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At The Olympics, Sport Climbing Is Full Of Unknowns For Athletes And Fans

Staff test the speed climbing wall in preparation for the Olympic Games at Aomi Urban Sports Park in Tokyo.
Staff test the speed climbing wall in preparation for the Olympic Games at Aomi Urban Sports Park in Tokyo.

Updated August 2, 2021 at 8:03 PM ET

For the first time ever, climbers will compete for Olympic gold as sport climbing makes its Olympic debut at Tokyo's Aomi Urban Sports Park. It's a big deal for a sport with outdoor roots that has only recently achieved mainstream popularity thanks to a combination of indoor gyms, climbers' social media accounts, and TV shows and movies like American Ninja Warrior and the Academy Award-winning documentary Free Solo.

But even those who follow climbing aren't quite sure what to expect this week. When the International Olympic Committee announced sport climbing for the Tokyo Games, climbing competitions had never been run as a combined event. Climbers widely recognized as the best in the world for their extraordinarily difficult outdoor climbs were thrown a curve ball — speed climbing.

With the new format and after the long pandemic pause in competitions, Olympic sport climbing has the potential to shake up the climbing world.

Here's some things to know going in.

'Real' climbers hate speed

To win the gold medal, athletes have to excel in three climbing disciplines: speed, lead and bouldering. This combination of events is new to competition climbing and has caused waves of anxiety among some of the best climbers in the world, all because of speed climbing.

Speed is unique in that it's a timed, head-to-head sprint to the top of the wall. Success in speed depends on explosive power and muscle memory of a handful of movements; the route always has the exact same holds in the exact same places. Unlike more traditional climbing disciplines, there's not much room for creativity of movement.

When the IOC announced speed's inclusion in the Games, some of the best sport climbers in the world panicked and started cramming on the speed wall. But it might not be enough. The podium will go to the most well-rounded climber and not necessarily to the person who can "send" (reach the top of) the most technical climbs.

On the flip side, countries that have excellent speed climbing teams, like Indonesia and Iran, didn't qualify for the Olympics under the combined format.

Watch for the Tomoa skip

There's not a lot of room for interpretation in speed. The strategy is usually to Spider-Man up to the top as fast as possible. But in 2018, Tomoa Narasaki propelled himself past the third hold on the speed wall with a move previously only seen in bouldering, a move that changed the game and has been copied by other athletes since. Narasaki is representing Japan in these Games, and with his signature skip and skill in bouldering, he might have what it takes to make it to the podium.

Another fun speed climbing fact: There's a hold off to the left, near the top, that nobody uses in competition. After a few runs, all the holds will be chalky white except for this one one.

Bouldering in style

Bouldering is where individual style and creativity will be most at play. Some climbers, like Japan's Narasaki and France's Mickael Mawem, have a very gymnastic style with lots of jumps and momentum carrying them through. Others, like the Germany's Alex Megos, rely more on raw strength and balance to reach the top of the 15-meter bouldering wall.

Keep an eye on Team USA's Kyra Condie, who has a fused upper spine because of scoliosis surgery as a kid. As a result, she has limited flexibility in her back, forcing her to come up with creative and risky movements to navigate tight spaces on the wall.

Czech climber Adam Ondra is known for his awkward body movements and awkward vocalizations while climbing.
Rick Bowmer / AP
Czech climber Adam Ondra is known for his awkward body movements and awkward vocalizations while climbing.

Everyone's gonna fall

The last climbing discipline, lead, has most in common with the kind of roped climbing done outside, on real rock walls. The routes are long and specifically designed to be super, super hard, maybe even unclimbable. Athletes get one point for each hold they reach, so all they really have to do is climb higher than everyone else, even if that means they bail well before the top. They also can't skip a clip on the wall, meaning that if (and when) they do fall, it'll be a gentle catch of the rope, not a dramatic, long swing. Adam Ondra from the Czech Republic is a favorite in lead and is famous for finding extremely weird rest positions in order to shake out his grip.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 6, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled climber Tomoa Narasaki's first name as Tamoa.
Liz Baker is a producer on NPR's National Desk based in Los Angeles, and is often on the road producing coverage of domestic breaking news stories.