Climbing in the Olympics – Everything You Need to Know (TOKYO 2021)

Climbing was supposed to make its Olympics debut at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, but because of the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) the games were postponed. The Olympics started in July 2021.

The event will combine three different disciplines in sport climbing. These are speed climbing, lead climbing, and bouldering. Speed climbing will be competed on 15 meter walls, bouldering is on a 4 meter wall, and lead climbing is on a wall over 15 meters. In speed climbing, 2 athletes go head to head climbing the same route on adjacent climbing walls and are timed until they finish. Bouldering will have a time limit, and climbers will have to climb many different fixed routes. Lead climbers must climb as high as they possibly can in the time limit given on a wall measuring over 15 meters. Every climber will have to compete in all three of these disciplines and will be scored on each of them. These will then be combined to reveal and overall score. When bouldering, climbers may not use any other equipment to aid them other than rock climbing shoes and chalk. Climbing ropes and other safety equipment can be used when lead climbing and speed climbing.

Rock climbing has been around for a very long time, and I’m actually surprised it’s taken this long to introduce a sport like this into the Olympics, however I’m happy that professional climbers around the world will be able to compete against each other on a major stage like the Olympic Games. The amount of exposure climbing will receive will be incredible. Anyway, keep reading for more information regarding climbing at the Olympics.

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Why is Sport Climbing in the Olympics?

The Olympic Games is an event that is televised all around the World. Its purpose is to entertain and make money. That’s pretty much the purpose of most of events that are put on for the public. In recent years, the International Olympic Committee (aka IOC) has realised that they should be focusing their attention towards a younger audience. If the Olympics can make the youth excited, they will inspire more youthful athletes which is better for the future of the Olympics.

This is the reason climbing has been introduced into the Olympics. Climbing in general has not only increased in popularity over the last few years, but it also has younger athletes involved at the top of their game. This will obviously interest a more youthful audience. As climbing will be involved in such a large scale event, this will also increase the interest for the sport overall. If the future of the Games is the IOCs priority, you can see why they would add climbing. It’s a sport that:

  • Will inspire the younger generation
  • Is increasing in popularity
  • Is a sport that contains no violence, and it has a lot of support from fans around the world
  • Is generally quite easy to set up as a competition sport

The Types of Sport Climbing to be Competed in the Olympics

As mentioned earlier, there are three types of sport climbing involved in the 2020 Olympics: speed climbing, lead climbing, and bouldering. All of which will be judged separately and the scores will be combined to make one overall score. Let’s look at each different type of climbing involved and find out what each of them involve.

Speed Climbing

Speed climbing is a specialist form of climbing that takes two climbers, side by side on the same route and the first to climb to the top wins. As with most forms of climbing, not all the holds need to be used when ascending to the top. International competitions require that the wall is 15 meters high from start to finish. Each climb is timed by a stopwatch and the climbers must either press a button at the top of the wall that will stop the timer or a light sensor will be used if the climber passes it. Many climbers, professional or not, haven’t even tried this type of climbing. Some climbers that are used to lead climbing and bouldering have had to start introducing speed climbing into their training regime for the first time in their life to be in with a chance at the 2020 Olympics. Speed climbing also includes the use of ropes as a safety precaution. Originally this was operated by two human belayers but has since been replaced by autobelays in competition.

Speed climbing routes are standardized throughout and therefore can be replicated at indoor climbing gyms so athletes can prepare for competition. This does not mean, however, that any climbing wall with the standard route can be used for competition. Only International Federation of Sport Climbing (aka IFSC) approved walls can be used for competitions and for setting new speed climb records. World records for speed climbing can be set at any IFSC approved speed climbing competition, but they can also be set on any approved speed climbing wall as long as an IFSC appointed Jury President is present to witness and document the new record. The current world records in speed climbing on a 15 meters IFSC approved wall are 5.6 seconds for men and 7.53 seconds for women. Both of these records were set at World Cup events.

As we have mentioned, the speed climbing route is standard across the board but has no official grade. Many people have tried to nail down a grade, however it’s near impossible to do so as speed climbing is completely different to other types of sport climbing. There is only one hold used in speed climbing, but it can be turned and attached to the wall in different ways to make it a different type of hold. The hold can be made into a jug or a sloper depending on what side of the hold is at the top.

Speed climbing is one of the lesser trained forms of sport climbing, but the exposure from the Olympic games in 2020 will probably entice a few lead climbers and boulderers into giving it a try. There are also a lot more indoor lead climbing and bouldering gyms around the world than speed climbing gyms.

Lead Climbing

Lead climbing is a broad term for some other types of climbing. For example, the type of lead climbing that will be competed in the Olympics will be sport climbing. However, traditional climbing (aka trad climbing) is also a type of lead climbing that’s different to sport climbing.

