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Dispatches From Tokyo #4: Q&A With Olympic Setter Garrett Gregor

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Garrett Gregor is one of the IFSC setters for the Olympic bouldering event. He’s been the director of setting for the Bouldering Project since June 1, and was previously the head coach of Team ABC.

Jon Glassbert/Louder Than 11

How many people are on the Olympic route-setting team?

There are eight setters total. Four for Lead, four for Boulder. Seven setters were designated by the IFSC and then there are some Japanese setters and forerunners allotted by the host country for a total of twelve technical officials on the setting team. There were some parameters requested by the International Olympic Committee in relation to youthful representation and diversity. In terms of team makeup, I also think that more diversity is better and results in the best setting. In 2018 when the Olympics were announced, Katja Vidmar (Slovenia) was originally selected for the team. As the timing turned out, Katja was planning to have a baby and had to forfeit her spot since she was due just before the 2021 Olympic dates. I was then offered a spot on the team, and I couldn’t believe it was real. It was a dream come true.


Is there a different strategy or process for the Olympic competition compared to the IFSC setting for World Cups and other events ?

There’s a heightened sense of stress since so many people will be watching. This is the first time that the audience is not just core climbing fans, so we are also making boulders for a much broader audience that may have never even seen or heard of climbing. Certain moves, like something eye-catching and understandable for a non-climber, have some value; a difficult tension or crimping move is hard for the average spectator to understand as compared to hanging from one finger or something of the like. Our primary focus is always the function of the boulder over its form, but these kinds of things are taken into account since the audience is different this time and we want them to find a way to engage with the sport. There’s also some preferences from broadcasting about where climbs should go for optimal angles and which color holds show up best.


What is the intended outcome from the route and bouldering setting? What does a perfect Olympic round look like in terms of tops and spreads?

 Well, if you asked ten route setters you would probably get ten different opinions.

I want every boulder to get at least one top and to otherwise have separation through attempts. We’re setting for a diverse set of styles and skills and it feels like a loss if one doesn’t get topped. In the end though, a clean separation without any ties amongst the competitors is the goal.

That being said,  it is a limited format: four boulders for the Qualification round and three boulders for the Finals whereas in a typical round of boulders at a World Cup you would have between four to five problems. The disparity in skill level is wider in this event than in most World Cups, too. We want to create a ranking that accurately reflects a climber’s ability since their scores are amplified with the Olympic Combined format – their ranking overall is a literal product of their ranks in each of the three disciplines. To further complicate matters, each boulder only has one zone so we must use those strategically to effectively create two different climbs in each problem that require a diverse skill set and create separation for all twenty competitors in each gender.


What grades are you aiming for in setting the boulders?

I mean, the grades are very high in my personal opinion. At the same time, grades are highly subjective, but for me the bouldering grades range from about V10-V13. The women’s boulders might be barely dialed back, V9-V13 let’s say, and the men’s more like V10-V14, but these are pretty slight differences we’re talking about and there’s a lot of overlap. The main difference between the genders is that the women’s boulders are adjusted for sizing since the majority of competitors are slightly smaller in the women’s category. Grades help people relate to the climbs, but putting a number so concretely to such a nuanced thing is reductive. To give a better understanding, one could think about some particular outdoor climbs for it to make sense, because these are not your average, straight forward or basic V10s from the gym that might only require one or two skills. For example, there is a notoriously difficult slab problem called “Never Ending Story” in Cresciano, Switzerland given 6B+ (somewhere between V3 and V5)  but it regularly spits off V13 boulderers. We want to provide a balance of difficulty versus risk, and obscure body positions; these things have to all be incorporated to comprehend the grade or the difficulty and in general we talk about things in this way rather than distilling it down to just one number.   


Does it feel like there’s a lot of pressure or more pressure than normal to set a flawless or innovative competition?

There’s a certain amount of pressure that I think we all feel, but in the end we know it is not on any one of our shoulders individually and we know that the end result is really a team effort. At the end of the day the boulder I start out putting on the wall is not what we end up with because the boulders evolve through the process as a team. We want to portray climbing in the best light and provide a good spectacle and allow climbers to perform their best. The process of getting there is a collective experience.


What are some challenges you’re facing in the setting of the Olympic bouldering event?

Conditions are a little difficult because it is so hot and humid. Working within a certain time frame and wanting to test them in the right time and space and yet, the window is limited since we are setting during the day when it’s hot or evening when it’s more humid and you don’t really just test the boulders since the setting process is very iterative – you are constantly trying something, making an adjustment, trying again and then before you know it the narrow window of when the competitors will be competing has passed and you’re still stuck trying to get this certain movement to work. Conditions have affected how the problems feel, which has caused adjustment and eventually you just have to accept how it is and make your best judgement for how it will feel on the day of the competition since nothing is guaranteed. Everyone is climbing on the same boulders and routes in the end though, and while they may be linked to grades, any climber that has tried a climb on a hot, humid day and then gone back in crisp, cloudy conditions knows the impact that can have.

