The Roar
The Roar



Tokyo 2020: What is sport climbing?

(Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)
Roar Rookie
21st July, 2021

The Olympics are less than a week away and it looks like they will go ahead. This year’s Olympics have some new events on the roster.

One of these is a sport that has blown up in the last five to ten years that Australians will do very well in for years to come. That is the event of sport climbing.

However, if you were asked what sport climbing is and how is it judged for the Olympics, many people would struggle to answer correctly.

Sport climbing, a variation of rock climbing, is where people compete on an artificial wall to see overall who is the fastest at climbing, best at solving ‘boulder problems’ and whose endurance can last the longest.

The event is split into three sections and the athlete with the best overall score wins gold. The sections are speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing.

Speed climbing is a head-to-head race up a 15-metre wall, with the winner of the heat advancing to the next heat until there are two left remaining.


This discipline is the 100m sprint of the climbing world; blink and you will miss it. This is a standard course that the athletes are familiar with, and its explosive nature is why it is regarded as the spectators’ favourite of the three disciplines.

The world record for the men’s is held by Veddriq Leonardo of Indonesia at 5.208 seconds, while the women’s record is held by Iuliia Kaplina of Russia at 6.964 seconds.

The average person probably would take about 60-90 seconds to complete the speed wall.

Bouldering is attempted individually on a 4-metre wall that has preset routes differentiated by colour. The athletes have four minutes to complete as many routes as possible, and are unfamiliar with the set routes. They also cannot watch other competitors prior to their attempt.

This discipline is a mental and physical battle as bouldering routes are set to be difficult to complete. It’s not unusual to see athletes launch themselves to get to the next hold, or even contort their bodies in an uncomfortable manner.

Climbers are not disqualified or immediately eliminated if they fall. This is my personal favourite event because the climbers are not attached to a rope and have the creative freedom to climb with any technique style they wish.

The final section in the sport climbing event is lead climbing, which blends parts of the previous two sections.

Athletes have six minutes to climb a wall with a minimum height of 15 metres. They are scored points for every handhold they pass and in the case of a tie between competitors, the person who reached that handhold (or the end) first, is awarded the better score.


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Similar to bouldering, the athletes are blind to what the course will be until it is their turn to compete but, if they fall, the highest hand hold they reached will be their score, so it’s in their best interest to take their time.

This discipline is all about strength and endurance. Part of a requirement of this wall is to have an overhanging section which makes things ten times harder because you rely a lot more on your arms to keep you up and not just your legs.

The way the overall gold medalist is decided is who has the lowest aggregate score from the three disciplines. For example, if someone came fourth in speed climbing, third in bouldering, and sixth in lead climbing their score would be calculated as 4 x 3 x 6 = 72.


A notable name to look out for in the men’s competition is the early favourite Adam Ondra, from the Czech Republic, who has been dominating outdoor rock climbing since 2013 and collecting multiple World Championship medals in speed and lead Climbing, most recently in 2020.

There are two Australians that have qualified for the event; Oceania Mackenzie from Victoria and Tom O’Halloran, a well accomplished outdoor rock climber and two-time grand finalist on the popular television show Australian Ninja Warrior.

Oceania and Tom are not likely to be on the podium at the end but, with two events that must be completed with no knowledge of the route, an underdog winner is entirely possible.