IFSC commentator Charlie Boscoe reports from the second event of the 2019 IFSC World Championships in Hachioji, Japan...
After Team Austria did the dream double last year in Innsbruck and crowned 2 Lead World Champions on home soil, it seemed nigh on impossible that Japan could replicate that achievement in Hachioji, and so it proved. Japan have some fabulous lead climbers (as evidenced, in case there was any doubt, by them taking all 3 men's medals in the Briançon World Cup last month) but the sheer quality of both the men's and women's Lead fields meant that both events were wide open, and a Japanese clean sweep was unlikely.
The difficulty of making predictions was further exacerbated by a factor we don't normally consider too much during a World Cup weekend - fatigue. To illustrate my point, consider the schedule for the week -
Sunday - Women Boulder Qualifying
Monday - Men Boulder Qualifying
Tuesday - Boulder semis and finals
Wednesday - Lead Qualifying
Thursday - Lead semis and finals
The more astute amongst you will have noticed that any man who made it to the Boulder semi/final would be climbing at World Championship level for 4 successive days if they then made it to the Lead semi/final as well. Similarly, any woman who made it to at least the semi of both the Boulder and Lead events would have been climbing for 4 out of 5 days. For many of the athletes, this volume of climbing and competing was a new experience, and before we even got to Hachioji I was pondering how it might affect the results. I remember last year in Innsbruck when Kai Harada won the Boulder part of the World Championships and then, less than 20 hours later he was back on stage competing in the Combined event and barely had the energy walk to the boulders, let alone climb them. I'm struggling to think of any other sport where athletes are expected to perform at the very limit of their abilities for 4 days running…Road biking? Darts? Anyway, my point is that climbing for 4 days running is brutally hard and likely to affect some climbers more than others.
It's very easy to say that these are professional athletes who "should" be able to climb day after day, but they're human beings with muscles, tendons and joints that ache just like everybody else. Furthermore maintaining focus for such a long period is extremely challenging and this combination of mental and physical fatigue made me suspect we might end up with some topsy turvy results. That suspicion was only enhanced when we saw a lot of climbers struggling with their skin in the Boulder part of the Championships. At this time of year it's incredibly hot and humid in Japan, which is far from ideal for skin repair no matter how effectively the venue itself is air conditioned.
After the Boulder event there were several climbers with a point to prove and others chasing the second good result in the space of 3 days. Adam Ondra made the Boulder final but could barely get off the floor (literally) on the final boulders and was obviously keen to make amends in Lead. It's hard to say that Adam is "better" at one discipline than another but I personally see him as a Lead climber more than a Boulder athlete, particularly on nu-school boulders. That said, he came within a whisker of winning the World Cup season title in Boulder, so most people would kill to be that good at their "second" discipline. Janja Garnbret, meanwhile, was hunting the double of Lead and Boulder titles at the same World Championships. She couldn't….could she?
Add into the mix the potential for climbers to qualify for the Combined World Championships (which are in Hachioji immediately after the "normal" World Championships) if they secured good rankings, and we were set up for a fierce contest with Olympic qualification looming large in the background. It's felt in the buildup to Hachioji that the World Championships has almost been forgotten behind the Olympic hype and it's been interesting chatting to the climbers about the situation. I remember interviewing Jakob Schubert live on stage in Innsbruck after his Combined win in last year's World Championship and basically asking if the feeling was even better than his win in the Lead earlier that week. In typical Jakob fashion he was utterly straightforward and said something along the lines of, "No, the Lead was far more important", which made me laugh afterwards but did, at the time, somewhat take the energy out of my interview. I did give him some good natured stick afterwards for sandbagging me live on Austrian TV. Anyway, this year things couldn't be more different - Jakob told me when I saw him in the hotel this week that if he won the Lead but didn't qualify for the Olympics by finishing in the top 7 in the Combined, he'd be disappointed. What a difference a year makes.
And so, onto the Lead.
Both finals were absolutely packed with big names and when we were riding the Tokyo subway into the venue ahead of the evening's action, Mike Langley and I both felt we were in for a classic, and we got one. Both the men's and women's routes were absolutely perfect Lead routes, with unrelenting hard moves, irreversible sequences and no clear cruxes. Basically, they rewarded climbers who were good at route reading, had plenty of horsepower and had "a bit of dog". In other words, good Lead climbers.
In the women's final I really felt it was Janja Garnbret's (SLO) to lose after a storming performance in the semis, and she delivered big time in the final. She's now won the World Championship in 2 disciplines twice, including winning them both here in the space of 2 days. Chaehyun Seo has been a sensation this year but Janja has looked firmly in control from the day we arrived in Japan and I thought that only an unexpected slip would deny her last night. It's actually become quite amusing when I go and interview Janja live at the end of the each event because I give her a hug, congratulate her, get her in position for the camera guy and then wonder what the hell I'm going to ask her. It's almost become a little routine between us and I have to admit that I do struggle to think of a new way of saying, "you crushed everyone and broke another record. How does that feel?" Surely there is now no debate that we are watching the GOAT (to slip into American sports parlance for a moment) of women's climbing, and I for one am not getting bored of it, I'm just struggling to find new ways of describing it. I hope her motivation holds up long enough that she can set some ridiculous records - I said last night that she could win 50 World Cups and 10 World Championships and it's not actually that far off. She's almost halfway to both of those numbers now, and is yet to turn 21.
