Dispatches From Tokyo #5: The First Olympic Training Session

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“It feels like an all-star game!” Jon Glassberg exclaimed excitedly as we hustled past each other at the first training session for Olympic climbers, at Aomi Urban Sports Park, last night. Alex Megos, Adam Ondra, and Jakob Schubert were all chatting and laughing together in the bouldering area. The Mawem brothers, Bassa and Mickael, got a punctual start on the speed wall, and Kai Harada stood on the sidelines fanning himself with a traditional Japanese fan, trying to stay cool. 

It was 5 o’clock, July 29, 2021; it was still light out and it was still hot. 

Workers were noisily deconstructing the nearby grand stands that had been erected for the 3×3 basketball competition, which completed its finals the night before. Now, they were officially transforming the venue for the first Olympic ‘Sport Climbing’ event. As we milled around before the training time began, it seemed like the loud, deafening metal sounds and oppressive afternoon heat were going to make for a long night. But then, the athletes started arriving, and show before the show began. 

The competitors were dressed in their styled Olympic training apparel, surrounded by their entourages of coaches and PTs. It felt like that slow-mo Chinese street-style TikTok to see them enter the arena. The Japanese team has arguably the most fashionable garb, from head to toe. The design of the blue ensemble is tailored flawlessly to each athlete, and the color shifts from bright blue to slightly aqua in the bright stadium lights. Their sneakers and sandals were a shade of chic neon orange that brought the whole look together in a modern and high fashion way. And then there’s Miho’s flaming hair. Who designed their look? I really need to know. 

Everyone was trying to feel cool, wearing a cooling apparatus of some type. The IOC provided cold pack vests and cooling wristbands. Adam Ondra marched into the arena with his team in a flying-V formation, his cold vest was zipped up: seriously, he came to win. I don’t remember hearing the sounds of the workers after that. There was electricity in the air. As each country’s team arrived in the venue, one by one, we knew that the sport of competition climbing had been changed forever.

This was just a training session and everything about it felt more professional than any World Cup ever has. Most of that seemed to come from the athletes and teams themselves. And it wasn’t that anyone was more serious, really. But as the sun went down and the professional lighting kicked in, it got even better. The vibe during the male athletes’ training session felt like there was a lot of comradery and joking around together. It’s hard to explain how it was, but somehow it felt serious and also like a friendly reunion. But it definitely felt important. I asked Nathaniel Coleman about his first impression of conditions , and he said everything felt surprisingly better than he was expecting. Hovering around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, temps felt cool, he said, and though it was humid, it didn’t feel slick. Overall, most of the climbers seemed OK with the heat. Jon asked Mickael Mawem if it felt too hot for him, to which he replied, “No, for me, it is perfect.” All of the athletes seemed psyched to be there, and psyched on the walls.

 Strangely enough, the womens’ training time had a slightly different vibe. It felt like a lot of the female athletes were absent, including one very obvious Slovenian who left a gaping hole in the line-up. Miho Nonaka and Akiyo Noguchi arrived separately, but with equal confidence and ease. Nonaka arrived early on and walked along the vacant bouldering wall like a Zen master; her gaze moving slowly and carefully over the boulders. It was like she was soaking in every moment, and it gave me chills.


All Photos by Jon Glassberg and Jess Talley / Louder Than 11