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Olympic Climbing vs. Traditional Competitive Climbing

Dave Hudson, a climbing coach of over 20 years, examines a few ways in which the new Olympic format will affect climbers, coaches and gyms across the country.

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In 2020, the Olympic Games will include climbing for the first time. The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) has pushed to get climbing into the Games for years, and in Tokyo, climbers from across the world will have the opportunity to bring the sport to a global stage.

Olympic climbing, however, will not adhere to the traditional format of competitive climbing. This represents a distinctive change from the last 30 years of competitive climbing, and poses a unique challenge that many top athletes have not faced before.

Traditional Competitive Climbing

Competitive climbing is made up of three different disciplines:

Lead Climbing: Competitors must climb as high as they can on a given 40- to 60- foot-long route.

Bouldering: Competitors must climb a series of short climbs (“problems”) in a fixed amount of time for each climb.

Speed Climbing: Competitors must climb to the top of a given route as fast as they can without falling.

Climbers usually specialize in one of these disciplines and train to meet its unique demands.

Olympic Climbing

During the Tokyo Olympics, climbing will be a combined event that includes all three disciplines. Forty climbers—20 men and 20 women—will compete in the four-day event. The top climbers from the qualifying rounds will complete all three disciplines back-to-back in the finals round.

In professional circuits, like the IFSC’s World Cup series, athletes that specialize in bouldering or lead climbing rarely train for speed. Preparing for the Olympics will require climbers to spend time training for all three disciplines. This is similar to triathletes who train for three sporting areas, but who rarely win in individual disciplines (that is, it is uncommon for a triathlete to win a world-class marathon or medal in individual swimming events at the Olympics). Before climbing was approved for the 2020 Olympics, cross training philosophies ran counter to the specialized nature of much of the training training for competitive climbing.

All this begs the question: Will many current professional climbers at the top of their chosen discipline even qualify for the Olympics?

Climbers in First Ascent Climbing and Fitness, Avondale. Photo: Dave Hudson.
Climbers in First Ascent Climbing and Fitness, Avondale. Photo: Dave Hudson.

How Will The Olympic Climbing Format Impact the Pros?

Climbers: Olympic climbing hopefuls are already starting to train in all three disciplines to overcome their current strength, endurance and problem-solving deficits. A number of top, young U.S. climbers who have won international titles, including boulder and rope climbers like Ashima Shiraishi, Brooke Raboutou and Kai Lightner, have likely already begun spending extra time training for speed.

Coaches: Professional coaches will likely have to build the coaching skills they need to train athletes in all three disciplines, or bring in experts from each discipline to co-coach promising climbers.

Internationally certified speed walls are 15 meters long and there are only a handful in the country. The time and effort it will take to get to these walls, and to create new periodized training schedules to ensure climbers with potential are making up for their deficits will add time and costs to already rigorous training plans.

Tournament organizers: To continue to attract top climbers—those with and without Olympic aspirations—organizers may host more tournaments with combined and individual disciplines. Finding a facility that has all three climbing assets, and adding days to the competition to accommodate the additional discipline, may be difficult. There are only a few gyms in the country that might potentially be able to host such an event, and the cost and complexity will increase significantly by adding the combined format event.

Regardless of where climbers stand regarding a combined Olympic climbing format, there is no question that bringing climbing to the international arena on the Olympic level will bring new attention to the sport. It could mean that long-time climbers will have to compete for outdoor and indoor “rock time” with younger, and more novice climbers, but it will showcase our great sport to ever-wider audiences, as well.


Dave Hudson is a co-founder, and runs the youth climbing programs, at First Ascent Climbing & Fitness in Chicago. He has been a climbing coach for over 20 years, and is a certified IFSC international climbing judge for all three disciplines. The First Ascent youth program has trained over 200 young climbers in the Chicagoland area since its inception two-and-a-half years ago.


Also read Tokyo 2020 Olympics Officially Approves Climbing