The Olympic Format Explained: Ondra Takes Second at the Combined Finals Debut During the 2018 World ChampionshipsMonday, Septembre 17, 2018
On Sunday, for the first time ever, the Olympic climbing format made its long-awaited debut at the IFSC World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria. And despite the multitude of naysayers since the format’s conception and announcement roughly two years ago, the first trial run provided a gripping grand finale to the biggest comp of the year.
By utilizing a fairly simple multiplication system that we’ll get into below, the six men and six women that qualified for the combined finals proved to be the sport’s superstars—a testament, at least in this particular case, to the format’s potential.
The world watched as Janja Garnbret—the largely undisputed comp queen from Slovenia and this year’s bouldering champ—faced off with a stacked field, including Jessica Pilz from Austria (this year’s lead champion), the Japanese rock stars Akiyo Noguchi and Miho Nonaka, Petra Klingler of Switzerland and the strong Sol Sa of Korea.
The men’s field also included the usual suspects, with BD Athlete Adam Ondra and Austrian superstar Jakob Schubert (this year’s lead champ), plus the Japanese crushers Kai Harada (who at 19 won this year’s Bouldering World Champs), Kokoro Fujii, the young legend Tomoa Narasaki, and the German powerhouse Jan Hojer.
But before we get into the meaty results of this year’s comp, let’s dive into how this combined format works and why it exists in the first place.
With troops on the ground at this year’s World Champs, we were able to get the inside scoop from some key players.
One Medal to Rule Them All
Perhaps the biggest question climbers have been asking is why? Why combine three completely different disciplines of climbing—lead, speed, and bouldering—into one competition? You’ve likely heard the comparisons by now.
That’s like having Usain Bolt enter a marathon!
The answer, however, is fairly simple.
“We only had the choice of one medal,” explained Jerome Meyer, Head of Olympic Coordination for the IFSC (International Federation of Sport Climbing), at a panel discussion during the 2018 Innsbruck World Championships.
“It was either one discipline or the combination of disciplines,” said Meyer. “We had a choice, and the rationale for the choice was to go to the combined format simply because we could offer all athletes the possibility to participate in the games, and to show all the disciplines.”
Why was only one medal granted to climbing from the Olympic committee, you’re probably wondering?
“Basically, the games are quite packed,” said Meyer.
And by entering the Olympics as an “additional sport,” explained Jerome, the committee only had one medal to offer.
“For now—and I want to make it very, very clear—we are treated as an Olympic sport,” said Meyer. “But we are only [treated as such] for Tokyo.”
Looking ahead to Paris 2024, climbing will once again need to prove its place among the games. The upswing is that changing the format to include more than one medal is a possibility.
“For the future, well, we are working on that,” said Meyer confidently.
How the Olympic Format Works
What exactly is the format for climbing in the 2020 Tokyo games?
We asked BD Athlete Adam Ondra to help shed light on this topic.
First, we wanted to know how you qualify for the Olympics.
“Qualifying for the Olympics is still quite a big question mark,” says Ondra.
He then explained that the climbers will probably be chosen from the 2019 World Championships in Tokyo, which is going to include a combined Olympic format just like the Innsbruck World Championships.
That brings us to the actual format, which can be a little tricky to understand.
“There will be three individual disciplines [speed, lead, and bouldering],” at the World Championships, says Ondra. “Out of those three disciplines, you take the best six.” Meaning the six climbers with the lowest combined ranking, devised from a multiplication of their individual rankings from all three disciplines, will enter the Olympic Format finals.
The combined format, therefore, pits six climbers against each other in all three disciplines. As for that multiplication … well, therein lies the heart of how this format works.
Basically, you multiply your “place” or finish ranking in each discipline by the other, and that’s your “score.” The lower the score the better. Pretty simple really. And this goes for qualifying, as well as winning the finals.
For example, imagine you’re in the Olympics and you place first in lead, second in bouldering, and sixth in speed. Your overall score is therefore 12.
Though on the surface this sounds pretty simple, there could be some potential issues.
“That’s one of the reasons why I criticize it, because it’s so complicated, and so hard to understand even for climbers,” says Ondra.
“The order in the finals will be first speed, then bouldering, then lead. So, it is quite likely that the winner will not be the one who will climb the highest on the lead wall,” Ondra says as an example of a potential anti-climactic finish.
“I don’t know any other sport where it will be like this,” he says.
“The great thing about the decathlon in the Olympics is that they have points. For each performance in each discipline, you get points.”
