IFSC commentator Charlie Boscoe reports from the final and most exciting event of the 2019 IFSC World Championships in Hachioji, Japan, where the first Olympic quota places were decided...
After a busy, eventful and thoroughly enjoyable World Championships, the top 20 ranked climbers per gender headed into the Olympic format Combined World Championships in Hachioji. It really is hard to overstate the size of this moment - climbing has been pushing for the Olympics for many years, it was confirmed in 2016 and now we're actually putting climbers forward for qualification.
I couldn't help but feel incredibly nervous about the whole thing; the Olympics has been in the future for so long that for it suddenly to be here felt impossibly daunting. It felt like waking up in a hut below an alpine route you've been dreaming about for years and wanting nothing more than just to run away and keep in a dream rather than deal with the reality of actually climbing the thing. When Mike Langley and I sat down at our desk to start the stream I did actually look over at him and thought, "Bloody hell, are we actually going to do this?" Well, climbing got on the rollercoaster years ago and there's no getting off now….
I wrote an article a few weeks ago explaining the whole Combined format and the Qualification Pathway to the Olympics but just to recap briefly here's how it works. The climbers compete in a qualifying round of 20 climbers per gender and in that round they do Speed, then Boulder then Lead. A climber's score is their ranking (out of 20) in each discipline multiplied by their ranking in the others, so if, for example, I was 3rd in Speed, 10th in Boulder and 4th in Lead, my score would be 120 (3 x 10 x 4). Obviously, the lower the score the better. The 8 best-scoring climbers then progress to a Combined final, where the order of events and ranking/scoring system is the same. The top 7 climbers in that final (with a few caveats which are explained in the other article) are then put forward for Olympic selection. I'd recommend reading the article before continuing or some of what I'm about to say will sound somewhat confusing.
After the gruelling schedule of the main World Championships the 20 climbers per gender had a slightly easier time of it in the Combined event because they had a day off between qualifying and the final. That said, most of the climbers looked pretty tired by the time the final round came around and I suspect that if you find yourself on the beaches of Europe in the next few weeks you'll probably run into a famous climber - the IFSC athletes are all seaside-bound judging by everyone I talked to, and they'll have earned a rest.
Listing here everyone who was disappointed not to make it to the Combined event (because they didn't perform well enough in the main World Championships) would be an article in itself, but the highest profile omissions included Sascha Lehmann (SUI), Manu Cornu (FRA), Will Bosi (GBR) and Fanny Gibert (FRA), all of whom will now have to find a way to the Olympics somewhere down the qualification pathway along with those who made the Combined event but didn't perform well.
The Combined qualification rounds felt quite chaotic to me, simply because a single bad result for someone sent them hurtling down the order. The fact that rankings for the 3 disciplines are multiplied rather than added means that if you end up with a 20 (or something close to it) next to your name, you ranking points suddenly rocket up and your position goes the opposite way. Everyone's ranking also affects the score of everyone below them too, so that's an added complication. As such, it felt like the competition was wide open all the way through, and I quite enjoyed it despite the constant feeling that I was trying to do the toughest maths exam of my life whilst keeping up a stream of words.
After the women's qualification day (which was the first one), Mike and I concluded that actually we should just focus on the action rather than the scores during Combined qualification because even if you manage a "Rainman" moment and figure out some scenario, saying "Janja has to get to hold 24 because that will mean she's at least 3rd, while it would push Shauna down to at least 4th, which means that best score she can get is….etc." isn't actually very entertaining or useful much of the time. With hindsight it's slightly easier to make some predictions/assumptions but in real time everything is happening so fast that we let the action take centre stage and left the scores for the end in all but the most important of moments.
The qualification rounds felt even more stressful because it was clear early on that more than 2 Japanese climbers were going to make it through to finals in men's and women's, meaning that we'd be able to confirm some of the Olympic qualified athletes on the qualifying day, and wouldn't need to wait until the finals to figure it out. Both qualifying days ended with high drama and the hour or so after each day felt emotionally charged in the arena as the dust settled. Janja Garnbret (SLO) lost her ability to route read for a crucial few seconds at the end of her qualification Lead route and the initial confusion over her score meant that Brooke Raboutou (USA) and Jessy Pilz (AUT) were unsure of their Olympic slots. Eventually both "qualified" (there's some paperwork to be settled, as explained in my Olympic qualification article) for Tokyo 2020, but it was a tense hour or so as judges, team managers and athletes all tried to keep their cool in a tricky situation. Big shout out to the IFSC officials who managed to remain focused, fair and calm as they made their decisions.
