Who Won, Who Lost, And Why At the Men’s Olympic Sport Climbing Finals
The speed wall didn't go well for most of the climbers, then one boulder was too easy, the others too hard.
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I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted—in the best sense of the word. The timestamp on my livestream of the men’s Olympic final indicates that the round lasted five and a half hours, and my palms were sweating and my heart was pounding the entire time with nervous excitement and sustained stoke. I was literally on the edge of my seat, cheering throughout the separate Speed, Boulder, and Lead portions. If you’ve already read those recaps and know the results, here are some Highs and Lows from what was arguably the most historic night in modern competition climbing history.
Were you not entertained? Can we just take a moment to appreciate how thrilling this final round was…and celebrate how much of a nail-biter it turned out to be? I mean, seriously. With the Combined discipline’s multiplied scoring system, there was a three-way-tie at the top of the leaderboard after the Boulder portion between Team USA’s Nathaniel Coleman, France’s Mickael Mawem, and Japan’s Tomoa Narasaki. The Lead portion was just as wild, with everything coming down to Austria’s Jakob Schubert’s climb at the very end of the round (which ultimately earned Schubert a bronze medal). I think a lot of the resentment and dislike of the Combined discipline went out the window for everyone, even if just temporarily, given how the scoring set up such an unpredictable concluding act. This Olympic final gave new and longtime fans everything they could ask for in competition climbing—emotional ups and downs, surprises, upsets, sportsmanship, and a historic finish. I’m psyched that we get to do it all again tomorrow with the women’s final, and I’m ready to begin the countdown now for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Watch Video: Boulderer falls onto his partners, takes everyone for a ride
The World Cup grind pays off: Spain’s Alberto Ginés López was the only qualified Olympian who competed on the World Cup circuit for as long as he possibly could prior to these Olympic Games. There was a lot of speculation that doubling up on the rigors of the World Cup circuit and Olympic training like that would prove detrimental for him in Tokyo. And, Ginés López did look increasingly exhausted in demeanor at some of the more recent World Cups. But he rallied at the Olympics and secured the dream outcome—a gold medal—that few people outside of his home country had predicted. His Olympic-winning performance was undoubtedly aided by some fascinating extraneous factors—such as Tomoa Narasaki’s surprising slip in a clutch Speed heat, and Jakob Schubert’s sole top of the Lead route. But that is how the Combined game is played, and none of those factors should take away from the victory; Ginés López earned it and deserves all the credit in the world.
Coleman enters a new context: As a multi-time bouldering national champion, Nathaniel Coleman is already a star climber in the United States. But a silver medal vaults him into uncharted territory nationally and internationally…in terms of celebrity, media attention, and global recognition. No American climber has ever possessed Olympic hardware before, so there’s no roadmap or precedent. Coleman is thoughtful, astute, polite, and passionate about a lot of worthy causes, so I’m sure he’ll make the most of whatever newfound fame comes his way. I’d also imagine there were a lot of young American climbers watching the finals who are now thinking—or telling their parents, “When I grow up, I want to be like Nathaniel Coleman.” And that’s awesome.
A toe-catch for the ages: While we’re on the subject of Nathaniel Coleman, I don’t know if I’ve ever been as psyched for a toe-catch as I was when he used the move in his ascent of the second boulder. A few other climbers figured out this sneaky right-foot beta too, but Coleman was the only one who could make it work and secure a top. There were a lot of factors that eventually played into Coleman’s earning of the silver medal, but ascending this boulder will likely be remembered as the most crucial plot point in his now-legendary Olympic narrative.
Cameras get creative: It was so easy to get wrapped up in the results that a lot of nifty production work probably went unappreciated. For example, the on-screen graphics that showed everyone’s highpoints on the lead wall were easy to follow, as were the score graphics for the Boulder portion. There was also some really interesting camera work during the Speed portion—way more intricate and dynamic than anything we typically see on World Cup broadcasts. The shot that sticks out most to me was a camera angle that started on the side of the speed wall and then swooped fluidly underneath the climbers as they ascended. I don’t even know how camera operators would do such a shot—but they did. Some of the camera shots in the Boulder portion left a little to be desired; I’d rather see the climbers from a distance, in context on the wall, than an extreme close-up of a foot on a jib. But I think the positive production aspects outweigh the negatives, and hopefully we start seeing some of these clever camera maneuvers applied to broadcasts of other climbing competitions.