However, on a positive note, the multiplication system does seem to favor the strongest climbers, as was just demonstrated at the combined format finals in Innsbruck. If you win lead and place second in bouldering, as is often possible for climbers like Ondra, a shot at the gold is likely. Even just one first place finish significantly increases your chances of having a low score, which favors the best climbers.
But what about that outlier discipline … you know, the one everybody can’t stop talking about?
Enter speed climbing.
The Need for Speed
It seems speed climbing is the proverbial wrench in the whole system for many climbers. Reason being, it’s a discipline of climbing that resembles very little traits of outdoor climbing (to be fair the new-school bouldering is also shaping up into something very different as well.)
And to boot, speed climbing has, in the past, been dominated by specialists that are largely uncompetitive in bouldering or lead.
However, with the new combined format, that’s about to change. Even Ondra is running nine second times on the speed wall in preparation for the 2020 games.
But how much will speed play into the overall winner of the Olympics?
“In qualifying for the top six, speed is not that important,” says Ondra. “But once you’re in the top six, it’s getting more important. Because then it will probably be more lead and boulder specialists.”
Ondra, for example, qualified for the Innsbruck combined finals with a second-place finish in lead, a 17th place in bouldering, 81st in speed. With a combined score of 2,754, he made the combined finals.
But wrap your head around this: it’s possible that a speed specialist could actually win the gold.
“It’s a big question mark as to whether some of the speed specialists might actually make it,” he says. “The one that wins speed, and does very bad in lead and boulder, might still have a chance to make it into the top six [hence Ondra’s uncompetitive speed score]. And once they are in the top six, and they have a score of first, sixth, and sixth, there is a chance that they might be first.”
Again, Ondra’s scenario of a truly anti-climactic finish could be plausible, considering that lead climbing is the last discipline taking place in the final Olympic format.
“It’s very bizarre because if the route setters in the Olympics set for a ‘regular’ lead final, the speed specialist will probably fall on the second hold. Non-climbers will be saying, ‘what is he doing?’”
Another tricky hitch in the system is the possibility of two competitors having the same score. For example, one climber could take second in speed, third in bouldering, and second in lead, while another could take first in speed, fourth in bouldering and third in lead. Both these scores add up to a combined final of 12.
“In this case we look at the heat,” said Heiko Wilhelm, the CEO of Austria Climbing.
In other words, the officials would look at the climber’s results from qualifiers to decide who performed better overall. Again, this could prove extremely anti-climactic.
The Results of Innsbruck’s First Combined Finals
As mentioned, the Olympic format in this year’s World Championships created a riveting finale.
For the women, the favorite and this year’s bouldering champion and second place lead finisher, Janja Garnbret took home the overall combined championship. But that doesn’t mean the finals weren’t competitive. With a stacked field, all competitors threw down their A-game, seemingly elevating their performance due to the stiff competition. Culminating with lead, the hometown favorite Jessica Pilz topped out the finals route, and finished second in speed, but her sixth place finish in bouldering kept her out of being in the running for first. The top podium spot went to Janja—who came in fifth in speed but first in bouldering—and Sol Sa, with a first place in speed and second in bouldering.
Janja, however, sealed the deal, by topping out the lead route, and claiming her combined finals World Championship.
Janja Garnbret – Speed (5), Bouldering (1), Lead (1) = 5
Sol Sa – Speed (1), Bouldering (2), Lead (6) = 12
Jessica Pilz – Speed (2), Bouldering (6), Lead (2) = 24
For the men, the nail-biting finish between Ondra and Schubert many predicted finally played out on the big stage. Though Ondra’s speed time of 9.62 seconds placed him in fifth next to Schubert’s second place speed finish, the guys went neck in neck in bouldering. Schubert again took the upper hand, though narrowly, and finished first in bouldering next to Ondra’s second.
So, it all came down to lead for the men, and once again, as with the individual lead competition a few days prior—it was between Schubert and Ondra.
Between the two, Ondra climbed first, and put in an impressive performance. Fluidly executing the moves of the intricate route, Ondra reached the hold just below the finishing jug, paused, pulled a dramatic rose-move … and slipped.
Schubert closed the show, and despite falling a few moves lower than Ondra, he claimed the second-place spot in lead, therefore granting him a lower overall score, and in-turn sealing his fate as the 2018 combined champion.
Jakob Schubert – Speed (2), Bouldering (1), Lead (2) = 4
Adam Ondra – Speed (5), Bouldering (2), Lead (1) = 10
Jan Hojer – Speed (1), Bouldering (4), Lead (6) = 24
As Ondra predicted, the one who climbed highest on the lead wall was not the overall winner.
However, from an audience’s point of view, the first debut of the Olympic Format was anything but anti-climactic.