Hang on tight: Sports climbing scales new heights

Tokyo marks its first appearance at the Games and it kicked off a storm of online traffic and social media chatter when it made its debut on Tuesday
Hang on tight: Sports climbing scales new heights

THE ONLY WAY IS UP: France’s Mickael Mawem competes in the men’s sport climbing bouldering final at Aomi Urban Sports Park. He actually slipped twice in a one-v-one speed race and still reached the top in 7.05 seconds. Picture: Mohd Rasfan/Getty Images

A giant Transformer looks on from the adjacent grounds of a shopping centre, the ominous strains of the Imperial March overture from Star Wars is reverberating around the arena, and two men are scrambling up a building the size of an aircraft hanger in the time it takes some of us to get up off the couch.

Welcome to sport climbing.

This is clearly not something Pierre de Coubertin had in mind when he fed the revival of the ancient Olympic ideal in the 19th century, but try arguing that the principles of ‘faster, higher, stronger’ are not intrinsic to an exercise that demands speed, coordination, athleticism, incredible upper-body strength, quick thinking and a facility for problem-solving.

Tokyo marks its first appearance at the Games and it kicked off a storm of online traffic and social media chatter when it made its debut on Tuesday with the men’s qualifiers. Exactly the kind of buzz the International Olympic Committee is looking for as it introduces a succession of new, urban sports to its already congested roster.

"It's a big step,” says Czech superstar Adam Ondra. “It's been a big dream for many years and climbing deserves to be here as a sport.”

The event on show here is a combined test of three distinct disciplines. The speed race is self-explanatory: scoot to the top of a dizzyingly high wall as quickly as possible. Bouldering is a problem-solving operation at low height without rope or harness. The last leg is lead climbing, a more traditional exercise where the climbers try to navigate their way up a wall that curves ever outward like a wilting flower.

The fastest man up the speed section was Japan’s Tomoa Narasaki who needed just 6.11 seconds to reach the summit on his second climb. Narasaki started out as a gymnast but somehow came to the conclusion that hanging onto ledges with fingers and toes was the way to go when the moves asked of him in the gym started to get a bit scary.

It obviously helped that he had a head for heights.

If failing is a constant across all sports then falling is endemic here. As a metaphor for life itself, it totally works. Time and again, they pop off the surface they cling to like barnacles prised from a ship’s hull and right back up they go again. Every time. Mickael Mawem of France actually slipped twice in a one-v-one speed race and still reached the top in 7.05 seconds.

The premise to rock climbing is simple, the practise is anything but. Everyone climbing the walls in Tokyo this week dreamt of doing this in the very same way Lionel Messi fantasised about playing in a World Cup, or Cian Lynch an All-Ireland final, and the realisation of those hopes have been achieved in identical fashion.

Narasaki trains at his craft for eight hours every day. Alberto Gines Lopez thought nothing of travelling the 800km from his home in western Spain to France and back again just to train. And if you’re of the belief that any sport worth its salt has to bring with it the risk of injury then this ticks that box too.

Every competitor at the Aomi Sports Park has their war wounds.

Shauna Coxsey’s medical chart bears witness. The British woman has undergone surgery on a knee and a wrist. She partially ruptured a tendon in her right ring finger and it still wasn’t right over a year later. She required surgery on a shoulder after a bouldering event in 2016 and there was a broken leg four years earlier as well.

Coxsey was at least able to see out her Olympics. Bassa Mawem can’t say that.

Mickael's brother, he was a strong contender for medals until he ruptured a bicep tendon in the lead section of the men’s qualifiers two days earlier. The website climbing.com, leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination, described how the bicep “could be seen coiling up beneath the skin like a window blind”.

Discomfort is, literally, a constant.

The shoes they wear are so tight that they make the toes curl which is all the better for clinging on to tiny nooks and crucial crannies. Horrible for them, manna for heaven for podiatrists everywhere given there is an estimated 44 million people around the world climbing regularly and with more converting daily.

Being adopted into the Olympic family will only expedite that but not everyone is happy with the fact that all three disciplines have been lumped in as one here. The USA’s Nathaniel Coleman said he wasn’t alone in wishing the three were their own distinct universes.

It’s a gripe with weight behind it. The world championships are separated into the three distinct categories and no-one was asking Thomas Barr to throw a hammer, run 10,000m and then vault over hurdles at the Olympic Stadium.

Whatever about the format, starting the day’s action with the speed section seemed to be an enormous mistake. Think 70 minutes of Gaelic football after a hurling match. How, you wondered, could anything match the spectacle of two men haring up that wall like crabs on cocaine?

Boy, was that an ignorant take.

Bouldering was, if anything, even better and the whole thing reached a peak - forgive the pun - in the lead as one after another wrestled with grips, chalk, harness and rope, and the type of dexterity and derring-do not normally seen beyond the confines of a Mission Impossible movie.

Gines Lopez took the gold. Just 18 years of age, he is Spain’s youngest ever Olympic medallist and it marks the culmination of a journey that started when he was four years of age and scrambling up the rock walls after his father and sister.

He spoke afterwards about how his head hasn’t been in the right place this year, and how working with a specialist has helped him perform on the big day in front of a big crowd. And there was a surprisingly large audience to watch history unfold last night.

"Even until the last competition, when I knew I couldn't do well or win, I would mess up the final,” he explained after the medal ceremony. “So today I didn't want to think about that too much, and it worked."

A man facing his fears, and conquering them, on a global stage.

What could be more Olympic than that?

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