Posted by: Tom Boyd
The clock is ticking with two years to go before climbing makes its Olympic debut in the 2020 Tokyo Games. While the world’s top athletes are generally thrilled about their sport appearing on the world’s biggest stage, they are concerned about the specific prep work they have to do in the meantime.
For those unfamiliar with competitive climbing, the sport features three discipline areas – bouldering (as seen at the GoPro Mountain Games IFSC World Cup Climbing event), lead and speed. As in other sports, athletes generally specialize in one specific discipline, but this will have to change if they want any hope of representing their country in the Summer Games. The inaugural Olympic climbing event will feature all three disciplines, the athlete nabbing the best overall score in bouldering, lead and speed earning a single medal.
This means that top athletes will have to expand their repertoire if they hope to be among the highly select group of Olympic competitors. Only 40 athletes across the globe – 20 men and 20 women – ranked highest overall in the three disciplines will get the chance to compete.
“I want to make a go for the Olympics, but it’s going to be tough,” said 29-year-old U.S. veteran Alex Puccio right after winning the 2018 IFSC Bouldering World Cup in Vail. “I’m going to Europe to do a few lead World Cups, then to the World Championships to compete in all three disciplines. We’ll see how it goes. There are so many amazing women in the U.S. and I’m definitely not the best at speed climbing. I’m pretty good at the other two, but the speed climbing I need to work on. I’m definitely going to try my hardest.”
Puccio, like most of the world’s veteran climbers, did not launch into her sport as a young child with The Olympics on her radar at all.
“I never thought about it growing up,” she said. “It’s only recently that it’s become a reality. I definitely think it would be cool. Wow … to say you went to the Olympics would be really awesome.”
Fresh off his own victory in the men’s bouldering event at the World Cup in Vail, Rei Sugimoto of Japan echoed Puccio’s concerns that he had his work cut out for him over the next two years as far as ramping up his skills in other disciplines. Unlike Puccio, who has proven her
prowess in bouldering and lead, bouldering has always been Sugimoto’s one and only specialty.
“I’m not good at lead and speed climbing, so I try hard to practice,” he said, adding that the entire Japanese team, which as a nation typically dominates World Cup bouldering competitions, is incredibly excited about hosting climbing’s Olympic debut. “It’s good atmosphere with Japan team. We each one try hard for Tokyo 2020.”
American Sean Bailey, who finished second to Sugimoto in Vail and who is relatively new to World Cup competition, views the Japanese team as his toughest challenge as he adds more World Cups to his schedule over the next couple of years.
“They’re killing it, really fleet and strong,” Bailey said. Regardless of the international level of his competition, the Seattle native’s primary goal is to have fun. If that translates into great results and an opportunity to represent the U.S. at the Olympics, so be it.
“I think at some point, everyone dreams of being an Olympian, so of course if the opportunity presents itself, I’ll dive in head first,” Bailey said. “But it’s not necessarily the goal. If it happens, it happens.”
The multi-discipline competition format has made its way to the Youth Olympic Games and is appearing more regularly in major adult competitions. But even younger climbers like Megan Lynch, who turned 20 just before competing at the World Cup in Vail, views the prospect of excelling at bouldering, lead and speed climbing as a major if not an insurmountable challenge in reaching the Olympic stage.
“I’ve gone to youth worlds where I’ve had to do double disciplines and even that’s hard. It’s easier to put all your eggs in one basket,” she said. “Also, the team selection and how few athletes can go scares me away. But I think everyone realizes that having climbing in the Olympics is a huge step. For the future of climbing, it’s a big step. More people are going to fall in love with the sport.”
The hope for athletes and organizers deeply involved in the sport of climbing is that Olympic climbing will be such a smash hit in Tokyo 2020 that doors will open – as they did for sports like skiing and snowboarding – to add more climbing disciplines in future events.
“Clearly the goal is to place so well that in the next one, we can have three or four medals,” IFSC President Marco Maria Scolaris said.
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