Mickael Mawem and Adam Ondra Advance to Sport Climbing Final
TOKYO – Even if there were mountains in Tokyo, reasonable climbers would not venture into such heat and humidity in the middle of summer to climb them.
Climbers tend to like cool, dry conditions, if given a choice. They hang down by the fingers and often entrust their body weight to a single point of contact – a stuck toe, elbow or knee, a callused fingerprint stain.
Gravity is the enemy of climbing. Sweat, like fatigue, fear and impatience, is secondary. Moisture is a lubricant that no one wants.
Athletes around the world training for the debut of sport climbing at the Olympics have attempted to simulate the conditions predicted for August in Tokyo. In Brno, Czech Republic, Adam Ondra has turned the heat up and turned his home climbing gym into a sauna in recent months. In Salt Lake City, Team USA members trained in a small gym filled with hot air and humidity, like a cigar humidor.
On Tuesday, the start of four days of competition, temperatures at Aomi Urban Sports Park were in the 90s Fahrenheit range and humidity was around 70%. The heat index was well over 100 degrees.
It was not ideal, but hardly unexpected. The biggest surprises came from the results of the men’s qualifying round.
Ondra was not one of them. Considered the world’s best climber in the fields of artificial wall competitions, like the Olympics, and big wall expeditions over natural rocks in mountainous locations around the world, Ondra finished fourth, qualifying for the final at eight scheduled for Thursday evening.
Conditions will continue to make the task agonizing, especially in lead, the last of the three disciplines. This is where medals will be won and lost in real time, perhaps with an unexpected return to Earth.
“We know all of these takes, so we know what it should look like,” Ondra said. “And it feels like you’re slipping. You just don’t feel comfortable on a wall. You just have to forget about all the sweat and grease and move on. It’s a lot about running the risk of falling unexpectedly.
Among the 20 competitors, Ondra placed 18th in the speed part of the event, third in the bouldering and third in the lead. These results were multiplied together, in the original scoring system for that event, to establish the eight qualifiers. Scores are reset to zero for the final.
More unexpected results came from the United States and France. Colin Duffy, the 17-year-old from Colorado, showed nerves of steel and strong grip to qualify third. His American teammate Nathaniel Coleman finished eighth.
Also in the final, the Mawem brothers, Bassa and Mickael, from France. Bassa, 36, set the fastest time on the speed wall (5.45 seconds) and qualified for the final despite a near-last place in the other disciplines. (A bicep injury in the lead discipline could threaten to keep him out of the final.) Mickael, 31, was third in sprint and, unexpectedly, first in bouldering, leading to the best qualifying score in the evening.
Gold medal favorite Tomoa Narasaki of Japan, 25, was second.
Among those who did not reach the final were big names in sport climbing, such as Alex Megos and Jan Hojer, both from Germany, and Jongwong Chon from Korea.
The women’s qualifications are scheduled for Wednesday evening.
In many ways, sport climbing was just happy to be here in central Tokyo at the Olympics. Like skateboarding, surfing, and freestyle BMX, rock climbing is part of an influx of action sports making their Olympic debut at these Summer Games. It is an attempt to bring more action and youthfulness to the aging business.
But the climbing world had two major problems with this debut, one of which was the heat. The other was the format. Having received only one medal, the international federation was forced to choose the discipline to favor: speed, block or leader.
Rather than choosing, he created a combined event, three distinct climbing disciplines brought together into one. It was a bit like telling swimmers, cyclists and runners that they weren’t invited to compete in their individual events, but that they could try triathlon.
Australia’s Tom O’Halloran called it a “pretty brutal format” and compared it to the combination of the shot put, 100m and 800m in track and field. On the bright side, he said, a different kind of all-rounder has emerged as top climbers have been forced out of their usual niches and comfort zones by their desire to compete in the Olympics.
The plan is to have at least two medals at the Paris 2024 Games – one for speed and a combined event for bouldering and lead, which have more skills and athletes in common. We hope that there will eventually be three medals.
The federation created a combined scoring system where the finish of each athlete in each discipline was multiplied to create a total score. Someone who finished third in speed, blocks and lead, for example, would have 27 points (3x3x3). An athlete who finished first, third and seventh would have 21 (1x3x7). The system carries a mathematical intrigue and produces unpredictable results.
The other major concern of this competition was the summer weather in Tokyo. When the International Federation of Sport Climbing hosted its world championships in the suburb of Hachioji in 2019, the event took place in an air-conditioned convention center. Most climbing World Cups take place outdoors in mountain communities, in places like the Rocky Mountains or the Alps, where the relatively cool air is rarely laden with humidity.
But the organizers of the Tokyo Olympics wanted their new event to be outdoors, and that’s what happened. The only concession was a 5pm start and no direct sun. An evening breeze made things tolerable, but still hot and stuffy by high standards.
“The biggest worry is definitely not to slip,” Duffy said. “And making sure I hydrate more and crack more than I would in the United States.”
The other problem is what the sandpaper-like grips do to fingers, usually hardened by calluses, made soft by moisture. “It hurts a bit more with the humidity,” Duffy said.
Speed was the first discipline, a timed race on a 15-meter wall, where the holds are the same for each competition. This is the easy to understand and difficult to do outlier of sport climbing. Most of those who qualified for the Olympics excel in other events and have spent a year or two learning the required muscle memory and upswing streak.
Ondra set off in 7.46 seconds, a good time for him but far from world class. He finished 18th, a multiplier that pushed him to do well in the other events.
The second discipline was the block, a test of strength, imagination and contortionism. Athletes attempt to reach the top of four bouldering problems, performed without ropes, with falls ending on a padded mat. The attempts are unlimited before the buzzer.
Ondra finished two of the problems (called “top”) and another halfway up (called “zone”), better than all but two of the competitors. This placed him in sixth place in two disciplines.
The final discipline, the lead, is the classic climbing event, on a high wall, using ropes only to catch a fall. The goal is to go as high as possible before exhaustion and gravity prevails.
This is Ondra’s best event, the one most like outdoor rock climbing that he does better than anyone else. He methodically climbed most of the wall, much of it inverted, all of it getting harder and harder the further up he was.
When he slipped near the top and was brought down to the ground, Ondra suspected it was good enough to get him to Thursday with his medal hopes intact. He was right.
But it was not easy, for Ondra or for the others. The quest for a medal in this most unusual combination of disciplines can come to an end without warning, a greater concern than usual in the harsh conditions of Tokyo.
It won’t change. The forecasts for the rest of the competition remain the same: hot, humid and high risk of scattered slips.
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