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  • Writer's pictureSteve Hinson

Your primer to Olympic climbing

Updated: Aug 2, 2021

Sure, this is a DEEETROIT BASKETBALL blog so there's no real point to talking about climbing. But it's my blog, so we're talking about climbing.

This is the first year for climbing to be a full sport in the Olympics, which is super exciting. You may or may not know, I'm a competitive Paraclimber as a below the knee amputee, was part of Team USA from 2019 until just missing out on it this year, and competed at last World Championships in France. We're hoping to see climbing as part of the 2028 Paralympics in Los Angeles.

So for this year's Olympics, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) offered the IFCS (International Federation of Sport Climbing) one group of medals for each men and women. There are three primary disciplines in competition climbing, lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing. The IFSC could just pick one of those disciplines for the medals or do an all-around that incorporated all three. They chose the latter.

The disciplines

Lead climbing is your typical roped climbing. It's generally up tall, overhung walls with strenuous routes that emphasizes technique and stamina. You climb bolt to bolt, clipping the rope as you go along - which making those clips adds to the fatigue.

Bouldering is unroped and therefore shorter walls. It focuses more on strength and athleticism, with the competition style also incorporating more of what's called dynamic movement, which may mean throwing yourself at a hold and hoping for the best.

Speed climbing is simply a sprint up a pre-designed route, climbing it as fast as possible. It's popular for spectators but most climbers are...less enthusiastic. While it's legitimately amazing folks are able to move upward so fast, it's also seen as gimmicky and unrelated to anything you're actually likely to do related to outdoor rock climbing.

The athletes

Women's competition

I personally prefer watching the women's competitions over the men's. I find the contrast in styles to be much more entertaining, where you'll see some athletes who thrive on being incredibly strong or others relying more on gracefulness and movement. Both fields will be extremely competitive, but the women's field is loaded.

Janja Garnbret from Slovenia would be considered the favorite after dominating competitions in 2018 and 2019. In 2019 she won the IFSC World Championships and all six bouldering World Cups. She was simply unbeatable. Except...

Chaehyun Seo managed to beat Garnbret in the 2019 lead climbing World Cup at just 15 years old, then in another lead climbing World Cup later in the year. She hasn't competed since then, and a climber that young can make even greater gains over the course of two years. Plus Seo's parents own a climbing gym, so presumably she was able to keep training hard through the pandemic.

Laura Rogora from Italy is one of the most accomplished young female outdoor climbers currently out there. Last year she went on an absolute tear with outdoor accomplishments, climbing three 5.15s, which is among the hardest grades in the world. The grade was only broken into among females in 2017 by American Margo Hayes, so far Rogora to knock three 5.15s out in one year was incredible. At 14 years old, she was the second youngest to climb the French climbing grade of 9a (approximately 5.14d in Yosemite/US grading).

Representing the Americans are Brooke Raboutou and Kyra Condie. Raboutou is the daughter of climbing legend Robyn Erbesfield, who is also coach of one of the premier youth climbing clubs based out of Boulder, Team ABC (which includes male Olympian Colin Duffy). So Raboutou had an early start in the sport, sending 5.14 at just 11 years old. Last summer with the pandemic having shut down most climbing gyms, Brooke went on a tear bouldering outside, particularly at Rocky Mountain National Park. Anything over V10 is a big accomplishment, but Brooke sent two V14s in a single day - which is just remarkable. Few women have ever sent V14, to have ticked off two in a day was spectacular.

Kyra is, quite simply, an incredibly strong human being.

While underdogs, both American women could pull off a surprise to earn a medal.

Men's competition

Adam Ondra from Czech Republic is considered hands down the best climber in the world right now, with Alexander Megos from Germany right behind him. But competition climbing isn't always the same as outdoor climbing, so neither is a lock for the podium.

Ondra was the first to send the hardest grade ever climbed, 5.15d, Silence in Norway. That video is worth watching, the climb is unreal, featuring an upside down toe jam. Ondra sent it in 2017 and the route has since remained unclimbed. He also free climbed the Dawn Wall, the hardest route on El Capitan, in just eight days. For context, Yosemite legend Tommy Caldwell spent seven years working out the route of the Dawn Wall and took 19 days to free climb the route. He's been focused on the Olympics this summer though, having captured wins at a couple of World Cup events. Ondra's a colorful personality, known for his screams and exuberant reactions, as well as a unique, lanky physique. Not a bad guy to cheer for.

Megos is the only other person to send 5.15d and, where Ondra is long, skinny, lanky, and full of personality, Megos is smaller, more reserved, and strong af. The extent of his personality is that he likes carrots and the color yellow.

Jakob Schubert of Austria is also worth watching, having taken a win in the lead World Cup earlier this summer, beating out Ondra in the event.

For the Americans, Nathaniel Coleman is a longtime name among the competition scene, particularly in bouldering. But it's Colin Duffy who I'll talk more about. One of my favorite climbing podcasts The Runout asked this last week, "Who the fuck is Colin Duffy?" And it's a fair question. Where Coleman has the prototypical look that you'd expect from a professional climber, Duffy is totally unassuming.

Colin climbed at my home gym back in Louisville, Colorado, and I'd see him there for about the past four or five years. He's only 17 years old now, so he was just a little dude back then. His hair was always parted and his ears stick out, he had a look that reminded me of Malcolm from Malcolm in the middle. And he'd show up with a dude who I assume must be his dad, but gave off a Patton Oswalt vibe. But then he'd tie in for the lead wall, this overhung wall that featured the toughest climbs in the gym, and just climb laps up it.

The first time my climbing partner and I saw him at it, we just looked at each other with a "Who the fuck is that guy?" glance. But eventually we'd just see him and note that quiet, unassuming badass. I never even knew his name until a text came through from my buddy saying, "Holy shit, that kid made the Olympic team!" So needless to say, we'll be cheering for that quiet, unassuming badass.

The dates and times

August 3

Men's qualification

Speed climbing at 12 a.m. ET

Bouldering at 1 a.m. ET

Lead at 4:10 a.m. ET

August 4

Women's qualification

Speed climbing at 12 a.m. ET

Bouldering at 1 a.m. ET

Lead at 4:10 a.m. ET

August 5 Men’s Final

Speed 12:30 a.m. ET Bouldering 3:30 a.m. ET Lead 6:10 a.m. ET

August 6 Women’s Final

Speed 2:30 a.m. ET Bouldering 3:30 a.m. ET Lead 6:10 a.m. ET


The scoring system and speed climbing will be major factors in who winds up winning. The place that each individual finishes is multiplied to become their overall score. So even someone winning two disciplines, placing poorly in the third will likely still blow their chance to medal.

It's wild that they're doing all three disciplines on the same day, both for the qualifiers and the finals. Fatigue on the lead wall could be a legit thing to watch for.

The top boulderers and lead climbers in the world rarely touched the speed climbing wall before being required to by this Olympic format. It's entirely new for everyone, which could make for surprising results. The climbing world is stoked (yes, that really is how we talk) about having our sport in the Olympics, hope y'all enjoy it too.

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