Jon Glassberg/Louder Than 11

What happened today with a security breach of the bouldering wall?

Someone filmed the wall and the forerunning of two of the qualification boulders, and it ended up on Youtube. The organizers then worked to take it down, put up another protective cover to shield the boulders from view, and in the end had to reset two of the boulders. 

We are currently operating in a format that wasn’t designed to scale to this size, and when you’re trying to package the sport for a new audience and era it’s difficult because there’s a lot of loopholes. Having it in an outside venue without complete lockdown and security of the routes, and wanting to keep people from yelling beta and code in different languages, it’s hard to keep people from doing these things. Even if it was a sealed building with protected access, it’s still unsure that it would be completely effective, because there’s always loopholes in a format that is premised on not knowing the field of play. In the latter scenario, and even in general at competitions, you’ll see competitors peek at the boulders when they walk in and out between them and we know they do this sometimes. For me, the real question is not how we keep people from doing this, but how do we move to a different format that keeps the spirit of onsight and problem-solving in climbing but also provides a fair and engaging spectacle?


Do you know of any other sports that have a unique field of play like climbing? Are there advantages or disadvantages? What is there to change to fix this in the future?

 I think it is a part of the evolution of climbing. Onsight is still seen as a pinnacle achievement in climbing, to be able to walk up to a route and execute first try without seeing or feeling anything on the wall…but at the end of the day, for competitions to balance it with the element of spectacle and of creating a fair event requires some compromise in that aspect. Maybe in the future we’re able to create some limited venue or parts of the competition deemed secure enough to keep the integrity of the true onsight, but then  some aspects are adapted to an environment that pushes the climbers abilities and problem solving without the veil of secrecy. For so long the sport has existed within a tight-knit community that operates on the honor system. You even see this  today for some pro climbers in that there is skepticism about their accomplishments. The respect and isolation of the climber’s experience out in nature without video is still upheld, established on trust and valued in the community, but there’s also pressure that you need to provide proof as a professional because the sport is growing in new ways.

 On that subject, I think it’s the natural evolution of a sport to mature as more people become fans of the sport and as more money gets involved. With bigger sponsors, contracts require more out of athletes and become more consequential, and what’s required is a level of accountability that places more onus on the climbers. There’s a tendency to separate indoor and outdoor climbing, but they are both getting pulled out into the spotlight and the cracks start to appear. I think that both are going to continue to evolve and become more refined as they grow in order to become more enjoyable for the masses and to uphold the integrity that we value. It’s  all a process though, because relatively speaking, the sport is still fairly young.


Do you feel like the Olympics will have a big influence on the immediate future of the climbing world ?

Depends which country you’re in. Depending on which countries win Olympic medals this time, we might see a marked push for the sport in those countries, so participation rates could go up even more if an American gets on the podium. Medals are consequential but it’s not that exclusively; there’s growth and reach happening on lots of levels, accessibility has already been increasing in the US as the expansion of ever bigger and more inclusive gyms has made it more enjoyable for people.


Is there a strong element of international camaraderie ?

When you step back, all of these climbers are having their moment, but they also recognize what a huge turning point it is for climbing. It’s the next era of what climbing is and what competition climbing can be. The Olympics is a symbol of that progress and in the next week we will get to see which competitors will step up to the pressure and perform at this new level. It’s a monumental shift to adapt from what’s historically been an underground or backyard-style sport, from the very first entrepreneurs putting climbing holds on highway underpasses to having it progress to the world stage.

It’s a big shift, but the competitors are all there versus the wall with its routes and problems in a shared responsibility of ushering climbing into the next era. When the individual competitors are all together at a competition to face the same challenge and we see them share beta at the beginning of a round, it is indicative of that shared responsibility. They all want to do their best, but I think on some level, they all know that this is also a big moment for climbing and they are part of pushing it into the next era. With the Olympics and this first generation of Olympic climbers, it’s the first step in that journey.


Having coached some of the athletes, how does it feel?

In my position as a route setter, you have to be impartial because you can have so much impact on the competition, and there’s potential for cheating by sharing information. So in that regard, I’ve always made an effort to limit my enthusiasm. In fact, as part of the contract to set at the Olympics, no individual Olympic setter could set any private events or trainings – anything that was set by an Olympic setter needed to be publicly accessible and made widely known ahead of time so that athletes were on a more even playing field. The ability to give anyone an edge, that opportunity is very real and we have a huge responsibility to honor that and the ethics of climbing and routesetting, and that is strictly respected. But I am still a human and I’d be lying if I said I could separate myself completely from my emotions. I spent 10 years or so coaching Brooke, when I started she was less than ten years old; and nearly as much time coaching Colin as well. It is beyond words how I feel to see them come into their own and be successful in their climbing here, I couldn’t be more proud or excited for them.