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2020 Summer Olympics: Everything you need to know about sport climbing

Everything you need to know about newest sport for the Tokyo Olympics.

Young woman climbing wall in gym
Getty Images

At the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, we'll get to watch athletes compete for gold medals in four new sports: karate, surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing (also known as indoor rock climbing). 

Rock climbing has been around since -- well, since the first time someone tried to climb something rocky. But modern recreational climbing started in the 19th century, with Sport Climbing only emerging in the 1970s and '80s. In traditional climbing, sport climbing's outdoor counterpart, the focus is typically on scaling a route or reaching the top of a natural landmark. A lead climber will place bolts on a mountain as they go, typically with hand drills, then remove them once they are complete. The climbers use ropes to protect themselves against falls.

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Traditional climbing takes place outside without a predetermined route.

Getty Images

In contrast, sport climbing takes place on engineered or indoor routes where climbers are using protection already bolted in place. They practice in pursuit of physical perfection and strategy as opposed to vertical height.

Rock climbing has evolved as a catch-all term for many different sports, including everything from free soloing to bouldering. With that in mind, here's everything you need to know about sport climbing at the 2020 Olympics.

Sport climbing events at the 2020 Olympics

Sport climbing will be broken up into three separate disciplines: speed climbing, lead climbing and bouldering. Not every country will be represented; only 20 athletes per gender (40 climbers total) will be allowed to compete at the Games, and only 2 athletes per gender per country will compete in any given event.

FYI, the International Olympic Committee currently recognizes only two genders -- female and male. There are currently stipulations for athletes that identify as transgender, both female and male, to compete. But there aren't any guidelines or rulings for athletes who don't identify as female or male -- including those who are nonbinary, agender and genderqueer.

Speed climbing

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Two climbers, one wall.

IFSC

Speed climbing is relatively simple: there are two climbers with safety ropes and one 15-meter wall set at a 95-degree angle. The climbers race against each other to get to the top, with the fastest one winning. 

Bouldering

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Athletes use physical and mental precision to climb to the top of a bouldering route.

IFSC

Bouldering takes place on an even shorter wall, where climbers take turns attempting to scale as many routes on a four-meter-tall wall in 4 minutes. Each route (also called a bouldering problem) is laid out with hand and foot holds in a specific color, and they vary in difficulty based on the size of the holds and the way they are spaced out. A climber completes a problem by grabbing the top hold with both hands.

Lead climbing

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In Lead Climbing, participants secure themselves with a rope as they climb higher.

IFSC

Lead climbing is arguably the most recognizable of the three events. The climber has six minutes to climb as high on a wall that is taller than 15 meters. They use safety ropes that attach to quickdraws on their way up, allowing the rope to run freely while they stay anchored to the wall. If two athletes reach the same point on the wall, the person who got there first is the winner. 

In both bouldering and lead climbing, climbers are not allowed to practice climbing on the routes before they compete or watch each other scale the wall, and they only have a couple of minutes to study the routes and decide their strategy before the timer begins.

How to qualify for Olympic sport climbing

The 40 spots total for sport climbing are going to be hard to nab. One male and one female spot will be reserved for athletes from Japan, the host country. Another man and woman will be chosen by the Tripartite Commission, who give Olympic spots out to qualified athletes in special circumstances. If you were counting on your toes and fingers, that leaves 36 total spots left. 

The rest of the spots will be determined through a series of qualifying events taking place from August 2019 till spring 2020. 

IFSC Combined World Championships

The championship event for the International Federation of Sport Climbing will take place on August 20-21, 2019 in Toyko, Japan. The top seven women and top seven men will each receive Olympic invitations. Because each country can only have two male and two female athletes, if one country has many female competitors in the top seven, only the top two will be invited and other women further down the list will get bids (the same goes for the men). 

Olympic qualifying event 

This will take place on November 28-December 1, 2019, in Toulouse, France. Athletes that have already qualified for the Olympics will not attend. The only invited athletes will be the top 20 climbers on the IFSC's World Cup circuit, so climbers will be encouraged to participate in the World season. Similar rules as the last event apply, but this time only 6 female and 6 male athletes will get Olympic bids (and again, only 4 total from each country). 

If you're still managing to count along, you'll notice that there's only five spots for men and five for women remaining. Instead of any more mega-events, the rest of bids will be determined through a series of continental championships. 

Continental championships

Athletes that still haven't qualified can compete in these events, but there's a twist: climbers can only participate in the event that their climbing federation is a member of. So, a climber from the US can only compete in the Pan-Am event. The male and female winners from each event will be awarded a spot, but if their country has already met its limit of four athletes total, the Olympic bid will go to the next in line. 

The first continental championship is the Pan-Am event on Feb. 27 to March 1, 2020 at Sender One in Los Angeles, California. The next four take place in April through May of 2020 in each major continent.

Medaling system

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The Olympic and Paralympic medals are made from recycled electronics.

Tokyo 2020

If you thought the qualifying system was a bit complicated, take a deep breath. There's only one set of medals awarded per gender, so all three events will go into determining which country gets the gold, silver and bronze.

The speed climbing discipline will be done in a bracket format, with athletes competing head to head, while bouldering is in a leaderboard format. Lead climbing will have a point system in which each hold on the wall counts as one point and the athlete who climbs the highest will obtain the highest score.

Once all the athletes are ordered by placement per event, their placement numbers will be multiplied, and the climbers with the lowest scores will win medals. Because of the scoring format, each climber will compete in each event. For example, if an athlete gets second place in speed climbing, third in bouldering and first in lead climbing their overall score would be six (2 times 3 times 1 equals 6). 

Sport climbing schedule

The Olympic master schedule has already been released, with sport climbing qualifying events on Aug. 4 and 5, 2020. The finals will be on Aug. 6 and 7. In the US, NBC will broadcast events, with the BBC securing rights in England and Channel Seven, 7Mate and 7Two in Australia. All events will take place at the Aomi Urban Sports Park in Tokyo.