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Olympic Climbing Explained: A Look At The 3 Disciplines And The Journey To Master All For Tokyo

By Alex Abrams | April 11, 2019, 1:42 p.m. (ET)

Sean Bailey competes in the men's bouldering qualification round at the IFSC World Cup Hachioji  on June 2, 2018 in Tokyo.


Kyra Condie had a few hours to relax while staying in Innsbruck, Austria.

John Brosler had even less time to talk as he waited to board another flight.

Elite climbers tend to always be on the move. However, this year has been more hectic than usual as the world’s best work to qualify for their sport’s Olympic debut at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

"It’s an amazing step forward for the sport of climbing," said John Muse, USA Climbing's high performance director. "Inclusion in the Olympics will open new doors for athletes that otherwise wouldn’t have been available. This also means climbing will be shown to a much broader audience, which by default will have a tremendous impact on the growth of the sport."

The Olympic climbing event will include competition over three disciplines: bouldering, speed and lead (also called sport); it will be a combined event in which only one set of medals is awarded per gender. Climbing competitions are typically held in each of the separate disciplines, so the Olympic format has forced Condie, Brosler and Team USA’s other hopefuls to prove themselves as strong all-around climbers instead of just the best in their respective disciplines.

“It’s really tricky because so many climbers specialize,” said Brosler, who won the gold medal in speed climbing at the IFSC Pan American Championship in November. 

“Before this, I can’t really think of any of the high-profile climbers that were really, really into and successful at all three disciplines at the same time.”

Each of this year’s 12 world cup events have competitions in either one or two separate disciplines; there are no combined world cups.

Not all climbing is the same. Bouldering, speed and lead climbing are unique disciplines; however, climbers hoping to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics must be proficient in all three.

"The easiest way to illustrate it would be use track and field," Muse explained. "Imagine how difficult it is for a track athlete to train for sprinting, long distance and jumping. Usually an athlete specializes in one discipline over another and to be great in all three is rare."

Condie showed her versatility in November, winning the women’s combined gold at the Pan American Championship in Guayaquil, Ecuador. In March, she was among the four women named to the U.S. Overall National Team that will compete on the IFSC circuit in the hopes of qualifying for 2020.

“It’s actually super challenging,” said Condie, who graduated last year from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in animal science. “It’s something that a lot of the really strong climbers across the world are all transitioning in, is right now trying to climb in all three different disciplines.

“It’s a big balance.”

So what are the three disciplines, and how do they relate? Let’s take a look.

Though a strong overall climber, Condie’s specialty remains in bouldering — which has always appealed to her because of its emphasis on power over endurance.

Climbers who compete in bouldering have four minutes to scale different routes on a 4-meter wall without the use of any rope. One wrong move or one slip of the hand can lead to them falling a short distance to the ground.

The only equipment that bouldering requires is climbing shoes and chalk.

“I guess the easiest way I’d describe bouldering versus sport climbing is if you compare it to track,” Condie said. “Bouldering is kind of like sprinting, whereas sport climbing is more like a marathon.

“And so it’s a much shorter and more powerful (discipline), where other types of climbing are more endurance-based.” 

In speed climbing, athletes know exactly what to expect. That’s because the route to the top doesn’t change – no matter which competition or where it’s held. They just try to scale a 15-meter wall as fast as they can.

Brosler, a native of Plano, Texas, found he excelled the discipline while competing on a youth team several years ago.

“It’s just kind of a race to the top,” said Brosler, who took gold in speed climbing at the Pan Ams. “It’s very different from both sport climbing and bouldering mostly because the speed climbing route that is used in competition is standardized around the world.”

“So you don’t get the variation or anything that comes with a sport climbing route or climbing outside or in the bouldering competition.”

One appeal of speed climbing, Brosler said, is that the familiarity leads to a lot of action and excitement, and it opens the possibility of elite climbers breaking world records at major competitions.

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Unlike bouldering, lead climbing requires athletes to clip in a rope as they scale a 15-meter wall (or higher). The objective is to reach the top the fastest or go as far as they can in six minutes.

Sean Bailey has established himself as a top American man in both lead and bouldering since making his world cup circuit debut in 2016. He earned silver at the IFSC world cup bouldering competition last June in Colorado.

Bailey was named to the U.S. overall national team alongside Condie.

Olympic Climbing
In Tokyo, the climbers will compete in all three disciplines. They’ll be scored based on their placement in each one, with their three rankings being multiplied to determine a final score.

In this format, climbers are rewarded for being consistently good more so than for dominating a specific discipline. That’s because one low ranking could balloon the overall score when multiplied with the others.

With her top finish at the Pan Ams, Condie solidified her place as an early favorite to claim a spot in Tokyo.

“It was definitely a big confidence boost because that is the format exactly that they’re going to use in the Olympics,” Condie said of the Pan Ams.

There are 40 Olympic spots available — 20 men and 20 women — with a max of two per country for each gender. Athletes can qualify in a variety of ways, including based on performances at the world championships this August in Tokyo, as well as on the world cup circuit and at the 2020 continental championships.

The eight U.S. Overall National Team athletes are in the driver’s seat for now, though the four men and four women on that team could change in late July, depending on the U.S. rankings.

Combining All Three
Brosler and Condie acknowledged that, like other Olympic hopefuls, they’ve had to perform a bit of a balancing act over the past few months.

“I’m definitely working on my weaknesses at this point,” Brosler said, adding that he has focused much of his training on improving his bouldering and lead climbing. “Of course I’m still speed climbing so I can maintain and still compete at a high level just because you have to.”

One of the major challenges is that the three disciplines aren’t necessarily similar. In an interview with TeamUSA.org last year, climber and “American Ninja Warrior” participant Josh Levin explained that lead and bouldering are difficulty-based events, whereas speed is all about, well, speed.

“For speed climbers it’s the most difficult; obviously you have to transfer into two separate difficulty-based events, instead of another speed-based event,” he said. “I think the boulderers have proven themselves to have the best ability to adapt. … Transitioning from a power-based athlete to an endurance-based athlete, at least in climbing, is easier than the other way around. They’re able to transition to speed more quickly.”

Other challenges have been more basic for the U.S. climbers.

“We’ve done a lot of team training actually this year, like more than we’ve done in the past,” Condie said. “(We’re) trying to focus on the team building and getting coaches because a lot of us don’t have personal coaches where we live.”

In addition to their training on their weaker disciplines, the athletes said the Olympic format has added more pressure for climbers who are already dealing with the busy travel schedule and the increased scrutiny that comes with competing in the Olympics.

“It’s exciting for sure. We love the sport, and we’re definitely lucky to do what we do,” said Brosler, who placed third in the men’s combined competition at Pan Ams and finished 2018 as the top-ranked American in the IFSC standings at No. 13 overall. “But it’s nerve-racking because there’s so much pressure and the spotlight is on the sport in a way that it’s never really been before. 

“So everyone is kind of in the limelight and everything is so much higher stakes than it used to be because of the Olympics.” 

Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.