The confusion extended to the athletes as well and while some of them (such as Petra Klinger (SUI) and Shauna Coxsey (GBR)) had done the maths and knew they were Olympians, others still didn't realise that they'd made it. I had the pleasure of telling Janja Garnbret she'd made it and showing her the scores that confirmed it on my phone. That will be a good claim to fame one day I suspect, and it certainly has the potential to become one of the stories I bore my grandkids to death with years from now.
On the men's side, Adam Ondra (CZE) slipped high on the qualification Lead route and it was touch and go whether he'd done enough to earn an Olympic slot. Shortly after he fell, his Lead score was reduced down to 10, and after I collared some officials I found out that he'd stood on a bolt very low on the route and hence had his score marked as the point he reached before standing on the bolt. Again, the officials were immaculate in their dealing with the situation.
It all meant that Adam was miles short of where he needed to be for an Olympic slot and we had our first big shock of the Combined event. Adam can still make it to Tokyo 2020 but he would have hoped and expected to get there at the first opportunity, and he's going to have to change his schedule for the year to allow him to do what is now required. I've got to know Adam's "Road to Tokyo" crew a bit this year and I can't help feeling a bit sorry for them as they film various b-roll, pieces to camera and interviews all week and then try to make it into a coherent story that fits with the end result of each competition. They've been doing an excellent job so far but they've certainly got a challenge on their hands to make a video every single week that accurately charts Adam's journey. They asked me to do a summary to camera of Adam's week and it was hard to know where to start really - he picked up a third Lead World Championship and then missed out on the prize he really came to Japan for - an Olympic slot. If my piece makes it into the final edit you'll see some cheek puffing, shoulder shrugging and not much else.
Adam doesn't quite look where he needs to be mentally right now and after fluffing his lines in Munich, Vail and now Hachioji, he is developing a worrying trend of letting big moments slip. We all know he's the best all-rounder on the planet and an incredibly cerebral competitor but he could do with a bit of tuition from Jakob Schubert (AUT) on how to always find yourself at the business end of the events that really matter. Adam did win the Lead World Championship but if you've got the skill and fitness to achieve that, it's really a case of doing what you know how to do - climb - and getting a bit of luck. In a Combined competition, or a Boulder event with a lot riding on it, there's a lot of thinking time and I don't think Adam's quite figured out how to deal with that. Strap him on to a hard lead route and I'll always back him to win, but put him in a scenario where the situation is changing and moving around him, and he doesn't seem to be able to get the best out of himself. The big consolation he'll have is that he's basically the "best" climber out there, so he just needs to figure out how to master his mind, which is admittedly easier said than done.
In the finals the maths was much simpler and the competition was really enjoyable to watch. I hear there's been a tiny bit of discussion online about the format and the inclusion of Speed climbing…. but all I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed both Combined finals and felt engaged and entertained throughout. Given all the noise about the format, I think a few people should be eating their words because there's no doubt that this 3 discipline format keeps you engaged right until the end and provides potential for huge drama, which is surely the "point" of televised sport.
On the women's side, Shauna Coxsey had a scarcely believable start to the Combined final by picking up 2nd on the Speed wall. I had a quick chat with her on my way to the stage for the live interviews and it would be fair to say that she was pretty chuffed with her result, to put it mildly. Speaking of the live interviews (and completely digressing from reporting on the competition) it's a shame that the camera guy couldn't follow me backstage because it would have made great television. Organising a live interview is quite a simple affair really - get the interviewee on camera and in focus, get the interviewer next to the camera with their microphone and then clearly communicate when the interview should start. In Innsbruck last year (when we did live interviews) it worked great but in Japan every live interview was proceeded by several minutes of 3 people running around and shouting at each other backstage while I stood waiting to go on stage. To add insult to injury there was usually some issue with communication so the interview starts were generally a bit messy. Talk about over-complicating things.
Anyway, Shauna got off to a cracking start and then had a decent Boulder round too, so she looked good for a medal before she'd even got to the Lead wall. As it turned out she also stood on a bolt on the Lead route and got marked down, but she still ended up with medals in Combined and Boulder, plus an Olympic place to boot - a good week's work by any measure.
