IFSC commentator Charlie Boscoe puts down his headset and reports on the IFSC Lead and Speed World Cup in Xiamen, China...
To round out what has been a packed IFSC World Cup season we headed over to Asia for the 3rd time in 2019 for two Lead World Cups and the final Speed event of the year. The 2018 season also ended with a 2 week trip to China, and for me the October trip always has an "end of term" feel to it. Generally everyone in and around the IFSC is slightly more relaxed and thoughts are clearly turning for most people towards the winter break. That said, the points handed out are the same for these events as for those in Chamonix and Briançon, and there is no shortage of desperation to win amongst the climbers, especially with the overall season titles up for grabs.
This year we headed to Xiamen first and we're off to Inzai in Japan next. Xiamen is a pretty funny place all round - it's massive and yet nobody has ever heard of it and there is no obvious reason why you would have heard of it. The city is slightly more modern and clean than some of the Chinese cities we visit (one can't help but think of Chongqing here) but there aren't really many landmarks and, as with virtually every big Chinese city I've been to, I instantly lose my bearings as soon as I start moving around. Fortunately the bus and taxi drivers seem to know where they're going, but if they ever wanted to fleece me and drive around in circles for an hour, I'd be an easy victim.
This is the 4th time I've been to Xiamen and over the years I've visited the famous Gulangyu Island, seen the reasonably well known Conrad Hotel towers, and also found a cracking brewery run by a German bloke. Other than that, I can't remember much beyond the venue and the hotel but the city is generally pleasant, the street food is good and there you're never far from the sea, which always gives a place a nice feel. Except in Blackpool, maybe.
The old Xiamen venue was quite bizarre on many levels but I really liked it. It was an outdoor venue nestled in amongst huge, glass skyscrapers and yet the area around it was deserted. I got chatting to a Swedish woman there a few years ago who'd moved there for her husband's job and she explained that the city planners had built that area of the city in anticipation of the population arriving, but the people weren't there yet. It meant that there were apartment buildings, shops and restaurants but no people, which felt very weird. I remember going for a walk into a nearby shopping centre and there was everything you'd expect to find, including a Crossfit gym, all fully staffed and operational, but no customers. The same thing happened in Guangzhou in 2016 when we went there for the Youth World Championships and they'd built the town before the people got there. It's very odd to experience, but I suppose makes more logical sense than waiting until there is a demand for housing and services that then can't be met. I suspect the areas in Guangzhou and Xiamen which we went to are now bustling and full of people.
Anyway, this year we were in a new venue which was, frankly, a bloody long way from the hotel and that presents its own challenges for all concerned. For IFSC folk it means that we can't nip back to the hotel for a bit of peace whenever there is a break, and for athletes it means they have to get up earlier and can't stroll into the warm up area whenever they please. It might sound like a minor thing, but for the climbers it means that on qualifying day they can't decide exactly when they arrive to start their warm up, and for semis and finals they are forced to go to the venue at a certain time on a certain shuttle bus. By the time you've factored in a bit of spare time in case of traffic, travelling to and from the venue could easily add 2 or more hours to an athlete's day for an event like Xiamen and some climbers deal with that better than others.
As compensation the new venue was, without any shadow of a doubt, the most extraordinary sporting arena I've ever seen. A nearly-completed 750-room 5 star hotel hosted the World Cup as part of their publicity drive, and it was utterly surreal to wander around a climbing event taking place in what was essentially a faux-palace. There were plenty of posts on social media about it, but if you haven't seen them, Google "Xiamen Tefang Seven Star Bay Resort" you'll see what I mean. Rumours abound that we'll actually be staying there next year, but I'll believe that when I see it.
Speed kicked off the competition with fast times being recorded all round. Aries Susanti Rahayu (INA) set a new world record of 6.99 seconds and became the first female to break the 7-second barrier. Although Susanti Rahayu took gold in this round, ahead of YiLing Song (CHN) and Mariia Krasavina (RUS), it was the consistent performances across the season by Song which earned her the overall Speed World Cup title, with Anouck Jaubert (FRA) in 2nd and Susanti Rahayu in 3rd.
QiXin Zhong (CHN) was on fire in front of a home crowd, setting the fastest time of the event at 5.490 seconds in qualification. He took the win ahead of Lev Rudatskiy (RUS) after the Russian had an unfortunate fall on the final run. Vladislav Deulin (RUS) finished 3rd. In the men's overall standings, future Olympian Bassa Mawem (FRA) was on the top step of the podium alongside Deulin and Alfian Muhammad (INA).
In Lead, there was a good turn out for the competition, which isn't always the case for the "end of term" trip to China, with over 50 men and the same in the women's event. The routes in the qualifying were clearly too easy, with one of the men's routes seeing 35 tops and one in the women's seeing 22! With that in mind, the pressure was really on the route setters to separate the climbers in the semis and finals, and give them a big challenge in the process. Sadly, things didn't quite turn out like that…
In the semis, it quickly became clear that on both of the routes there was a stopper move which was causing problems, with 15 women getting 33+ and 7 men getting stopped at 31+. Fortunately for all of us the big ties in the semis were either outside the top 8 climbers or could be separated on countback, so we ended up with 8 male finalists and 9 female.
Jim Pope (GBR) came achingly close to making the final but eventually ended up 9th, which must have been doubly hard to take seeing as he actually got the same score in the semis as the person who finished 2nd, but rules be rules. To add insult to injury, he then got bumped off his direct flight to Tokyo this (Monday) morning, moved to a massively inconvenient flight through Hong Kong and had to spend Sunday night at Xiamen airport as a result. I'm writing this sitting next to him in departures and he's just shown me the photos of his various sleeping spots, the highlight of which was when he "found a bit of cardboard" behind some chairs.
