Behind the Scenes of Sport Climbing's Olympic Debut Article

© Daniel Gajda/IFSC

Working behind the scenes of Sport Climbing's debut at Tokyo 2020 is a team of IFSC officials and local volunteers who are hoping to put on a good show on the world's biggest sporting stage. From routesetters to judges to belayers and brushers, the finest in climbing event organisation are currently in Tokyo battling the heat and humidity as they prepare for the big day in six days' time. 

Unprecedented scenes: Olympic routesetting.  © Daniel Gajda/IFSC
Unprecedented scenes: Olympic routesetting.
© Daniel Gajda/IFSC

Here are some of the unsung heroes who are working to help things run smoothly at the event:

IFSC Officials Nominated for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020:

Technical Delegate Sport             Christophe Billon (FRA)

Jury President                                 Stanley Yeo (SGP)            

Judge                                                 Tim Hatch (GBR)              

Judge                                                 Ying Cheng (CHN)            

Judge                                                 Paul Ledet (CAN)             

Chief Routesetter Lead                 Adam Pustelnik (POL)    

Routesetter Lead                           Hiroshi Okano (JPN)       

Routesetter Lead                           Jan Zbranek (CZE)            

Chief Routesetter Bouldering     Percy Bishton (GBR)       

Routesetter Bouldering                Manuel Hassler (SUI)     

Routesetter Bouldering                Katja Vidmar (SLO) (withdrawn due to pregnancy, replaced by Garrett Gregor (USA))         

Routesetter Bouldering                Romain Cabessut (FRA)

There was a stringent selection process to decide the individuals representing in each role. 

"Aside from our athletes, IFSC officials are at the heart of each international Sport Climbing event. We are both privileged and proud to have such an experienced, accomplished team behind our events in 2020 – a pivotal year for our sport," said IFSC President Marco Scolaris following the announcement of the officials roster, pre-pandemic. 

In addition to these IFSC officials is a crack team of local JMSCA volunteers who will serve as Olympic-level belayers, brushers, runners and Speed clipper-inners. A test event in March 2020 put them through their paces, and now they're ready to welcome the 40 Sport Climbing athletes from 3-6 August.

British Judge Tim Hatch doesn't expect the scoring element to be much different. "We think there's a higher risk of appeals — that's just a logical extrapolation of known behaviour," he explains. "We expect more appeals at a World Championships than at World Cups, more at a World Cup than a youth event. There'll obviously be pressure to resolve those quickly at the Olympics."

The bigger difference, he says, will be in the general management of the event. "In any climbing competition the main problem is managing the logistics involved with having hundreds of competitors," Hatch says. "The Olympic Games are a different beast altogether. The choreography behind the scenes is a completely different level to anything you'd normally have to deal with."

The environmental conditions of an outdoor event (predicted and possible, including high temperatures, heavy rain and typhoons) must also be considered. "There's more contingency planning than we'd normally worry about, all of which becomes a complex problem given the number of stakeholders involved," Hatch says. 

Over the years, Hatch has been involved in the IFSC's event scoring system and mobile app development, but once again the Games will provide a new challenge. "The Olympic Games also runs its own IT system, the complexity of which is difficult to describe," he says.

Competition climbing will reach new heights in Tokyo.   © Daniel Gajda/IFSC
Competition climbing will reach new heights in Tokyo.
© Daniel Gajda/IFSC

The routesetting team even have access to a CAD program with a 3D rendering of the wall and holds to enable off-the-wall experimentation.

For British setter Percy Bishton, Chief setter in Boulder in Tokyo, the event will cap a long career of world-class route setting on the international stage. "I was pretty surprised and really grateful for the opportunity to get to go to the Games because I've been working in competition climbing through its evolution over the last 20 years and to get a chance to go along and be involved in this next part is a pretty cool way to end your career," Bishton told UKC earlier this year.