Her compatriot Mia Krampl (SLO) claimed second and that could be a huge result for her. Slovenia can only take 2 women to the Olympics and Mia will have done her chances of (presumably) being the one to join Janja no harm at all. I ran into her a few hours after the final in downtown Hachioji and she was still in shock and said it might take a few hours to sink in. I said it might take a few weeks actually. If she follows it up with a big performance in the Combined she might have booked her ticket back to Tokyo for 2020.
Ai Mori (JPN) was third and might have done even better if she hadn't fluffed the key traverse out right on the final route. She went feet first, came back, went again with the correct method and then pulled onto the headwall looking "flamed" (to quote Mike Langley). Despite the fatigue she fought with everything she had and might wonder where she could have got to without the mistake earlier down.
Lower down the order Chaehyun Seo (KOR) got 4th, which for any other climber who began their senior career 6 weeks ago would have been incredible. For Seo, it seemed a slight anticlimax but she never quite looked a true threat all week. I suspect the sheer volume of climbing she's had to do this week has depleted her reserves somewhat. Akiyo Noguchi (JPN) had a good burn down in 5th, but please refer to my Boulder write-up for the full "Akiyo is amazing" gush.
Jessy Pilz (AUT) doesn't look anywhere near the Jessy of 2018 right now and never really looked like she could win. I'm not sure if the issue is the change in her training regime as she prepares for the Combined, or just a loss of form. I suspect the former.
Over on the men's side, the final was basically a who's who of World climbing. Realistically I felt that it would come down to Adam Ondra (CZE), Jakob Schubert (AUT) and Alex Megos (GER) and that was exactly how it panned out. Just about all of the other finalists looked capable picking up a medal but I didn't think any of them would beat all 3 of those climbers.
Stefano Ghisolfi (ITA) looked happy to be back at the business end of an IFSC event after a frankly disastrous tour of the Alps in July, but he still doesn't look like he's going to add to his medal tally right now. Hopefully he will find his form in the Combined and the remaining World Cups of the season. Hannes Puman (SWE) deserves a big shout out for making only his second IFSC senior final and climbing well when he got there.
The podium ended up coming down to the 3 climbers I thought it would, with Jakob fighting for his life to take bronze. I still don't think Jakob is quite appreciated enough, perhaps because he's always there so we never have the chance to miss him. He keeps digging out big results year after year in 2 disciplines and is, in my opinion, the best competitor at the IFSC. He judges his energy levels perfectly and executes when it matters most. Apparently he told his physio he was knackered after Boulder qualifying, so for us to be here 3 days later and for him to have picked up 2 medals is frankly astonishing. Anyone who wants to win the Olympics will have to reckon with Jakob and I'm not sure I'd back anyone to beat him in Tokyo 2020. The Combined format is a test of stamina, determination and adaptability, and Jakob has bags of all 3.
Alex Megos looked immense in the Lead semi final and certainly looked fresher than his rivals having not climbed in Boulder semis or finals. He could have won in the Lead final but slipped one move below where Adam got to when he clearly had some gas left and ended up second. It was telling afterwards that he was clearly disappointed - he'd have laughed it off a year ago but nowadays he's here to win. He doesn't even seem to be pretending to be light-hearted about it now and was clearly gutted not to have gone to his limit on the final route.
Out in front was Adam Ondra, who won his third Lead World Championship in the process. Janja is the GOAT of women's IFSC events, but Adam is the GOAT of climbing. Just look at his achievements in competitions, sport climbing, bouldering, big walling and just about any other form of climbing - he is head and shoulders above anyone else as the most accomplished all round rock climber in history. I can't help but wish that he did all IFSC events rather than dipping in and out, but it just makes me enjoy it even more when he does compete. He was exceptionally gracious after his win last night, telling me on the live interview that Alex was stronger and should have won. I saw him later on in the evening and reminded him of the Formula 1 adage that, "To finish first, first you must finish". Adam didn't slip, Alex did, and there can be no doubt who deserved to win.
I've really enjoyed having Adam around this year and have ended up chatting to him quite a lot at events, airports and the various other places we find ourselves on the IFSC tour. He has to have a public persona but I've felt fortunate to get to know him a little bit more this year and see the human side of him a bit. He's determined and driven but there's a very decent and thoughtful person there too. One day, when they've long since forgotten I exist, I'll be able to tell my kids that I knew Adam and Janja once, and I feel very lucky about that.
So, 2 disciplines down, one to go. Before the Speed the climbers do have a rest day and they'd be well advised to remember the cyclists adage of "Never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie". In other words, forget that you're in a fun city and would like to explore, just find somewhere flat to lie and relax because there's a lot more climbing to be done yet. Even those who don't make it to the Speed final will have practise and qualification tomorrow so it will basically be another full day of warming up/cooling down/climbing at the venue for all of them, and that's before the Combined competition even gets underway. Once the Speed is done, it's time for some climbers to book their trip back to Japan next year for the Olympics via the Combined competition. Bloody hell, this is getting real.
IFSC Climbing World Championships - Hachioji (JPN) 2019
|45||Billy Ridal||GBR||Qual' 23+ 51.|
|13||Tina Johnsen Hafsaas||NOR||29|
|44||Joanna Neame||GBR||Qual' 29+ 37.|