, all using the same amount and the same placement of holds. A speed wall will be the same in Beijing as in Boston; this way, climbers can train on the exact route they’ll be climbing at the Olympics. When the IOC originally announced it would include speed, Adam Ondra, arguably the best climber in the world, told Black Diamond that speed climbing “doesn’t have much in common with the climbing philosophy, in my opinion.”

On the other hand, speed is fast-paced and exciting for spectators. The current world record is 5.48 seconds for men and 7.32 seconds for women.


Route setters create a set of three unique and challenging boulder problems on a wall that’s four meters (13.12 feet) high. Each athlete has four minutes to complete each climb and will be scored on either how far they get or how many tries it takes them to complete it. The boulder problems are scored separately and combined at the end. 


Each athlete attempts to lead-climb (clipping in a rope as they climb) a route on a wall over 15 meters (49.2 feet) high. The climbers have six minutes to reach the top or get as high as they can without falling.

What Will It Take to Win?

An athlete’s overall score will be the final ranking in each discipline multiplied together; the lowest score wins. For example, if a climber finishes sixth in speed, second in bouldering, and third in sport, their end score would be 36, which would be pretty good. On the other hand, if a climber got 17th in speed, first in bouldering, and fourth in sport, their end score would be 68. In this scoring system, it pays to be fairly good in all three events rather than exceptional in just one. Norman says the athletes will have to be really good in at least two disciplines and decent in the third to have a chance at winning.

Who Will Be Climbing in the Olympics?

Norman predicts that most of the climbers will be younger up-and-comers. He thinks the average age will be around 21. That’s because many young climbers are all-arounders, whereas some of the biggest names in climbing—Tommy CaldwellAlex Honnold, Alex Puccio—are hyperfocused on one discipline. Honnold told Reuters, “I wouldn’t even be able to qualify [for the Olympics].” Even though Honnold is the best free soloist alive, he doesn’t climb in competitions at all.

How Do Climbers Get into the 2020 Olympics?

In general, there are three main ways for climbers to snag one of the 20 spots per gender in the Olympics. One female and one male spot are reserved for Japan, the host nation. One more spot for each gender is picked by what’s called the tripartite commission—the national Olympic committees, International Olympic Committee, and international federations decide to give an entry to a nation that might need additional support. An important thing to remember is that every climber in the Olympics must compete in all three disciplines, so all the qualifying competitions use a combined ranking from speed, sport, and bouldering.

The next seven places go to the top climbers in each gender from the Combined World Championship on August 20 and 21 in Tokyo. If one country has more than two athletes in the top seven, then only the top two will get invitations and the additional invitations will extend to the next ranking athlete from a different country.

The next six spots will come from the top performers in the World Cup, a series of international competitions running from April to October. The top 20 athletes from the World Cup will enter the International Federation of Sport Climbing Olympic Qualifying Event from November 28 to December 1 in Toulouse, France. The top six ranked competitors for each gender will then move on the Olympics.

The last five spots will come from the first-place winner from five continental championships specifically held for Olympic qualifications. These championships will take place throughout spring 2020 in Johannesburg, Moscow, Sydney, Los Angeles, and Morioka, Japan.

Who Will Be Climbing on Team USA?

USA Climbing chose climbers based on the results of an invitational competition held in January, bouldering nationals, and sport and speed nationals. These are the climbers who made the cut:



There’s no guarantee that any member of the U.S. climbing team will make it to the Olympics; they’ve now got to compete for one of the 40 total available spots. Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, a four-time World Cup champion and coach to some of our best climbers—including Margo Hayes and Brooke Raboutou—thinks there’s a good chance we’ll get in, but we won’t know for sure until after all the qualifying events.

Adam Ondra Almost Onsights Salathè Wall

9 Nov

Since 1961, when Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, and Chuck Pratt made the first ascent, the Salathè Wall on Yosemite's El Capitan has stood as one of the pinnacles of big wall climbing. The first ascent crew split the climb into two trips: they climbed the first 900 feet in three and a half days, then came down on fixed lines. Several days later, they went back up the fixed lines and took another six days to finish the climb.

In 1997, Japanese climber Yuji Hirayama tried to onsight the route—which means they attempted to climb it on his first try without any falls or prior knowledge of the line. Hirayama fell at the Teflon Corner, pitch number 24 of 35. If that pitch sounds familiar, it’s because the Salathè Wall shares approximately 87 percent of Freerider’s terrain, the route Alex Honnold famously free soloed in 2017 after years of practice. The two routes diverge at pitch number 29, the Headwall, with Freerider taking a slightly easier line.

Onsighting a route takes a particular set of skills. Primarily a climber has to be incredibly good at reading difficult sequences of moves. But they’ve also got to be strong enough to hold on while they figure things out, or to downclimb to a rest when they’re a little unsure how to proceed. A single fall and the onsight doesn't count. 

Enter Adam Ondra, by far the best climber in the world. The 25-year-old Czech has onsighted routes as hard as 5.14d (the Salathe Wall is 5.13b), but had never onsighted anything as massive as the 3,000-foot Salathè Wall.

Last weekend, he gave it a go. Starting at a minute past midnight, Ondra and his partner, Nico Favresse, made it up over 2,500 feet to the Headwall (the route’s crux) where Ondra fell twice.

“Some dreams came true yesterday, but the ultimate—the onsight—is not fulfilled,” Ondra wrote on Instagram. “And the nature of onsight is that it will never be fulfilled any more. It is only one try, lots of pressure in case of such a legendary route like Salathè in Yosemite on El Capitan.”

With Ondra’s one chance gone, this monumental achievement remains to be accomplished.