Notes of consolation: Undoubtedly there are some crushed spirits right now, particularly those of the competitors who did not make the podium. I don’t know if they’ll read this, but some of their fans might, so it’s worth spotlighting the gifts that each of those competitors gave us. Tomoa Narasaki made the first boulder look easier than anyone else; Mickael Mawem clocked two lightning Speed runs—6.36 seconds and 6.47 seconds; Adam Ondra held the highpoint for much of the Lead portion, thus being the figurative puppet master for much of the end drama; and Colin Duffy impressed the entire world with his skill and poise in an older and generally more experienced field, likely creating a whole new base of fans in the process. There is more to Olympic greatness than the medals, and these men all exemplified that.
Still doesn’t feel right: I’ll be honest, I’m not in love with the fact that Adam Ondra got to basically automatically advance in the Speed bracket because Bassa Mawem was injured and did not start in the finals. Sure, Ondra still had to clock a time (climbing alone) in the inaugural heat, but that was just a formality and the bracket math worked out that Ondra, far from being a speed specialist, could not finish the Speed portion lower than fourth place. To be clear, I’m not taking anything away from Ondra; the rules and circumstances worked out in a way that happened to favor him, so good on him. I’m not even sure what the best alternative solution would have been, other than to maybe reseed the athletes prior to the start of the round—which would have likely prompted its own set of critiques and criticism…and still wouldn’t have completely fixed the issue. With the stakes of every Speed run being so great with the Combined discipline’s multiplied scoring system—and a field of only seven actively participating competitors—an automatic advancement into a successive bracket just seemed like too much of a gift for anyone.
Setbacks started in Speed: I’d venture to guess that everyone other than Adam Ondra and Alberto Ginés López felt mentally walloped by the whole Speed portion: Colin Duffy false-started his first race, Jakob Schubert and Mickael Mawem had costly slips in heats, Nathaniel Coleman fell and ultimately didn’t clock a time in his run to determine whether he’d be situated in fifth or sixth place, and Tomoa Narasaki bumbled low on the hotly anticipated concluding race—while attempting the “Tomoa Skip” beta that bears his name, no less. That’s not to say there weren’t bright spots—it was great to see Coleman set a new personal best time twice and Ondra break the hallowed seven-second mark. But I felt gutted watching so many fantastic competitors have less-than-ideal Speed performances in the finals, and my heart went out to all of them.
A boulder is undercooked: The first boulder neatly combined a low slab section with an upper dyno finish. It seemed extra intriguing when the first competitor in the field, Alberto Ginés López, failed to top it. But then Nathaniel Coleman flashed it, as did Jakob Schubert…and Colin Duffy…and Tomoa Narasaki…and Mickael Mawem. It was oddly reminiscent of the previous day’s first boulder, in the women’s qualifying round—which also saw too many ascents. The key takeaway for the routesetters from all this is that the slab boulders need to be harder at this elite level—these competitors are just too good.
A boulder is overcooked: On the other hand, the third boulder in the men’s final didn’t see any tops, which was unfortunate because it was among the more aesthetically impressive boulders I’ve ever seen, a spiral of gray prisms around a yellow foothold, or what writer Steven Potter called a “flywheel of volumes” in his Climbing recap. It will definitely go down in history as the What If boulder, as a number of competitors came really close to sticking the burly, feet-off shoulder-hang move that was obviously the crux.
It’s fun to ponder how the gold medal of Alberto Ginés López will positively impact the climbing industry in his home of Spain. I remember years ago, when Chris Sharma moved to that country, there was talk about how Sharma’s residency would likely help give the Spanish climbing scene some even greater international cache. It certainly has, as Sharma has opened a number of world-class climbing gyms there in recent years, and Spanish crags near his home have been the sites of some of his most iconic sends. I see the gold of Ginés López, and the legendary status that will come of it, further adding to Spain’s global climbing renown in new and unpredictable ways.
Much of the climbing commentary throughout these Olympics has been perplexing, as I’ve reported on previously, but there were some great lines in the men’s final. In reference to Tokyo’s excessive humidity, we got this gem: “Heat is completely new to [climbers]; their older foe is gravity.” This was a good line too, about encouraging kids to take up the sport: “If there’s anyone who has kids who like to climb trees, let them do it—[the Olympics] is where they could get to.” I wholeheartedly agree.