In second was Akiyo Noguchi (JPN), who had the win in her hands (literally) when she jumped for the top of the Lead route. Sadly for her she couldn't quite stick it, but if the rumours are to be believed then she's booked her place to Tokyo 2020 by finishing highest of the Japanese women in Hachioji. That's great news for her and for the sport - we need the legends at the biggest events and if Akiyo hadn't gone to the Olympics for whatever reason I think it would have been a massive shame for all of us watching on. Japan have an embarrassment of riches in the team but I still think Akiyo represents their best shot at a medal despite the army of 20-year-old wads they have coming through. I've been quite amused that some climbing "journalists" (I use the term generously) claim to "know" that Japan will only select one climber per gender from Hachioji and have a document proving this but are unable to locate the document. I think they left it under the one saying Charlie Boscoe needs a pay rise and is a good looking young man to boot. Japan might end up taking 1 climber from Hachioji and 1 from later on in the qualification pathway but I chat to their coaches a lot and never manage to get any detail out of them, so let's just all wait, see and hope they take Akiyo. I'm sure they will, but there's a hell of a battle on for whoever wants to join her.
Out in first was Janja Garnbret, which I never thought I'd be writing after she got 6th in Speed and then couldn't do the first boulder in the final. It felt like the day was going wrong for her, but even when you think she's struggling you often look at the scores and think, "Christ, she could win this", and Hachioji was a classic example of that. She plugged away, kept going and then put the hammer down on the Lead wall to seal the most unlikely of victories. Make that 3 World Championships wins in the space of a week for Janja.
I spoke to Janja for quite a long time after the final and she said what she'd really learned is that it's not over until it's over in this Combined format. No kidding. Her rivals must look at her and wonder what they have to do to beat her because no matter how badly things are going, she just drags herself back into contention. Fans watching the World Cups for the rest of the season will also be pleased to hear that she's planning to compete in all the remaining events this year. I figured that she might do Kranj and then call it a day but not a bit of it; she's planning to do every remaining World Cup of the season, and she is not coming along for second place.
The one concern I have with Janja is that she'll simply run out of records to break. First female World Champion in 2 disciplines. Tick. First female World Cup season champion in 2 disciplines. Tick. 6 World Championship titles. Tick. Surely the only remaining records she has left to break are formalities, and I hope she can find a motivation to keep going once she's done everything there is to do. The big challenge for her this year is to win the Lead and Boulder World Cup season title in the same year and then it's only a matter of "when" not "if" she breaks the record for most World Cup wins.
I've interviewed some top level sports psychologists over the past few years because I'm fascinated by the best of the best and how they keep going and stay motivated. The answer seems basically to be that the true greats cease to measure themselves against others, and simply to try to compete with themselves to see just how good they can get. Records, titles and money cease to matter for the elite, and hopefully Janja will cease to compete against the record books and just see how far she personally can go. I said in my summary of the Lead World Championship that she could win 50 World Cups and 10 World Championships, and that now looks conservative. Tom Brady, with all the money in the World and the greatest NFL career in history, famously answered the question, "Which is your favourite Super Bowl win?" with, "The next one". Janja is cut from the same cloth, although she's capable of relaxing too. I got back to the hotel at midnight after the women's final and while I'd been making a highlights video in the venue, Janja had been getting ready for a night out and was waiting in reception to hit the town. When I spoke to her the next afternoon she sounded and looked like a good time had been had. Good on her - a few drinks was the least she'd earned from a staggering 10 days in Japan.
In the men's final, Rishat Khaibullin (KAZ) emerged as a genuine medal contender for Tokyo 2020 as he won the Speed (as anticipated) and then looked good on the boulders and the Lead wall. He finished ahead of 2 "non-Speed specialists" in the Lead and with a bit of Boulder and Lead training will be formidable a year from now. Speaking of the people he finished ahead of in Lead, I really hope Mickael Mawem (FRA) gets some serious training in because he's good at Speed and Boulder but woefully lacking in endurance and his chances of a big result in Tokyo seem to rest on his Lead skills. He looks gassed within a minute of leaving the ground and is going to blow his shot at a medal if he doesn't train himself to at least be able to come mid table in Lead. All in all it was a pretty disastrous trip to Japan for the French team and even their man who did qualify for the Olympics (Mickael) has some serious work to do. I really like Mickael and he's great to watch, so hopefully he can get himself where he needs to be.
