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Climbing In The Olympics—Was It Fair?

Competition climbing has just appeared in the Olympic Games for the first time and by all reports it was a raging success, with non-climbers around the world fascinated by the strength and agility of the athletes in the speed and bouldering disciplines particularly. Adam Ondra, inarguably the world's best outdoor rock climber, didn't win the men's gold. So was the competition fair?

The fact that Ondra is widely-accepted as the best outdoor rock climber and didn't win is not indication that this indoor, combined format competition was unfair per se. The Olympic games are particularly cruel for the athletes, they come around only every four (or five) years and are a one-off event, there are many examples of athletes who have dominated a sport in the years between games but not won gold. Take the U.S. women's football team for example. They came into the Olympics as World Cup champions (four times over), were winners of the Olympic qualifying tournament in 2019 and were unbeaten in their last 40 matches. Like their gymnastic compatriot Simone Biles, they were considered as sure a bet for an Olympic gold medal as any at the games. But they were thrashed 3-0 by Sweden in their opening match. They scraped into the semis with a few lacklustre displays, but were still a chance for gold as their semifinal match was against Canada, a team they had only ever lost to twice in over 60 matches. Canada had only won one match at the tournament up to that point and had gotten by on draws and penalty shootouts. Nevertheless, the U.S. were knocked out of the gold medal match by Canada 1-0 after their northern neighbours were awarded a controversial penalty kick. Just to emphasise this point of how cruel the Olympics can be—Sweden didn't win gold either, despite looking imperious throughout the tournament. They went 1-0 up against Canada in the final early on and had as many as 24 scoring opportunities throughout the match, but Canada were again awarded a penalty kick after a video review and tied the game. No more goals were scored in half an hour of extra time and Canada won the penalty shootout in dramatic fashion, winning a gold medal despite not scoring a goal from open play in the three knockout matches. So yes, the Olympics are cruel and reward those who are the best (or luckiest) on the day. But that is part of what makes them compelling drama for us to watch.

Ondra was neither the best nor the luckiest on the day. But he has little room for complaint, as he did receive an enormous helping of luck, which he failed to capitalise on. With French speed-specialist Bassa Mawem's horrific torn bicep tendon injury coming late in the qualifying round, after he had qualified for the final, we already had an absurd situation going into the finals. Despite the brutally-limited olympic selection process restricting the field to just 20 competitors, when nations such as Japan could arguably field as many as five or six medal contenders in the men's division, the rules stated that if one of the eight finalists couldn't start the finals they were not to be replaced. This seemed cruel for the 9th placed climber (Alexander Megos of Germany) or indeed any of the other 11 athletes who were present and willing to climb but hadn't progressed from the qualifying rounds. The reasoning is that this preserves Mawem's 8th place finish, which is admirable. However, nobody wants to come fourth at the games, let alone eighth or ninth—the athletes are all there for a medal. I'd be surprised if Megos, if given the opportunity to compete for a medal, would have turned down a place in the final if told that he would be officially 9th if he came last in the final and Mawem holding on to 8th place. This absurd decision also threatened to topple the already-rickety structure of the scoring format. As athlete's placings in each of the three events would be multiplied together for a final score, removing the highest multiplier of 8 (which would go to Mawem), gave an advantage to any athlete that was worst in a discipline and thereby disadvantaging the all rounders who were counting on placing in the top half of the field in all three disciplines.