Setters have been working under unforgiving levels of heat and humidity at the outdoor venue. "There's not a lot we can do about the conditions," Bishton explained. "The competition will take place later in the evening when it's cooler, so we'll test the climbs under the same conditions that the athletes will climb them in."

Bishton described putting any pressure to perform on the biggest stage yet to the back of his mind. Instead, he'll be focusing on the task at hand. "If you think about it too much you won't be able to do anything," he said. "If you think about the billions of people watching on TV at any one time... it just doesn't make any sense. I'm not too worried."

For the most part, Bishton simply hopes that new audiences will find enjoyment in the athletes' performances on his creations. "It's a sport that I've done and loved all my life. If I can bring that sort of happiness into other people's lives, I think that's a pretty cool thing," he summed up. 

The routesetting team at work under the heat.  © Daniel Gajda/IFSC
The routesetting team at work under the heat.
© Daniel Gajda/IFSC

Garrett Gregor, a US routesetter in Boulder, was called up unexpectedly to replace Katja Vidmar, who withdrew due to pregnancy. "It's hard to put into words how grateful I am to have been selected to be on the team that has the opportunity to showcase Sport Climbing on the world stage in Tokyo," he told me earlier this year. "One of my goals as a routesetter has been to encourage others to try the sport and to create movement that excites and inspires. The movement that we help to create will invariably have some effect on how the first-time spectator experiences and understands the sport."

The stands at the Aomi Urban Sports Park, the location of Sport Climbing's debut.  © Daniel Gajda/IFSC
The stands at the Aomi Urban Sports Park, the location of Sport Climbing's debut.
© Daniel Gajda/IFSC

"It's an incredible moment not just for climbing but also for the athletes, the organisers and the routesetters. I am confident that with the experience and talent of everyone on the routesetting crew that we will live up to the expectations we have for ourselves and that everyone involved hopes to achieve."

Let's hope it goes a bit more smoothly than this incident at the test event in March 2020, perfectly captured by Bishton: 

The athletes will have three days of free practice this Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in addition to a mandatory attendance practice session on Saturday. Some athletes are currently in holding camps (such as Team GB's Shauna Coxsey in Yokohama) while others have gone straight to the Olympic Village (the Australians, Italians). Some teams with multiple athletes have spent a longer period at specific climbing camps in Kurayoshi (Team France), Katsushika (Team Slovenia), Morioka (Team Canada) and Hachioji (Team USA). 

Stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes next week as I (hopefully) make it to Tokyo for some on-the-ground reporting. What does it feel like to belay an Olympic Gold medal-winning climb? How does it feel to watch your Olympic masterpieces being climbed? Who deserves a medal for world-beating brushing technique? All will be revealed...

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Somewhat disappointing that despite one of the key principles for nomination being gender equality, 7 out of 7 route setters are men.

30 Jul

I was going to put the blame for this solely on the IFSC's lack of chief routesetters that are women, therefore leaving the choice of setters for the biggest event in sport climbing history as a choice from many men, plus Katja Vidmar. It didn't strike me that there was much chance for women routesetters at the games since there are so few with the experience I would assume they're looking for at the Olympics.

But having just looked into it a bit, there was certainly an obvious missed opportunity to replace KV with a woman - she was replaced with Garrett Gregor, who is a junior routesetter; of the four junior routesetters on the circuit, Helene Janicot is one. So selecting her instead of GG would have at least retained the ratio that was initially chosen (6:1, obviously still poor). There is a chance that HJ being French, and Romain Cabessut being on the team, was a part of the decision making process, but they certainly didn't try too hard to compensate for this!

This document gives a list of all chief and junior routesetters for the IFSC. There is certainly an urgent need to employ more women in competition routesetting, and I hope the IFSC is moving quickly towards correcting this.

2 Aug

Does anyone know why there are a few black holds on the speed wall rather than all of them being red as usual?

2 Aug
3 Aug

The black holds are touch sensitive and are used to record split times... although they didn't show those on the TV.

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