Ahead of Rishat was the ever-reliable Jakob Schubert, whom I'm still backing for gold in Tokyo next year. He came to Japan looking for an Olympic slot and he got that plus 3 medals, one in each of the disciplines he (seriously) contests. His Speed could do with some more work but in the Combined final it was clear that he has such a huge advantage in Lead over most climbers that he's virtually guaranteed a top 3 finish in the final discipline come the Olympics. He's won World Championship medals and World Cup golds in 2 disciplines and has the extraordinary ability to peak at just the right time. To be good at climbing you need to be strong in the bicep and the brain, and both seem to be made of iron in Jakob's body.
Before I get too carried away with Jakob, I have to say that he was a distant second in Hachioji to Tomoa Narasaki. Tomoa is excellent at Speed, utterly immense at Boulder and decent at Lead too. It was a combination that won him the combined title in Japan and I think it will be plenty to get him on the Olympic podium too. When I was riding the Tokyo public transport system to Haneda airport on the way home there were a lot of people reading the national newspaper and Tomoa was front page news, with a picture of him splashed right across page 1. I wonder how that pressure and celebrity might affect him because he's a reserved and private chap, but if he can deal with the hype he can absolutely win the Olympic crown.
Running him close will be Alex Megos (GER), who had a dream championships until the Combined final when he blew a pulley in his little finger. The injury is not severe enough that he wanted to have it dealt with before the journey back to Europe, so hopefully it's good news when he does see the specialist. Alex has gone from happy hippy to dead-eyed competitor in the space of year, and the way he can switch between the 2 in a split second is great to watch. Here's hoping he will be back in action sooner rather than later because he showed in Japan that he can absolutely win a medal in the Olympics if fully fit.
So, from Japan we now go to Arco for the Youth World Championships, with the broadcasting starting on Saturday. Whoever designed this schedule clearly had a sense of humour but fortunately the same can be said of Mike Langley who has been excellent company and a brilliant partner for me in what's been a busy 10 days. Mike is a really polished broadcaster and has an amazing ability to provide that little tit bit of information that provides insight at just the right moment and it's been a pleasure to sit alongside him in Japan.
We've got some qualified Olympians, we've got a dominant athlete in women's climbing with her eyes on winning everything this year and we've got Adam Ondra under huge pressure to end his season successfully. It's turning into quite the year and there's plenty more to come.
IFSC Climbing World Championships Combined - Hachioji (JPN) 2019
|1||Janja Garnbret||SLO||12||Top 1.||1T2z 1 2||13.399 6|
|2||Akiyo Noguchi||JPN||21||40+ 3.||2T2z 3 3||10.082 7|
|3||Shauna Coxsey||GBR||42||20 7.||1T2z 2 3||9.225 2.|
|4||Aleksandra Mirosław||POL||64||10 8.||0T0z 0 0||7.750 1.|
|5||Miho Nonaka||JPN||80||23+ 5.||1T2z 3 4||12.356 4|
|6||Ai Mori||JPN||80||Top 2.||1T2z 3 7||12.860 8|
|7||Futaba Ito||JPN||120||27 4.||0T2z 0 2||8.655 5.|
|8||Petra Klingler||SUI||126||23+ 6.||0T2z 0 3||8.901 3.|
|1||Tomoa Narasaki||JPN||4||30 2.||3T3z 4 3||fall 2.|
|2||Jakob Schubert||AUT||35||Top 1.||0T3z 0 6||7.208 7.|
|3||Rishat Khaibullin||KAZ||40||22 5.||0T1z 0 2||5.915 1.|
|4||Kai Harada||JPN||54||30 3.||0T2z 0 6||6.348 3.|
|5||Meichi Narasaki||JPN||60||21 6.||1T3z 1 4||6.689 5.|
|6||Kokoro Fujii||JPN||72||29+ 4.||1T3z 2 6||9.438 6.|
|7||Mickael Mawem||FRA||112||20 7.||1T2z 3 4||6.716 4.|
|8||Alex Megos||GER||448||0 8.||0T1z 0 1||7.570 8.|