Much has now been discussed about the controversial combination format that was held at the Olympics and selected the first Olympic champions. The main focus was on the question of whether the speed discipline falsified the ranking. We say yes. But the vertical sprint was good for the spectacle.
Actually, the debates about the combined format, at least with regard to the Olympics, are obsolete. Because a different format will be held in Paris as early as 2024, with speed as a separate discipline. Only bouldering and lead are multiplied. 'That's a good thing', some find, so the two core disciplines of sport climbing stay among themselves.
'It's a shame', think the others (albeit the minority) - because thanks to the unpredictable speed discipline, it was exciting from the beginning to the last moment.
Favorites and underdogs were difficult to determine in advance, especially because speed was the big unknown. At least for men, almost all of the predictions were wrong. Alberto Gines Lopez, who until then was only vaguely known to many, won. While Grandmaster Adam Ondra came away empty-handed. One was top in speed, the other in lead.
On the ranking list this turned into first place for Gines Lopez - and 1th place for Ondra. That is probably the only reason why Gines Lopez was not the most euphoric Olympic champion of all time at first. His gestures seemed to mean: "How did that happen now?"
And that begs the question: does the ranking reflect the performance?
Duffy actually the best
One peculiarity of the combined format is, unsurprisingly, the calculation. A spectacle for the spectators, a game of nerves for the athletes: one zone or one more top could turn the ranking upside down. The same thing in the lead route: The fact that Schubert, the last athlete, climbed to the deflector changed the whole situation to such an extent that it was not even clear for a long time who was now where in the ranking.
But in retrospect, it wasn't the bouldering or lead disciplines that were scrutinized, but above all speed. On the one hand because this discipline is already leading a certain struggle for existence in the scene. On the other hand, because the knockout mode carried out in the final tends to produce arbitrary results, with major consequences in the final ranking. Two examples:
- If Tomoa Narasaki hadn't slipped in the lower part of the speed route, of all things, in his Tomoa-Skip, he would have won gold in the end. But instead of Tomoa-Skip it was called Tomoa-Slip and in the end the thankless fourth place for the Japanese.
- The American Colin Duffy landed on the 7th place in the final, although his performance was very good. He was the only athlete to fight his way into the top 5 in all three disciplines. He was better than Olympic champion Gines Lopez in bouldering and lead - and actually he was also better than the Spaniard in terms of speed. His best time of the day (6.35 seconds) was faster than that of Gines Lopez (6.42 seconds).
The speed dilemma
Aside from any speed animosity, one has to note: The vertical sprint had a major influence on the outcome of the entire competition. The question is: did the discipline have a disproportionately large influence?
Considered soberly, one would have to say: no. As one of three disciplines, speed stood for a multiplication factor, nothing more and nothing less. All athletes were familiar with the format, had time to get involved and develop a strategy. Anyone who decided to take speed less seriously had to knock out the mortgage in the other two disciplines. So made by Janja Garnbret, who in the end lived up to her role as a high-flyer. Adam Ondra has to serve as a counterexample: With the fourth speed rank he was on medal course, which he gambled away with a mediocre bouldering performance.
On the other hand, you can find good reasons why Speed very well falsified the ranking. In the women's category, the Polish speed specialist Aleksandra Mirsolav landed in fourth place, her score was 64 and was therefore identical to that of bronze winner Akyo Noguchi. While Noguchi showed good performances in all disciplines, Miroslav's fourth place only reflects her speed performance; she achieved little in both bouldering and lead.
Competitive luck is more important
Speed is less complex than bouldering and lead. The two key terms of climbing, “onsight” and “flash”, are dropped in terms of speed, while “time” is a common denominator for all three disciplines (the clock is ticking even with bouldering and lead). Strength, endurance and flexibility are subordinate to speed. That makes the discipline much more one-dimensional. It goes from A to B on the same route. Whoever wants can train them until they can do it in their sleep. The greatest challenge is to get the best performance to the point.
Due to the knockout mode in the finals, the luck of the competition is more important. A slip, a false start or missing the buzzer immediately has uncorrectable consequences in terms of speed, which makes the ranking list a bit arbitrary.
In the men's final, Gines-Lopez's decisive first place was also a lucky coincidence. Let's do it together: If Colin Duffy hadn't made a false start in the first round, the chances would have been good that he would have prevented Gines Lopez from making it to the semifinals (in any case, his best time of the day was better than that of Gines Lopez). In the semifinals, Gines Lopez “only” had to play against Adam Ondra instead of the clear favorite Bassa Mawem, who was injured.
The fact that Gines Lopez was in the speed final at all has a lot to do with coincidence (without wanting to detract from his performance). The fact that he then took first place is again due to the luck in the competition when his competitor and clear favorite Narasaki slips.
Summa Summarum: would, would, would ... But that sums it up: Speed tends more to an arbitrary result than bouldering and lead.
A loss for the audience
Now, with the separation of Speed for Paris 2024, the consequence has already been drawn. Nevertheless, one has to say: the event in Tokyo was not completely wrong. The fact that we were able to watch athletes like Ondra or Megos outside their comfort zone also had its charm. For the non-climbing audience, the speed discipline was probably the most interesting and most understandable one. The fact that the Olympic direction sometimes showed animations while bouldering, telling you that the zone bar was 10 cm wide, showed that climbing is still a marginal sport that needs to be explained: "By the way, it is difficult to hold on here". On the other hand, there was no need for any great explanations when it comes to speed: whoever is on top is one lap further - fast-paced head-to-head races to cheer on. A sport must be able to deliver this in order to gain broad acceptance.
So the bottom line remains: for a ranking list that reflects the true balance of power, the exclusion of speed from the combination calculation is the right solution. The spectacle is likely to suffer.
That might interest you
- Jakob Schubert on the Olympic bronze medal in Tokyo
- Janja Garnbret wins Olympic gold in sport climbing
- Adam Ondra: I just have to forget about speed
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Credits: Cover picture Dimitris Tosidis / IFSC