The only other British interest came from Molly Thompson Smith, who finished joint 10th and Emily Phillips who missed out on semis, placing 33rd.
Elsewhere in the semis, quite a few of the bigger names struggled, with Romain Desgranges (FRA) falling very low down, and Stefano Ghisolfi (ITA) still not looking quite right on a Lead wall this year. Amongst the women Julia Chanourdie (FRA) - such a reliable maker of finals last year - still doesn't seem to have made the transition back to Lead after such a successful Boulder season and came 20th. Ashima Shiraishi (USA) also seems to be slightly lost and a long way short of where she was a couple of years back, and where most people thought she would be by now.
On a positive note, Jesse Grupper (USA) had a dream day by making his first finals, where he eventually finished 7th, just ahead of his compatriot Sean Bailey, and despite the challenges of the qualifying and semi final routes, we ended up with strong lineups for both finals.
By the time the final began it was completely dark in Xiamen, and with a breeze blowing in off the South China Sea conditions were excellent. I suspect the routes were a little undercooked anyway, but the sudden drop in temperature and humidity didn't do the route setters any favours at all and we ended up with most climbers either topping or getting pretty close.
The men were up first and the climbers who made the podium were the 3 who topped the route, namely Tomoa Narasaki (JPN), Taisei Homma (JPN) and Adam Ondra (CZE). When Tomoa came out first and basically cruised the route, I thought we might end up with 5 or 6 tops, but later climbers proved that it was slightly harder than he'd made it look. In the end, it all came down to the final climber (Kai Harada (JPN) which meant that even though the show hadn't been great, the result was at least in the balance until the very last second, and what a last second it was. Kai has won a Boulder World Championship but never a World Cup in any discipline and having "won" the Xiamen semi final, a top of the final route would have won the competition for him due to countback to the semis. He chose to skip the final left handhold, set up for the last move and…missed it. He literally had the win in his hands but couldn't hold on, and was already shouting in frustration before the rope caught him.
Kai is quickly transforming from promising youngster into a serious contender in 2 disciplines, but I do sometimes get the impression that he's got one eye on winning, and one eye on doing something that looks cool. The key point about winning with style is that you have to win first - the style comes second. Starting with the Youth World Championship in Moscow last year, I've seen a few instances of Kai going for the show rather than the win and it's not giving him the results his ability warrants. If he gets a little more ruthless I think he'd be Tomoa's biggest rival on Team Japan.
All this drama left Adam Ondra where he's been in every Lead event he's contested in 2019 - in 1st. The Combined event in the World Championships didn't go according to plan for Adam back in August but in the Lead World Championship, European Championship and 3 Lead World Cups he's entered this season, he's won them all. He's going to win the Lead season title having only done half of the events, too. Afterwards Adam didn't seem too excited by his win, perhaps because he's firmly focused on Olympic Selection, or maybe because the routes had been easy and he didn't get much satisfaction from winning an event in the way he did. Either way, winning ugly and is still winning, and provided he seals Olympic qualification later this year, he'll be able to look back on a fantastically successful season.
On the women's side, the story was similar to the men's, with 3 climbers collecting tops and, with them, the medals.
Natsuki Tanii (JPN), Lucka Rakovec (SLO) and Janja Garnbret (SLO) all threw for the top but couldn't stick it - which was a shame for them because none of them looked too troubled by the rest of the route - but a good thing for the results; 6 tops really would have been a disaster for the route setters. Speaking of Janja, she is definitely not right at the moment. She's still polite but not nearly as chatty and warm as she usually is, and she's not climbing that well either. In 5 Lead World Cups this year she's won one and missed semis in two. By her standards that is a truly disastrous set of results, and she looks a completely different climber to the one we're used to seeing. Janja's demeanour doesn't really encourage me to pry about what is going on (and it's none of my business anyway) but she's a climber whose performance seems to be really affected by her mood and mental state, and something isn't quite clicking right now.
Things always seem to be going well for Jain Kim (KOR) and Akiyo Noguchi (JPN), 2 titans of the sport who never seem to have dips in form and are usually in the hunt when the medals are being handed out. Both topped the final route and both picked up medals - Akiyo's 67th in World Cups and Jain's 60th. I mean, come on. SIXTY!!!!
Out in front, as she has been since pretty much day 1 of the Lead World Cup season was Chaehyun Seo (KOR), the sensation of 2019. She seemingly came from nowhere and is now season champion with an event to spare having won 4 out the first 5 World Cups she's ever entered. Big shout out by the way to Eddie Fowke, who did a cracking job interviewing her after her win when he asked what her plans were for the autumn and got the scoop that she's off to Siurana to do La Rambla. That would be worth seeing.
So, all in all, that wasn't a classic. I say it every week and I'll repeat it once more; the route setters have the hardest job in our sport, they work their backsides off for a week and sometimes they end up with a duff route. Sadly in Xiamen they ended up with a few duff routes but that certainly wasn't due to any lack of effort or skill on their part, things just didn't go quite how they anticipated. You can't win them all.
The good news for us is that we've got another event coming up next week in Japan which will hopefully give us a better show and a fitting finale to an exciting season. In the meantime some tourism beckons in Tokyo, with baseball, go karting, sumo and tons of good food all featuring in most people's plans. It should be a good week and will hopefully conclude with a dramatic event in Inzai. Speak to you then.
IFSC Climbing Worldcup (L, S) - Xiamen (CHN) 2019
|5||Alberto Ginés López||ESP||29+||31+|
|33||Emily Phillips||GBR||Qual' 23+ 32.|
|8||Alfian Muhammad||INA||false sta||5.759|
|1||Aries Susanti Rahayu||INA||6.995||7.163||7.311||7.387|