While most events at the Olympics are hyper-specific and require a particular set of skills, the inaugural sport climbing competition is being contested under a contentious format. The medals will go to athletes who fare well in a hybrid of speed, bouldering and lead climbing; three disciplines vastly different with their own separate world championships. Think of a cricket team playing T20s, ODIs and Tests for a world title and not allowed to change the eleven.
And Ondra, an exponent of lead and bouldering with limited experience of speed climbing, was the topper expected to ace the exam without knowing one-third of the syllabus. He came close, but ultimately finished sixth in the men’s event.
A trailblazer in climbing, Ondra is compared to pole vaulter Sergei Bubka and sprinter Usain Bolt. Climbing Magazine, the bible of the sport, described Ondra in action: “…it’s easy to see a level of mastery that only two or three people on the planet possess, like watching Michael Jordan play basketball or Einstein do math.”
Born in 1993 to recreational rock climbers, Ondra’s childhood was spent scaling rugged cliffs outside his hometown Brno, and the walls and ceilings of his house. At 8, he climbed his first 7b+ and at 13 his first 9th — difficulty ratings achieved only by elite climbers with significant experience and strength. He has conquered three of the four toughest sports routes in the world, including 45m long curving Norwegian cave walls and 50m high Spanish limestone cliffs.
The 28-year-old is equally proficient in rock climbing and indoor sports climbing. He has attempted more of the world’s most difficult climbs than anyone else and has won four world championships, finishing in the top three seven other times. In indoor competition climbing, Ondra had won World Cup season titles in both lead and bouldering by the age of 17.
Under the umbrella of ‘sport climbing’, athletes are competing in a hybrid format of lead climbing, bouldering and speed climbing. There’s only one set of medals each for men and women, with 20 participants competing on each side.
Lead is the classic, methodical discipline in which athletes get one try to climb an obtusely-angled wall measuring over 15m in six minutes, clipping their rope to carabiners and planning the move ahead. They have to hold edges without bending fingers and utilise footholds the size of a Rs10 coin. The higher they go, the higher they finish on the table. Competitors get six minutes to study the wall and use binoculars to plan their route. Ondra memorises up to 40 moves in the prep time.
Bouldering is an acrobatic, almost chess-like scramble up overhanging, 4.5m walls without a rope. The routes, known as ‘problems’, are first mapped out mentally before beginning the climb. The climbers get five minutes to study, plan and solve a problem and points are awarded according to the number of obstacles cleared in four minutes.
Speed climbing is simply an all-out vertical sprint to the top of a 15m wall. Top male and female climbers usually record a timing of 6 and 7-8 seconds respectively.
How did Ondra do?
In Tokyo, an athlete’s final score depended on their position in each discipline. The three positions are multiplied and the lowest score is the winner.
During qualification, Ondra finished 18th out of 20 participants, with a best time of 7.46 seconds. He finished third in bouldering and fourth in lead. The final score thus was 216 (18x3x4) and he finished fifth among the eight who qualified for the final.
In the final on Thursday, Ondra put in his first sub-7 second speed timing. He recorded a personal best timing of 6.86sec to finish fourth out of seven finalists. He had a difficult time in the bouldering event, finishing 6th. The tally going into the lead event — Ondra’s favourite due to its similarity with outdoor climbing — was 24.
On the lead wall, he put on a spectacular show, almost reaching the top. Till the last run, he was on top in the event and would have finished on the podium (possibly the champion) with others struggling. And then came the kingmaker: Austrian Jakob Schubert who became the first man or woman to reach the top of the lead wall in Tokyo, moving to third and pushing Ondra to sixth overall.
Firstly, the multiplying-positions scoring was difficult to follow. Had Schubert finished second in the lead event, falling just below Ondra’s mark, the Czech would have won gold. Instead, a matter of inches pushed him from top to sixth.
But mainly, it’s the combined medal for three different disciplines that irked serious climbers.
Two-time bouldering world champion Shauna Coxsey summed it up best.
“It’s a bit like asking Usain Bolt to run a marathon and then do the hurdles,” Briton Coxsey told Olympics.com in an interview. “No one has really transitioned before. No boulderer has transitioned to speed and lead, and no speed climber has done it to bouldering and lead.”
“You have to tap into different skills for each discipline,” Cécile Avezou, coach of the French lead climbing team, told FRANCE 24. “For the speed event, it’s about explosive power. For bouldering, it’s strength, imagination and creativity. Lead climbing requires a more sustained effort, so it involves adaptation, information gathering and control.”
Fascinatingly, if the International Olympic Committee had its way, there would only be speed climbing at the Games. The vertical sprint to the top originated as a ratings booster for television. The International Federation of Sport Climbing, however, pushed back since speed climbing is the odd discipline out. Unlike lead and bouldering — where competitors don’t know the wall, routes or holds five minutes before the event — speed climbing is always done on the identical 20 holds, which has been the standardised route since 2005.
Ondra has likened the format to a “circus” and said, “I think speed climbing is kind of an artificial discipline. Climbers compete on the same holds and train on the same holds, which doesn’t have much in common with the climbing philosophy, in my opinion. Anything would be better than this combination.”
The outrage and tug-of-war over the format hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last December, the IOC announced that sport climbing at Paris 2024 will be expanded to four medal events, featuring a combined boulder and lead event and a separate speed event.
Ondra, however, hopes for three separate events in the future.
“I really, really hope that in the future, there will be three sets of medals for three single disciplines,” he told The Indian Express. “Because I think what you should display at the Olympics should be the best climbers doing their thing on the very, very best level. And that’s what the three single disciplines will provide.”