In lead climbing, a leader installs protection onto the wall or rockface (usually bolts and/or pitons) and clipping themselves to it with elastic rope and quickdraws (or traditional equipment). Other people can then follow the leader, attaching their own equipment onto the bolts/pitons. Of course, in the Olympics they will be using quickdraws rather than trad climbing equipment. A quickdraw is made by taking two carabiners and attaching them together with a form of strong, rigid material.  The carabiners are a little different – one has a solid, straight gate which is clipped to the protection. The other is either solid and slightly bent, or it’s slightly thinner (aka a wire gate) – this is connected to the rope.

A form of belay is needed when lead climbing (either a machine or person), which has the job of holding the rope if a climber were to fall, and to let out slack on the rope so the climber can move. In your usual lead climbing gym, the climbing wall would be around 15 meters high.


Bouldering is a type of free climbing that can be described as simply climbing without the aid of any equipment other than climbing shoes and chalk. Indoor bouldering gyms consist of artificial holds made of a polyurethane resin. The different holds often try to replicate the types of rock you would find when outdoor climbing. In these rock climbing gyms, there’s a large safety mat that covers all of the fall zones. Bouldering is done at a maximum of around 4 meters high (15 feet).

Outdoor bouldering is very similar to indoor bouldering, however you need to bring your own crash pads/safety mats with you. You’ll also need to bring extra supplies because there may not be a shop close to you if you need food or water. When you’re at an indoor bouldering gym, they’ll usually have a café or shop within the gym. When outdoor bouldering you’ll also find that climbing real rock is actually very different to climbing on an artificial climbing wall with the polyurethane holds.

Criticisms of Sport Climbing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics from Climbers and Fans

When change happens there’s always people that are for it and others that are against it, however there are some pretty reasonable explanations why people oppose the way that sport climbing has been added to the Olympics.

The main reason for the opposition comes down to the three types of climbing all being scored together. Speed climbing is a type of sport climbing that isn’t as popular in terms of participation as bouldering or lead climbing. Some well-known, professional climbers have been bouldering and/or lead climbing all their lives but haven’t even been speed climbing once. Climbers like this are trying to qualify for the Olympics and are going to have to learn speed climbing from scratch. This then means that pure-bred boulderers or lead climbers that are better than some speed climbers may lose simply because they haven’t been speed climbing very long.

In a usual climbing competition, you’ll find speed climbing completely separate to lead climbing and bouldering for the very reason mentioned above. This then means that some top boulderers or top lead climbers may not even bother training for the 2020 Olympics purely on the basis that speed climbing is involved.

Another criticism is that some top climbers such as Alex Honnold and Chris Sharma don’t even competition climb and yet they climb on rock faces much harder than those found in competition climbing. Therefore, how would we know we’re finding a deserving Olympic winner? Of course, the argument could be made that over time if sponsored enough, top climbers like Alex or Chris may decide to take part in the Olympics. Money talks, of course.

How Will Each Type of Climbing be Scored in the Olympics?

The overall score of an athlete will be the combination of all 3 types of sport climbing: speed climbing, lead climbing, and bouldering. Each type of climbing will be scored individually in specific ways, similar to the ways they’re scored in normal competition sport climbing. These ways are:

  • Speed climbing is a pretty easy one to figure out – it’ll be scored by looking at the quickest time taken to ascend the standard route.
  • Lead climbing will be scored by the highest hold the climber has reached, as long as they are in a stable position when on the hold. Judging is also based on time taken to reach the hold, the route taken to reach the hold, and time management used on the wall.
  • In competition bouldering, only 2 holds count towards the score: the zone hold and the top hold. The zone hold is a hold that’s found somewhere in the middle of the climb. There is also a time limit – the route must be finished in this time. The athletes will be marked first on how many boulder problems they have topped, second on how many zone points have been reached, thirdly how many attempts it took to complete the routes, and fourthly how many attempts it took to reach zone holds.

How will they Select Who Qualifies for the 2020 Olympics in Sport Climbing?

First of all we know that there’s going to be 20 men and 20 women qualifying and therefore we have 40 climbers in total. Every entering country will only be allowed to have 2 men and 2 women in their Olympic team.  This means, of course, that when the 2020 Olympics comes around, not every country will have qualified for sport climbing. Of course, as Japan are the host country they’ll have auto-qualification for at least one competitor from each gender.

To qualify, climbers will have to do well in other events before 2020. If a number of climbers from the same country do well (more than 2 from each gender) then only the top 2 from each gender will qualify. These events will be:

  • The IFSC Combined World Championships held on August 20th-21st 2019 in Tokyo, Japan. 7 men and 7 women will be selected. After this event there will be 9 climbers of each gender qualified for the 2020 Olympics (2 from the host country and 7 from the event).
  • The Olympic Qualifying Event (aka OCE)held on November 28th-December 1st 2019 in Toulouse, France. The OCE will invite the top 20 highest ranked athletes from the IFSC World Cup circuit. The top 6 ranked climbers from the OCE will qualify for the 2020 Olympics. After this event there will be a total of 15 climbers of each gender qualified for the 2020 Olympics.

