What is Competitive Climbing
Competition climbing is a type of rock climbing held indoors on purpose-built artificial climbing walls, although earlier versions were held on external natural rock surfaces. The three standalone competition climbing disciplines are: lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing. A fourth discipline of “combined” is based on combinations of results in the three main disciplines. Competition climbing is sometimes called “sport climbing”, which is the type of lead climbing performed in competition climbing.
In competition lead climbing, competitors start at the bottom of a pre-bolted sport climbing route to reach the highest hold possible within a set time limit on a single attempt, making sure to clip the rope into pre-placed quickdraws while ascending. In competition bouldering, competitors climb short problems without a rope, with an emphasis on the number of problems completed, and the attempts necessary to do so. In competition speed climbing, competitors climb a standardised route using a top rope, in the shortest time possible.
The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) organizes the most important international competition climbing events, including the biennial IFSC Climbing World Championships, and the annual IFSC Climbing World Cup that is held as a series of events during the year. Competition climbing was featured at the Summer Olympics for the first time in 2020, in a once-off single combined format per gender, with the results based on a combination of lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing performances. The format for climbing at the 2024 Olympics has speed climbing as a standalone event, although lead and boulder are still a combined event.
See also: History of rock climbing
Competition climbing dates from the arrival of sport climbing in the mid-1980s, which is a type of rock climbing where the climbing protection is pre-bolted into the climbing route, so the climber does not have to worry about their safety while ascending. Some were reticent about the ethics of competitive climbing, and in early 1985, several leading climbers signed the Manifeste des 19, rejecting the concept. However, later in 1985, the first internationally recognized competition climbing event was held at Sportroccia, which later became the annual Rock Master competition. These were annual lead climbing competitions held outdoors on natural rock surfaces and their first winners were Stefan Glowacz, Patrick Edlinger and Catherine Destivelle.
In 1988–89, the French Federation and Paul Brasset convinced the UIAA to regulate and administer competition climbing; it was agreed that events would be held on indoor artificial climbing walls. In 1989, the first UIAA Climbing World Cup was held over seven events around the world. In 1991, the first biennial UIAA World Climbing Championships is held in Frankfurt. In 1992, the first UIAA Climbing World Youth Championships is held in Basel.
In 1998, bouldering and speed climbing are added alongside lead climbing for UIAA competition climbing events. In 2005, competition climbing was added to the World Games. In 2006-07, the UIAA ceded governance of competition climbing to a newly formed International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) that received provisional recognition by the International Olympic Committee.
In August 2016, the IOC announced that competition climbing would be a sport in the 2020 Summer Olympics.
During August 3–6, 2021, Alberto Ginés López and Janja Garnbret won the first-ever men’s and women’s Olympic climbing gold medals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in a combined event of all three disciplines.
Janja Garnbret, lead climbing with quickdraw clipped in, at the 2016 IFSC Climbing World Championships
In competition lead climbing, the competitors have 6 minutes to climb a 15-metre (49 ft) challenging, and usually significantly overhanging, pre-bolted sport climbing route (with pre-placed quickdraws), made by a route setter. For their safety, the competitor must also clip their safety rope into the quickdraws (that are attached to the bolts) while they ascend; failing to clip into a quickdraw terminates their climb at that position.
In rock climbing, pre-bolted lead climbing routes are known as sport climbs, confusingly however, competition climbing is sometimes also called “sport climbing”, even though it also has bouldering and speed climbing.
The climber is allowed one single attempt at the route.
Their score on the route is determined by the highest hold number they “controlled” before falling (i.e. all the holds are numbered, starting with 1 at the bottom); if in addition, they had “used” that hold to make a controlled movement for the next hold before falling, a “+” is added to their score. For example, falling while secured on hold 34, while reaching for hold 35, earns a score of “34+”.
Between rounds, the competitors are collectively given 6 minutes to inspect — but not attempt — the next route. After the inspection, they are kept in an isolation area to prevent them from observing other competitors on the route and collecting its beta; they are thus effectively on sighting the route.
Kilian Fischhuber “tops” on a boulder problem in the 2010 IFSC Climbing World Cup
In competition bouldering, the competitors have to “solve” multiple short 4.5-metre (15 ft) bouldering problems over a set time period, with the fewest falls. In contrast to lead climbing, these boulder problems are more complex, but each boulder problem can be attempted multiple times within a certain time limit (usually 5 minutes in qualifiers and 4 minutes in finals).
As in all bouldering, the competitors do not use a rope or any climbing protection, but crash pads that are laid across the ground for safety.
Each individual boulder problem has an official start position with proscribed positions for all four of the competitor’s limbs at the base of the problem. The competitor has completed the problem when they have placed their two hands on the marked “top” hold and held it long enough to receive confirmation from the judge.
In addition, “zone holds” are located at the mid-point of the problem, which if secured, earn a half point, in lieu of failing to earn a full point by “topping”.
Like in lead competition climbing, the competitors cannot see each other’s attempts to learn route beta. The climber’s score is determined by the overall number of routes “topped”, the most “zone holds” reached, and the number of attempts needed. Where two climbers have the same score (i.e. “tops” plus “zones”), the number of “tops” takes precedence, and where they are still level, the least number of attempts takes precedence.
Competition speed climbing
See also: Speed climbing
Marcin Dzieński (Lane A) beats Vladislav Deulin (Lane B) in the bronze medal elimination at the 2020 IFSC European Championships
In competition speed climbing, the competitors must ascend a 15-metre (49 ft), slightly overhanging, standardised climbing wall, where, unlike leading climbing or bouldering, the holds are always the exact same size and placed in the exact same location. As the emphasis is on speed, the climbers do not have the time to clip into quickdraws (as per competition lead climbing) and instead use an auto-belay top rope for climbing protection.
In qualification, competitors race in pairs in Lane A and Lane B, however, they are not racing against each other, but against the clock. Each competitor during qualification races twice — once in each Lane — and the eight fastest competitors, using their best time, reach the finals. In the finals, competitors race against each other in elimination rounds, with the winner, regardless of time, advancing until the ultimate winner is decided.
The most important competition climbing events are administered by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC):
- IFSC Climbing World Championships, a biennial event (i.e every two years), for male and female rock climbers with medals awarded in the four disciplines of lead climbing, bouldering, speed climbing, and combined (from the first three).
- IFSC Climbing World Cup, an annual competition, spread over several individual events held during the year, for male and female rock climbers with medals awarded in the four disciplines of lead climbing, bouldering, speed climbing, and combined (from the first three).
In August 2016, it was announced that climbing would be included for the first time in the 2020 Olympics. At the 2020 Olympics, competition climbers competed in a unique once-off combined format, where their lead, bouldering, and speed climbing rankings were added to determine a single medal event. The 2020 winners of this single combined format were Alberto Ginés López for men, and Janja Garnbret for women.
For the 2024 Olympics, the format is changed to be closer to the IFSC-format with speed climbing separated into a standalone event, although lead climbing and bouldering are still a combined event (i.e. unlke the IFSC-format, there will not be standalone lead and bouldering medal events).