Climbing in the Olympics

Climbing in the Olympics
If you're reading this article or have been plugged into the climbing world these last few years, you've probably heard the news– as of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, sport climbing has been added as an event! You may not be familiar with the layout of the first Olympic climbing competitions or familiar with climbing competitions in general. And, while watching folks scurry up routes with precision and raw strength is thrilling, it can be a little more enjoyable when you've got the inside scoop. Read on to better understand how the 2020 events worked and how future Olympic climbing will be structured!

The Basics

A total of 40 climbers, 20 in men's combined and 20 in women's, competed in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This number will remain the same for the 2024 Paris games, with a maximum quota of two men and two women from each represented nation.

In 2020, the sport climbing competition consisted of three events: speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing. Each climber competed in all three events, with their final scores calculated by multiplying each score from the three events (speed score x bouldering score x lead score). Using this method of scoring, the climbers with the lowest final scores placed first.

In the 2024 games, a few things are being shaken up. While there will be the same number of competitors, there will be two sets of medals for both men's and women's categories. Instead of one set of final scores calculated from all three events, bouldering, and lead climbing will remain combined while speed climbing becomes a standalone. The scoring of combined boulder and lead events will be calculated by adding a climber's scores from the two events, with the highest score earning gold. Speed climbing will occur in bracket-style elimination rounds where two climbers race side by side up a 15-meter wall until one winner remains.

Speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing events all vary in the type of route being climbed, the way scores are calculated, and the regulations applied. We'll get into all those specifics down in the next section.

Speed Climbing:

Speed climbing events are pretty standardized– a race between two climbers up identical routes on a slightly overhung, 15-meter tall wall. This wall has two 10-meter wide lanes so each competing climber can race simultaneously. There are many specific regulations for speed climbing, not just in the Olympics, but as a sport. The route used in speed climbing competitions has remained the same in official world record competitions since 2007, meaning climbers train to an extreme level of precision and memorization. That results in competitors soaring up the route (generally rated around a 5.10-5.11) in seconds, sailing back down on auto belays.

In the speed climbing event, climbers get two chances to complete the route, meaning they won't be disqualified if they fall only once. During the finals, the climber with the fastest time in each head-to-head race continues in the bracket until there is one ultimate, speediest winner.


In the boulder event, climbers attempt multiple routes, each of which they have five minutes to complete. Climbers can try each boulder problem as many times as they want in the five minutes, but their goal is to complete as many as possible in the least attempts. Because it is a timed event and every climber doesn't always reach the top of every problem, there are a few more scoring particulars for bouldering. The number of tops (topping out of completing a bouldering problem), attempts, and zones (reaching certain areas on the route, gaining partial credit) together make up the final scores in the Olympic bouldering competition.

Lead Climbing:

Lead climbing requires a distinct level of mental and physical strength, making it an extra challenging area and an additional thrilling event to watch. In lead climbing, climbers attempt a lead route they've never seen before. Before any climbing, the entire group of competitors is given six minutes to see and study the route. Then, all climbers are isolated until attempting the route one at a time. They have six minutes to get as high as possible, with their goal being completion and control. Each hold on the route is given a point score unknown to the climbers, and competitors gain points for each hold they can successfully control. The climber who reaches the highest point and has the most controlled holds takes gold! Unlike the other events, climbers only get one attempt on the lead route.

While there are many varying opinions within the climbing world on the inclusion and structure of climbing in the Olympics, it's hard to deny that the 2020 competition was an exhilarating feat. As the Paris 2024 games approach, check out climbing competitions to learn more about what competitive climbing can include and how it varies! You can even compare routes at your gym to competition routes and challenge yourself in time and attempt-based challenges!