Top sport climbers set sights on Tokyo Olympic Games

Sport climbing is set to make its Olympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games. The world's leading climbers are excited about the development, even if they are critical of the format that has been adopted for the Games.

The man who is widely regarded as the world's best rock climber has his sights set firmly on the 2020 Summer Olympics.

"I have always wanted to compete in the Olympic Games," Adam Ondra told DW in a recent interview.

Ondra plans to make preparing for the indoor events in Tokyo his prime focus in 2019. Ondra came in second in the "Olympic combined" at the World Championships in Innsbruck in September – behind Austria's Jakob Schubert, and ahead of German Jan Hojer.

In climbing circles, the 25-year-old Czech is known as the "master of the impossible." The extreme overhanging route "Silence," in a cave near Flatander in Norway, which Ondra conquered in September 2017, is regarded as the most difficult rock-climbing route ever mastered (the highest grade, 9c, on the French climbing scale).

Ondra is one of the harshest critics of the format that has been adopted for sport climbing's Olympic premiere, but he has grudgingly agreed to go along with it.

Tschechischer Extremkletterer Adam Ondra

Adam Ondra, Jakob Schubert and Jan Hojer pose on the podium in Innsbruck

"I have to accept it, as long as I want to compete in the Olympics. That's the format, there is no option. The only other option is not taking part," he said.

In search of the best all-rounder

In Tokyo, climbers will be competing in a combined event made up of three very different disciplines: speed climbing, lead and bouldering. The debate about whether this mix of events makes sense is similar to the debate about the combined in downhill skiing.

The basic question is: How compatible are speed disciplines with "technical" disciplines? The critics say they just aren't, but supporters of the format, such as Martin Veith, director of competitive sport at the German Alpine Club (DAV), argue that they don't need to be.

"We are very excited about the Olympic triathlon," Veith told DW. "It is a new discipline that you have to train for specifically… it will be interesting to see how specialists deal with disciplines they don't favor. This will be easier for some than for others."

Adam Ondra's background is in competition climbing. He was the first to win both the lead and the bouldering World Cup and in 2014 he became the first athlete to win gold in both disciplines. Speed climbing is his weakest discipline, something that also applies to Germany's Alex Megos.

Österreich Kletter-WM in Innsbruck - Alexander Megos

Adam Megos has Tokyo on his mind, but hasn't yet decided whether or not to go for it

"Until recently, I had never been speed climbing," the 24-year-old Megos, one of the world's best rock climbers, told DW.

A worthwhile investment?

Megos has also been competing with a view to Tokyo 2020 since the end of last year. However, he isn't even sure if he really wants to take part in the Olympics.

"I have to think about it," he said. "Do I want to use the next two years to reduce these deficits [in the other disciplines] and qualify for the Olympic Games? Or would that be too time-consuming and cost me too much time on the rock?

Like Ondra, Megos is critical of the competition format to be used in Tokyo, saying that it risks excluding stars of each individual discipline.

"Ultimately, it will be the 20 best combiners who go to the Olympic Games," he said. "With the exception of the world champion, who qualifies automatically, none of the speed climbers has a realistic chance of competing in Tokyo... The best bouldering and lead climbers may be there, but they won't do particularly well in speed climbing. I don't know how the spectators will see this, but I'm not sure this is how we want to present our sport."

Increased media interest

While the world's top climbers may be critical of the Olympic format, according to the DAV, the fact that the sport will be represented at the 2020 Summer Games has led to an increase in media interest in Germany. And longer term, Megos hopes it will also lead to enough of an increase in funding for the sport to make it possible for more athletes to compete professionally.

Currently, professional climbers like he and Ondra are very much the exception rather than the rule.

Ondra believes that competition climbing becoming an Olympic sport could lead to it developing into a "better show," without having a negative impact on rock climbing: "Because that's a world of its own."

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Euromaxx | 06.05.2018

Extreme climber Adam Ondra

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