Tokyo 2020 Sport Climbing on the BBC - Broadcasting an Olympic Debut Interview

© Mike Langley

Just as the 40 climbing athletes are preparing to compete on the world's biggest sporting stage, a team of media professionals are getting ready to present our sport to the world at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games this August. 

Mike Langley commentating for the IFSC in Meiringen.  © The Circuit Climbing
Mike Langley commentating for the IFSC in Meiringen.
© The Circuit Climbing

BBC Sport will be leading the UK Olympic coverage, with commentary from snowsports presenter Ed Leigh and IFSC commentator, route setter and climbing wall manager Mike Langley, with GB Climbing's Molly Thompson-Smith adding insight in the BBC studio. It'll be a very different Games to previous editions, with most production taking place in the BBC's Salford studios, including the Sport Climbing commentary. 

I spoke to members of the BBC Sport production, commentary and studio team who will be presenting our sport live on TV from 3-6 August to find out more about the behind-the-scenes action and how, when and where you can watch the competition unfold. 

UKClimbing will also have an on-the-ground presence, if I get through my COVID testing for travel to Japan. Stay tuned for daily written reports and videos from Tokyo on this website, our social media channels and on my Instagram from 29 July. 

Sport Climbing on BBC Sport 

Studio Guest: Molly Thompson-Smith (GB Team member and Paris 2024 hopeful) 
Commentators: Ed Leigh (BBC snowboard correspondent and commentator), Mike Langley (IFSC commentator, route setter, climbing wall manager and event organiser)
Reporter on the ground: Tim Warwood (TV presenter, commentator, snowboarder)

How to watch - Live daily on BBC 1/Red Button/iPlayer with catch-up options

When? (Tokyo time = 8 hours ahead)

3 August - Men's Qualification (9 a.m. - 2:40 p.m. UK time)

4 August - Women's qualification (9 a.m. - 2:40 p.m. UK time)

5 August - Men's Finals (10:30 a.m - 2:30 p.m. UK time)

6 August - Women's Finals (10:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. UK time)

Mike Langley - BBC commentary 

Mike Langley route setting.  © Mike Langley
Mike Langley route setting.
© Mike Langley

As an experienced climbing commentator with all the lingo in your head, how do you go about the challenge of explaining concepts and what's going on to a mainstream audience? 

I think it's important that we stay true to the sport but strike the balance. You can do both – keep things legit for the climbers out there whilst not confusing new viewers. This is a huge moment for the indoor climbing industry, so we will work hard to make sure the viewers fully grasp what's going on. I will still be dropping a casual "flying toe hook gaston into triple dyno paddle" into the commentary. This is where the dynamic between Ed and I will really help as we can play off each other to get the balance right. I feel when you grasp some of the jargon in a sport it helps you feel a part of something.

How much research is involved beforehand? Will you have any access to information about the route setting, conditions, etc.?

A huge amount! Due to COVID-19 we are doing the coverage from the BBC studios in Manchester instead of in front of the wall in Tokyo. This is certainly going to bring its own challenges. We have been working with the IFSC, amongst others, to make sure we can get as much live information about the routes, boulders, weather conditions and inside stories from on-the-ground as possible. This information is really important to help paint the picture. And while we gather as much of it as we can, the setting team cannot divulge any information about the climbs until the athlete isolation area is closed, right before the round actually starts, even though everything is set around two weeks before kick off! I'm fully prepared for my WhatsApp to be red hot just as we get into it.  

Presenting live scores and understanding what athletes need to do has always been a challenge in climbing, especially in the Combined format. Will there be bespoke graphics on screen, and will there be any speculative/prediction element: 'X needs Zone to make final.' etc.?

This side of climbing commentary, until recently, has been back of an envelope stuff whilst we are live. It can be incredibly stressful – you don't want to call the wrong winner based on your quick calculations! As far as I'm aware there will be plenty of graphics on screen as a lot of work is going into this by the BBC and others. The Combined format, at times, does feel like a live maths competition, but Ed assures me he is a numbers wizard, so I will be concentrating on how small the crimps are whilst fully passing the buck on the numbers/ predictions to him...

Commentating with Charlie Boscoe and Anna Stöhr at the Munich Boulder World Cup.   © Mike Langley
Commentating with Charlie Boscoe and Anna Stöhr at the Munich Boulder World Cup.
© Mike Langley

You've commentated at the IFSC World Championships multiple times and the British Bouldering Championships, which is live streamed on the BBC. The numbers watching in Tokyo, though, will be far higher. Are you nervous/excited about bringing climbing to such a huge audience? No pressure!

