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Olympics

Why Are So Many Olympians Getting Injured?

Ondra, Nonaka, Pilz… a surprising number of Olympic climbers have come down with injuries with mere weeks until the Olympic Games.

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For most Olympic-qualified climbers, it’s safe to say that the Tokyo Olympics will represent one of (if not the) biggest moments in their competitive careers thus far. Becoming an Olympian is no small thing, and being one of the first in the world to compete in a new Olympic sport only adds to the glamor. With that in mind, a surprising number of Olympic-qualified climbers have unfortunately injured themselves in recent weeks, with the Tokyo Games just around the corner.

Jessica Pilz

Pilz, Austria’s lone female Olympic climber, completely ruptured her A4 pulley during finals in Salt Lake City’s first Boulder World Cup this May. “During the 2nd boulder I heard a quite crunch from my left ring finger, I stopped for a moment but pain didn’t kick in, so I finished the boulder and went back…” she wrote on Instagram. “I couldn’t hold a crimp anymore but still continued because Boulder 3 consisted only of slopers. Right after finals I had an ultrasound scan which showed a fully ruptured A4 pulley.” Pilz finished fifth in SLC, but has yet to return to an IFSC competition. 

Julia Chanourdie

The French lead climber also injured herself in Salt Lake City, in this case during a session before the comp itself (she did not compete as a result). “I was feeling pretty good and having a lot of fun during the session, until I felt a pain in my shoulder, bicep and pectoral,” Chanourdie wrote on Instagram. “I stopped climbing right away, I hoped that it would go away by the time of the competition, but unfortunately it didn’t… my decision was the right one in view of the year’s goals, but I hope that it’s not too serious and that I’ll be able to climb again soon.”

Her injury seems to have improved, and Chanourdie went on to place 10th in Lead and 19th in Bouldering at Innsbruck, with a 10th place Lead finish in Villars last weekend.

Adam Ondra 

The Czech superstar and Olympic favorite also injured himself in the first Salt Lake City comp and pulled out of the second one as a result. He offered some insight into his thought process on Instagram. “No matter much I was looking forward to competing this weekend, no matter how much hungry I feel for the competitions at the moment, I let my rational mind stop the emotions and decided not to compete,” he wrote. “I hurt my shoulder in the finals last week. It is not too serious, I can still climb, but certain moves are painful and way too dangerous for me. If I decided to compete, I could likely get into the situation when I would either give up on a certain move or risk a serious injury. And once I am in a full comp mode, I cannot see myself being too careful.” 

Ondra has recovered at least somewhat, since he went on to compete in Innsbruck in late June, but slipped in finals and came eighth, and then didn’t compete in Villars last week.

Miho Nonaka

The Japanese standout is the most recent major injury among Tokyo’s Olympic climbers. She injured herself during the Innsbruck World Cup semifinals at the end of June, and pulled out of the finals as a result, though she was heading into the finals in third. “I heard a popping sound from my knee when I put high heel on the volume, then I immediately stop climbing,” she wrote on Instagram. “An injured part is the ligaments, I’m so glad that it’s not sever injury.”

She did not compete in last week’s Villars World Cup, and later again commented on her injury, “Every time I get injured and climb with the pain, I remember how wonderful it is to climb without anxiety or fear and how great it is to move your body freely. It hasn’t been easy the past few days, but I also remember that if you make it through this, it will definitely make you stronger.”

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Four climbers with injuries with less than two months until Tokyo… that represents a whopping 10% of the Olympic roster. It’s a hefty amount, and these aren’t no-name climbers, either. Least a couple of the injured are surefire favorites for an Olympic podium, though their recent injuries may have changed that. 

We can only speculate why so many top climbers are getting injured as Tokyo looms. One relatively plausible conclusion is that for many qualified Olympians, the last year of pandemic-caused delay meant going too hard for too long. 

On the contrary, were the Olympics not on the horizon, many of these injuries might not have gotten as much coverage as they have. Many climbers are likely erring on the side of caution a bit more than usual, dropping out of comps that they normally would stay in, in light of the impending Games. For the first time in the history of competitive climbing, there is an event that means infinitely more than all the IFSC World Cups or World Championships put together. Perhaps competitive-focused climbers like Ondra would’ve pushed through the pain of a shoulder injury if not for the impending Olympics. 

Whatever the reasons behind the rash of injuries, we can only wish all the injured climbers well, and hope that everyone is in good shape in time for Tokyo!