Even more ridiculous was that the seeded head-to-head speed runs for the final would pit Ondra against the absent Mawem in the first round, gifting the Czech climber a top-four placing in speed, at worst. Mawem was the fastest speed climber in the qualifications, and Ondra the slowest of the 8 finalists. So slow, in fact, that he was 18th out of 20 in the qualifications. The mockery of Ondra racing against nobody in the first round to put him into the top half of the draw had further implications for other athletes, as I will explain later. Ondra actually climbed well in the speed, beating his own best time twice in the finals. Nevertheless, his best time of 6.86 seconds was still the slowest of the seven athletes who competed in the finals. But placing fourth instead of seventh (or eighth!) was a huge leg up, given he had a very good chance to win both the bouldering and lead disciplines. Ondra has been publicly critical of the speed format being included in the Olympics and his criticism makes sense, regardless of the fact that he is demonstrably worse at that discipline than other medal contenders. However, the way that speed is placed by head-to-head races rather than by time in the finals created a bit of a lottery and a high chance of the placings not going as seeded. Of all the disciplines to be worst at, speed has the highest likelihood of gifting you a higher placing, and this turned out to come true for Adam Ondra. The gold medal was now surely his to lose and some medal at least a near certainty. But Ondra climbed poorly in the bouldering round, failing to flash B1, a problem that all but one climber topped and putting him at an immediate disadvantage in the placings. The coordination dyno of B2 proved tough to crack for many of the athletes, with only one top. Nevertheless, all the athletes made the zone hold except for Ondra, further dismembering his chances of a good placing in bouldering. He needed a top on the final boulder problem and for others to do poorly, unfortunately this boulder was poorly-set—with all the athletes flashing to the zone hold but none topping the boulder. When there are only three boulder problems in the finals it is vital that each boulder provides a split between competitors, but this aspect was underdone in this case. This left Ondra floundering in 6th place in one of his favoured disciplines and needing a very good lead performance to medal.

Ondra climbed with his characteristic fast, decisive and snappy style on the very well-set lead route—making great progress up the route and setting an early high point. This was finally the Adam Ondra we'd all come to watch. However, he didn't top the route and thereby gave others the chance to overtake him. Jakob Schubert could have crowned Ondra king by finishing second in the lead, overtaking all others but Ondra. But he ended up surpassing Ondra and topped the route, his higher placing on the lead route in the qualification rounds would have still granted him first over Ondra in the lead discipline, even had Ondra managed a top also. So, in the end, Ondra simply didn't climb well enough to deserve the gold, or even a medal. I actually think his sixth place finish was a fair representation of how well he climbed compared to the rest of the field.

What will eat at Ondra, and the rest of the finalists, is that the person who did win the gold, Alberto Gines Lopez of Spain, was even less-deserving of the gold medal than Ondra was and this has undermined the credibility of the entire competition. Gines Lopez, like Ondra, was gifted a spot in the top half of the speed competition when Colin Duffy of the U.S.A. false started by five thousandths of a second in their opening match-up. This was perhaps less unfair than Ondra being boosted up, as Gines Lopez was at least seventh fastest in qualifying. But it did seem cruel for 17 year-old Duffy and the drama wasn't over yet. The Spanish climber's next match up was against the boosted Ondra, and with Ondra being the slowest of the finalists, this gave him an easy path into the race for first and second. Here he would face Tomoa Narasaki of Japan, who had finished second only to the injured Mawem in the speed qualifying and had already laid down scorching times in the first two races of the final (in fact they were the two fastest times by anyone in the speed final). Despite being a bouldering specialist, Tomoa famously invented a new sequence for the well-entrenched speed route when he started competing in the discipline, dynoing past a hold early on to create a sequence known as 'the Tomoa skip'. This is now the sequence used by all of the fastest speed specialists. Unfortunately for him, it became the 'Tomoa slip' in the final race and despite recovering his grasp and scorching to the top, he had gifted the victory to Alberto Gines Lopez. Gines Lopez had the fifth fastest time amongst all the runs of the speed finals, but a series of lucky circumstances gave him a crucial multiplier of one going into the bouldering and lead. Being a lead specialist, he had a very good chance at gold. 

Unfortunately for Gines Lopez, he was poor in the bouldering, placing last after he was the only climber to fail to top B1, a problem most athletes flashed. He made zone on B2 in more attempts than anybody else, bar Ondra who failed to zone. As I noted above, B3 was of zero consequence to the competition. This put pressure on Gines Lopez to do well in lead, but this was his favoured discipline and he still had every chance. When it came to the crunch, he failed to climb with his characteristic determination on the lead route, falling at hold 38 and placing fourth—well behind Schubert, Ondra and Duffy. The look on his face said it all, he had come in as a one discipline specialist and only come fourth in that discipline, it wasn't enough. Only, it turned out to be enough, for a gold medal. None looked more surprised than Gines Lopez himself when it was announced after Schubert's top.