Ha ha, yeah, no pressure! Of course there are plenty of nerves, but it doesn't change my approach or my focus if it is just one psyched person watching or one million. I'm there to get into the details of what is going on and I'll do that no matter how big or small the event is. Nerves aside, I'm so honoured to be in a position where I can contribute to this huge moment in climbing's history and I hope people enjoy it.

Have you had any practice runs with the team?

I have never worked alongside Ed, but he has so much experience across so many sports that it should be easy to drop into a flow. He is currently out in New Zealand, so we have been preparing on Zoom. We have a couple of days in person before the Olympics to run through the delegation of work, do some dry runs on previous events and settle into the rhythm of things. Exciting times! 

Ed Leigh - BBC commentary

Do you have any personal interest in climbing?

I grew up, like most kids climbing everything I could; haybale stacks, trees, building site scaffold... you name it, I wanted to get to the top of it. When they built a climbing gym in Gloucester my older brother and I were straight in there and learned to lead climb and got owned regularly by the bouldering wall. Through my late teens and 20s when I was focused on snowboarding and skating I drifted away from it. But as I arrived in my early thirties and started to push the alpine side of snowboarding I found myself coming back to climbing. Then as my kids grew it became something that we could all do together. I'm far from a regular and even further from being any good, but I still love to climb whenever I can… especially when it leads to a great snowboard descent.

How did the commentary gig come about?

When the so called 'urban' sports were introduced for Tokyo, Ron Chakraborty asked if I'd be interested in commentating on those new sports. I know some people will feel that I'm not the right person for the job or that I don't know enough about climbing, but there are limitations that need to be considered. When we were originally travelling out to cover the games from Tokyo there were only three accreditations available for commentators to cover Skate, Surf, BMX and Climbing because each person will cost in excess of £10K when you factor in travel, accommodation, per diems and fee. I have been commentating for the BBC for 15 years and Tokyo will be my sixth games for them. I have covered a multitude of sports and Red Bull TV actually use me as their jack of all trades host for action sports because I have developed a knack of breaking down action and adventure sports for mainstream audiences without alienating the core (yet…). So with experience across all the sports I will act as the lead commentator. My weakest sport is climbing, so Mike was the second name on the list, we then added Tim Warwood to work on the other three but it was a compromise. 

The moment it became clear that by going to Tokyo we wouldn't gain anything life actually became much easier. Tim Warwood is still going to Japan as our man on the ground which he is brilliant at, but it means we now have an expert in each sport now, which I'm really happy about because it's so important to be able to do each of these sports justice on this stage.

How have you approached learning about the format, rules, the athletes and their stories etc.? 

As I do with all sports, methodically, but it's important to acknowledge how much easier research is these days with the advent of social media, podcasts and live streamed events. These days you don't have to be on site and immersed in the scene for years to gather all the information you need. But that said you can't learn a sport in a couple of months. The key for me is to follow the story of the event as it unfolds and give Mike the platform to unpick the what, why and hows. 

The interesting bit is how you naturally build a rhythm as a partnership. I've watched a fair bit of climbing now and there is a temptation to fall in to the action sports trap of talking constantly, when in a sport like climbing the tennis or golf approach of using silence as a tool to build tension around the action works really well. We've got some warm up days so we'll be playing with how we work together in that time.

You won't be in Tokyo, but Salford. How will this impact your typical approach to commentary, with regard to having access to behind-the-scenes information and interviews with athletes etc.?

When Mike and I first sat down to work through everything we needed to do, this was the first bit of homework I gave Mike: get yourself in the WhatsApp groups for anyone you can on site: route setters, technical delegates, judges, coaches and athletes. Technology is our friend here and Mike's job is to be as connected to the venue as possible. He's done a brilliant job with that so far and because we've sorted this out so early it looks like we'll have better intel than if we were on site!

Molly Thompson-Smith - studio pundit

Molly Thompson-Smith.  © Molly Thompson-Smith
Molly Thompson-Smith.
© Molly Thompson-Smith

You came close to making Tokyo and now have your sights set on Paris 2024. How does it feel to play an important media role in the presentation of our sport in its Olympic debut?

It's really nice to still have some involvement in the Games, and helping out with the commentary is probably the next best thing after competing there myself! Hopefully I can offer some interesting comments as a climber and competition athlete, and a bit more insight into the athletes as people as I know a lot of them very well! 

This will be the biggest event of their careers so far. Do you think it could be stressful for you to watch, knowing the pressure they're under? 

