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Ever heard of Jim Bridwell, John Long, and Billy Westbay, a.k.a., the Stonemasters? They were the first climbers to ascend the Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite in a single day, in 1975. Their record prompted a battle, one that is ongoing—for who had the guts and the stamina to do the Nose the fastest. While these Stonemasters are perhaps the best known example of early speed record chasers, climbers have long been racing the clock.
The official speed route that will be used in the 2020 Tokyo Games is a far cry from the Nose. It’s shorter, for one, and it hasn’t been around as long. While the record for the Nose sits just under two hours, set by Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell, it’s nearing sub-five seconds for today’s wall.
Unlike those for setting the Nose record, the rules governing the speed discipline in Tokyo get granular. Whoever reaches the top the fastest wins (hopefully that’s obvious). But here’s what you need to know to really follow along.
The speed-climbing route is standardized, meaning climbers around the world train and compete on exactly the same route. The wall is 45 feet tall, consists of 20 handholds and 11 footholds, is five degrees overhung, and the route is set according to an official map in the IFSC Rulebook.
Before the competition begins, climbers get two practice runs on the wall. Even though the route is standardized, each wall may feel slightly different due to weather or the condition of the climbing holds and wall (climbers usually train on speed walls that have been well-used, while everything at competitions is generally brand-new). This is the competitors’ chance to complete their warm-up and get a feel for climbing on the competition wall.
The qualifying round is next, where athletes get two chances to climb the route and log times. They are then ranked based on their fastest runs, and the top 16 competitors move on to the next round.
The next rounds of competition are head-to-head races, which are structured with March Madness-style knockout brackets. The 16th-fastest climber goes against the athlete ranked first. Climber 15 goes against climber two, 14 against three, and so on. The winner of each bracket moves on to the next round, where number eight faces off against one, seven against two … You get the idea. Competitors have only one chance to climb in each race. When a climber loses a race, the person is eliminated from the competition immediately and ranked according to time among those who have lost that round. When only four competitors are left, those who lost in the penultimate round subsequently race each other for the bronze medal.