The last 5 spots will be given to those that win 5 Continental Championships happening in Spring 2020 within their country or region. The Continental Championships involved are:

  • The Pan-Am Continental Championship on February 27th-March 1st 2020
  • The Europe Continental Championships on April 16th-18th 2020
  • The Oceania Continental Championships on April 18th-19th 2020
  • The Africa Continental Championships on May 1st-3rd 2020
  • The Asia Continental Championships on May 18th-24th 2020

Should Climbing Be an Olympic Sport?

Sport climbing is believed to have been around since the 1880s, which is about 140 years ago now, so it has a vast history. The IOC seems to have a plan to inspire young people to compete in sports to ensure that the Olympic Games will have a better future. They know that climbing in various forms has become more popular with a young crowd, and a lot of the professional climbers are in their early and mid 20s, therefore appealing to the younger crowd. These points alone make sport climbing a perfect candidate for the Olympics.

Along with climbing being appealing to a younger audience, the Olympics has become very strict in terms of gender equality, and unlike most sports women seem to have a lot of advantages over men when sport climbing – they’re usually more flexible and they weigh less which helps when climbing. Of course, a man’s speed and strength will naturally be better than a woman’s. Because of this, there will be more viewership from a female audience. If you compare the ratio of men to women climbers compared to the ratio of men to women footballers you’ll see that there is a closer percentage of men to women in climbing. Climbing seems to be more unisex than sports such as football or wrestling.

Climbing is also a very respectful activity and sport. The climbing community is usually very friendly. The Olympics thrive on these values, so climbing would be a perfect addition to the games.

Future Proposals to Climbing in the Olympics

We know that sport climbing is going to be competed at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, however it’s still to be decided whether or not climbing will be featured in the Paris 2024 Olympic games. It needs to be approved by the International Olympic Committee (aka IOC) through two rounds of voting; it had its first voting round in March and succeeded, its next is scheduled for June 24th. Even if it succeeds on the 24th, we still have to wait for December 20th which is after the Tokyo Olympics. Obviously, if sport climbing gets no viewership in Tokyo and/or it isn’t worth their time then the IOC may consider not approving it for the Paris Olympics.

If approved for the Paris Olympic Games, climbing will be split up into two separately judged sports:

  1. Sport climbing
  2. Lead climbing/bouldering

These are all to be climbed in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, however they are judged together as one sport. After much criticism from fans and climbers around the world, the IOC made the decision to separate climbing into two sports if it were to be approved for 2024. The reason that sport climbing, lead climbing, and bouldering were all grouped together for the 2020 Olympics is because the International Federation of Sport Climbing (aka IFSC) was only allowed to have one medal per gender. Because of this the IFSC decided that the combination of these 3 different disciplines wouldn’t leave anybody out. Now the problem that we have with this is that people who have been lead climbing and/or bouldering all their life are now trying to learn how to speed climb from scratch.

In the 2020 Olympics there will be 40 climbers (20 men and 20 women) in total competing, however there will be 72 (36 men and 36 women) competing in the 2024 Paris Olympics if approved. 16 of the men and 16 of the women will compete in Speed Climbing for 6 medals (Bronze, Silver, and Gold for each gender). And 20 of the men and 20 of the women will compete in Lead Climbing/ Bouldering for 6 medals.

Sport climbing is not the most popular sport to watch on television. A lot of people who climb regularly around the world aren’t even interested in watching climbing competitions. However, we all recognise that some people will just watch a sport on television specifically because it’s part of the Olympics.

Personally, I wouldn’t usually watch table tennis but when it’s part of the Olympics I might have it on in the background or I’ll watch it if someone from my country is on. The same thing can happen with climbing and I can honestly understand if a non-climber would rather watch speed climbing rather than bouldering or lead climbing. Speed climbing happens very quickly, and there’s a lot more excitement for the viewer who has no climbing knowledge. On the other hand, how many people who aren’t usually interested in climbing competitions will actually watch sport climbing at the Olympics compared to those who are already interested in climbing that will focus more on lead climbing or bouldering?

It’s a tough call, but personally I can see speed climbing being a lot more popular in terms of viewership than the other 2 types of sport climbing. Not only will the non-climber be more interested in speed climbing, regular climbers may find speed climbing quite interesting and exciting as well.

Is Alex Honnold in the Olympics? Alex Honnold is not usually a competition climber – he’s usually lead climbing and free-soloing in the Nevada mountains somewhere. No, he’s not.

What sports were added at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics? The sports added at the 2020 Olympics in alphabetical order will be:

  • [Team] Archery
  • Baseball/Softball
  • BMX park
  • Fencing – all 6 team events now added
  • [Team] Judo
  • Karate
  • [Duo] Shooting
  • Skateboarding
  • Sport  Climbing
  • Surfing
  • [Mixed Doubles] Table Tennis

Is Ice Climbing in the Olympics? Ice climbing is set to be involved in the next 2022 Winter Olympics held in Beijing.


I'm the owner of Rock Climbing Central and I fell in love with climbing about 5 years ago as soon as my feet touched the wall. Since then all I've pretty much done is research about climbing and climb whenever possible.

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