Tomoa Narasaki (foreground); this photo was taken during the 2017 IFSC World Cup in bouldering held in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The first list of sport climbers qualified for the Tokyo Olympics was announced in August, 2019. Qualification is a process in three phases lasting till May 2020. Interestingly, some of the athletes who made the cut in the initial list would be familiar to Indian climbing aficionados; they had participated in the two IFSC World Cup events held in Navi Mumbai in 2016 and 2017.

The selection process of sport climbers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games will enter its second phase next month with the IFSC Climbing Combined Qualifier in Tournefeuille-Toulouse, France scheduled over November 28-December 1.

In August, the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) had announced the first list of selected climbers after the Combined World Championships in Hachioji, Japan. “ Over 156 athletes competed in all three disciplines at the IFSC Climbing World Championships Hachioji 2019 with the hopes of earning a ticket to the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Following a week of competition, the top 20 climbers in each gender were selected to participate in the Combined World Championships and the first Olympic qualifying event. The seven highest-placed athletes per gender of the Combined World Championships, with a maximum of two per country, will receive invitations for the Olympic Games,’’ an IFSC statement had said then.

Those in the first list, qualifying so (as available on the IFSC website; the list is titled: Sport Climbing’s First Olympic Qualified Athletes), are Janja Garnbret (Slovenia), Akiyo Noguchi (Japan), Shauna Coxsey (Great Britain), Aleksandra Miroslaw (Poland), Miho Nonaka (Japan), Petra Klinger (Switzerland) and Brooke Raboutou (USA) from the women’s category;  Tomoa Narasaki (Japan),  Jakob Schubert (Austria), Rishat Khaibullin (Kazakhstan), Kai Harada (Japan), Mickael Mawem (France), Alexander Megos (Germany) and Ludovico Fossali (Italy) from the men’s category.

Shauna Coxsey; this photo was taken during the 2017 IFSC World Cup in bouldering held in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

“ All qualification places are provisional until confirmed by each athlete’s National Olympic Committee (NOC). Formal invitations will be sent by the IFSC to the relevant NOCs within five days of the conclusion of Combined World Championships. The NOCs will then have two weeks to either confirm or decline the quota places,’’ the IFSC statement of August 21, had mentioned.

According to a report in the Japan Times, in the combined discipline Narasaki placed first in bouldering and second in lead and speed. Scores are decided by multiplying the finishing position in each of the disciplines; this is the scoring model for the Olympics too. Done so, Narasaki’s score was four, which was the lowest among the competitors, making him victor of the combined championships. In the men’s category, there were three other Japanese climbers including Narasaki’s younger brother, finishing fourth, fifth and sixth. But the two-person cap per country per gender appears to have kicked in. “   Japan will select the other male and female climbers based upon outcomes in the Olympic qualifying tournament, Asian Championships and Combined Japan Cup,’’ the report said. As host country, Japan gets a reserved slot per gender.

Besides those qualified at Hachioji, six additional athletes in each gender will be qualified to the Olympic Games from the Toulouse event scheduled for end-November 2019. The final opportunity to qualify will be five IFSC Combined Continental Championships due to take place in 2020. The schedule as available on the IFSC website is – Africa, 1-3 May, Johannesburg (South Africa), Asia, 18-24 May, Morioka (Japan), Europe, 16-18 April, Moscow (Russia), Pan-Am, 27 February-1 March, Los Angeles (USA) and Oceania, 18-19 April, Sydney (Australia). Climber hoping to qualify should head to his / her respective continental championship.

This is the first time climbing will be featured at the Olympics. All three disciplines of sport climbing – lead, bouldering and speed – will be seen. However in a departure from the normal practice of climbers specializing in a discipline of their choice and competing in it, at the Olympics, the same climber will have to endure all three disciplines with the highest aggregate scores ending up on the podium. The controversial format – it was tested at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics – had to be resorted to because the Olympic committee allotted the sport only one gold medal per gender.

Akio Noguchi; this photo was clicked at the 2017 IFSC World Cup in bouldering held in Navi Mumbai (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

At the Olympics, there will be altogether 40 climbers competing; 20 men and 20 women. This limited availability of slots automatically implies a selection process for qualifying and not every country that is into climbing will be able to have a representative competing in the discipline at the Olympics. Out of the 20 slots for each gender, one slot will go to the host country, another to a NGO called Tripartite Commission, which can give Olympic bids based on exceptional circumstances. That means, effectively, the qualification battle is for 18 slots in each gender. Each country is permitted only two qualified competitors; if more numbers qualify from a given country, then only the top two will be considered. By the time the selection process reaches the stage of the Continental Championships, there will be only five slots left to fill in each gender category (the rest having been filled by events at Hachioji, Toulouse, host country and Tripartite Commission. Should any athlete withdraw after the selection process is completed and the national rosters have been set, then the invitation for the Olympics will go to whoever ranked next to that person at the relevant qualifying event.

Climbing is among sports at the 2020 Olympics, wherein host country Japan has strong medal prospects. Overall at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, Japan Olympic Committee is known to be targeting at least 30 gold medals, higher than their nation’s previous best haul of 16 secured in Athens (2004) and when the games was last held in Tokyo (1964). That said, the going won’t be easy for Japan in climbing. There is stiff competition in the women’s category (at Hachioji, the Japanese female climber with the best score – Akiyo Noguchi – placed second in the combined final after Slovenia’s Janja Garnbret who finished first) and on the men’s side, despite not making it to the first list, Czech ace Adam Ondra (he was disqualified over a technical issue in the Olympic qualification at Hachioji) has two more opportunities to qualify.

The selection process obliquely reminds the Indian climbing community of the good fortune in Navi Mumbai having hosted two climbing World Cups – in 2016 and 2017. Some of the athletes in the first list of qualified – like Akiyo Noguchi, Shauna Coxsey, Miho Nonaka, Tomoa Narasaki and Jakob Schubert had participated in one or both of the world cups held in Navi Mumbai. To that extent, the stars are not strangers; you remember them.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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