This result left me feeling hollow, so I've studied the scores and system and feel that I've identified where the injustice lies. Some people have said that the scores should simply be added, rather than multiplied, as multiplication artificially creates wider gaps between people. They are missing the point that this is exactly why multiplication is used. If their placings across the three events were added together, you would have had five of the seven climbers in the final on 12 points and require a complicated count back system across the three events and qualification round to split them for silver and bronze medals. Many have said the inclusion of speed is the problem, and while I admit it isn't the best choice, I also don't think it is necessarily unfair. What is unfair is that in the qualifications people are placed in speed by their best time across two runs, yet in the final they are placed via a series of three head to head races. While this makes for more dramatic viewing, the chances of someone slipping or false starting at some point across 24 speed run attempts is high and very likely to skew the results. In fact, if we count Bassa Mawem's did not starts as slips or false starts (because they in effect gifted a victory to opponents in three of the races) then there were seven instances of this happening across the 24 runs in the final, or a one-in three chance. For my liking, that is too high a chance given just how crucial the individual placings are, and especially given that the first run immediately puts you in the bottom or top half of the field, no matter how fast you go in the remaining two runs.

So what happens if we place the finalists by their best time out of the three runs in the speed, regardless of who they were racing and as it is done in the qualification, keeping all else the same for bouldering and lead? For a start, Alberto Gines Lopez, with the fifth fastest speed time, a seventh place in bouldering and fourth in lead comes last of the seven who competed. If that doesn't underline how unfair the result was, there's not much left to say. Nathaniel Coleman, with the second fastest time, would move up to gold medal position. This would be a fair result, as he certainly deserved to win the bouldering discipline with the only top of B2 and he performed above expectations in lead. Silver would have gone to Tomoa Narasaki, who was blisteringly fast in two out of three speed runs, very narrowly third in the bouldering and perhaps most disadvantaged by the poor setting, given his multiple world cup championships in bouldering, and sixth in his weakest discipline, lead. Bronze would remain with Austria's Jakob Schubert via this scoring system, with a sixth in speed, fifth in boulder and a dominant first in lead. Interestingly, Ondra would still come sixth via this scoring method, underlining that he was not hard done by in the actual result. Narasaki was clearly unlucky, but you've got to feel also for Colin Duffy. He had the third fastest speed time and but for the tiniest margin of a false start to Albert Gines Lopez in the first speed round, might have finished first in the Spanish climber's place given the way the next two runs went. He went on to beat Gines Lopez in both the bouldering and lead, as well as beating Schubert in bouldering also, only for him to finish last place in the event. 

Thankfully, there was a women's competition too. This was the triumph of elite climbing performance we all hoped for in the Olympic Games, with the speed climbing placings all working out as seeded. Then, the untouchable Slovenian Janja Garnbret reigned supreme over the field in the bouldering and lead, rightfully earning her gold medal and GOAT status at the tender age of 22. Hometown favourites Miho Nonaka (third, third and fifth) and Akiyo Noguchi (fourth in all three disciplines) of Japan placed in silver and bronze, with Noguchi tied for points with Polish speed specialist Aleksandra Miroslaw (first, eighth and eighth) but placed ahead due to finishing higher in the qualification rounds. This was a fantastic finish to Noguchi's long career at her last ever competition, she retires now from competition climbing after 169 World Cup and World Championship competitions with a phenomenal 75 podiums.

The women's competition was a redemption for this climbing format at the games. Crucially, if you calculate the women's speed placings based on time (rather than head to head) as I suggested we should in the case of the men's, the result would be exactly the same. There were still at least three falls or slips across the women's runs, but thankfully these didn't contribute to skewing the results and people placed where they deserved to, based on their performances. The Paris games are now just three years away and with speed separated from a combined lead and bouldering medal, we should see another riveting competition.

By Tom Hoyle