Not really! I think a lot of the athletes are just excited to be there representing themselves and their countries in such a prestigious event - especially after the challenges of the last year, it's great the event is still going ahead! The only person I'll probably be a little nervous for is my partner Jan, but again I know how much he'll enjoy just having the opportunity to be there so it's just going to be a great couple days of climbing entertainment!

The Combined format received a mixed response from athletes. It does seem to make for an exciting (if stressful!) event to spectate, though! Would you agree? 

The format really forces you to wait until the very end to find out who'll end up where, which makes for an exciting and nail-biting day of competition! It's been interesting and exciting to see all the hard work the Olympians have put into their prep in the disciplines that they don't specialise in - for example we've seen Miho Nonaka win a medal in speed climbing as well as make the final of a Lead World Cup in the run-up to the Games. Seeing the athletes take on the best of the other disciplines has pushed the standard up a lot which is also very cool!

But at the end of the day it's nice to see all the disciplines represented at the Olympics, and hopefully it'll be so popular with the IOC and the public that climbing will have separate events for all the disciplines one day. 

What do you hope people watching the sport for the first time will make of it? 

I hope they'll learn the basics of climbing so they can really understand the strength and technical ability of all the athletes in Tokyo, and really enjoy it as much as all of us climbers will! I'm sure plenty will be inspired to try it out which is the whole point of the Olympics - to inspire!

Ron Chakraborty - Lead Executive, Major Events at BBC Sport

How much coverage of Sport Climbing can we expect to see on the BBC? How have COVID restrictions impacted broadcast capabilities?

The BBC will be the home of the big medal moments for the Tokyo Olympics, and we really hope Climbing will provide us with some brilliant action. The challenge we have is that this is the first Summer Olympics under our rights deal with Discovery/Eurosport where we are restricted to showing two live sports at any one time. The Climbing finals take place between 10.30 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. UK time which is a great time slot, but it does mean it clashes with sports like athletics and hockey finals, so we may not be able to show every discipline live and uninterrupted.

COVID has made a big difference to our plans. We were originally going to take our studio and commentary teams out to Japan as we would usually do for a Summer Games, but the risks and uncertainty involved with that has meant that we're now doing the vast majority of our production from the UK. 

When and where can people watch it?

We'll be on BBC1 from around midnight to 3 p.m. each day with the live sport, before an afternoon catch-up show and the prime time highlights every night. There's a second live stream of sport available on iPlayer and Red Button and we intend to have loads of catch-up options available at the end of each day – including the Climbing! – on iPlayer.

How does the BBC choose which sports to focus on? Is climbing of particular interest as a new sport?

Our number one priority will be GB medal moments, and after that it's a mixture of when GB athletes are in action, the sports that are popular with our audiences, and sessions where a number of medals are won. Climbing is definitely of interest to us. It's one of the new sports intended to change the tone of our Olympics coverage, which is definitely something we're excited about too.

Does having Team GB athletes in the line-up - in this case Shauna Coxsey - influence BBC coverage? If Shauna doesn't make finals, will it still be streamed, etc.?

Definitely. When it comes to the new sports, having Shauna in Climbing, Sky Brown in Skateboarding and Charlotte Worthington in BMX has given them an extra level of publicity and turned their finals into must-see moments. We'll still show the Climbing Finals, but like all sports, if there's no GB interest then it can slip down the priority against a sport in which there is.

You've increased your climbing content on BBC Sport in recent years. Based on past Games, how much impact does Olympic coverage have on a new sport's profile and public interest? 

Probably the best example I can think of is snowboarding, where the UK indoor ski slopes received a huge increase in bookings following our Winter Olympics coverage. It's especially true with new sports which may not have received mainstream coverage before, so here's hoping for a big rise in climbing fans this summer.

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15 Jul, 2021

"I've watched a fair bit of climbing now and there is a temptation to fall in to the action sports trap of talking constantly, when in a sport like climbing the tennis or golf approach of using silence as a tool to build tension around the action works really well."


15 Jul, 2021

That’s a really interesting article. Kudos!

15 Jul, 2021

So from the UK where can we watch the best coverage of Olympic climbing?

From that article, I fear the volume BBC coverage might compare favourably with the usual full IFSC youtube coverage. Are Eurosport likely to do better than the BBC for climbing?

15 Jul, 2021

It's hard to tell if the climbing will definitely be covered live, even if online? Or will we have to just wait for the highlights to go on the website later - a huge disappointment if so.

Good article though.

16 Jul, 2021

I really hope they bring energy and the insight required. The problem with comp commentary at the moment is that it all feels a bit pally and Manchester centric, we need the background knowledge athlete of Denise Lewis and the critique of Michael Johnson, if they can get close to that tone it will be great. A hard job as I well know, good luck team

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