The Olympics have the power to turn obscure sports into much bigger attractions once they’ve been included on the program for the global sports extravaganza.
So the announcement two years ago that sport climbing — which combines bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing — would be included on the program for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was a good day for fans of the sport. Especially for those in Japan.
On Saturday and Sunday, the 13th Bouldering Japan Cup was held at the indoor arena of Komazawa Olympic Park. The event nearly drew a full house on the final day, with a record crowd of 1,661.
The inside of the arena was more than just a regular stage for the competition.
The climbing walls were illuminated with spotlights while music pumped out over the speakers. The organizers also used projection mapping to display points scored, biographies and handwritten messages from the participating athletes on the walls.
On the final day, around 100 media members from about 45 outlets flocked to the venue to cover the rapidly growing sport.
One of the organizers said there had been a complete turnaround since the International Olympic Committee revealed that sport climbing would be on the program for the Tokyo Games.
“Like two or three. I’m serious,” he said, when asked how many reporters would normally show up for the Japan Cup before the Olympic announcement.
The event had previously been mostly held at much smaller venues such as climbing gyms and even high school gymnasiums in Oita Prefecture and Nagasaki Prefecture. Those sites didn’t have much space for fans. Last year’s event drew 1,641 spectators to Yoyogi National Gymnasium No. 2.
“When I won, there weren’t this many (reporters),”said Rei Sugimoto, who was the men’s winner in 2014 and finished sixth at the Japan Cup this year. “But I didn’t expect to see this many TV cameras (this year). They’re increasing every year.”
Kokoro Fujii completed a three-peat in the men’s competition.
Ironically, Sugimoto expected the growth curve of media exposure for the sport to slow down leading up to the Olympics.
But he admitted he was wrong — in a good way, of course — saying, “it actually keeps going upward.”
“We’ve received a lot of interest in the Japan Cup, we’ve seen our sport being featured on television so many times,” the 26-year-old Sugimoto said. “I think that people are really paying attention (to climbing).”
Debra Gawrych, the secretary general for the International Federation of Sport Climbing, who observed the Japan Cup this year, said she was impressed that the tournament was “well-organized” and was “proud of the competition, proud to be here for the Japanese nationals.”
In addition to climbing having been added to Olympics, the fact that many of the top Japanese climbers have made their mark globally, especially in bouldering, has contributed to the sport’s growing popularity as well.
Japan has captured the team competition title in the last four World Cup seasons. Individually, Tomoa Narasaki won the Bouldering World Cup championship in 2016 and became the first Japanese to win a combined title on the circuit last year. On the female side, Akiyo Noguchi has racked up four overall World Cup titles in bouldering and Miho Nonaka finished runnerup in the same discipline in 2017.
Gawrych said Japan hasn’t just “risen to the occasion” since the sport was placed on the program for Tokyo 2020, but “the climbers have come along so fast as well.”
She added that Japan has set the tone for success in gaining more recognition for the sport, which will help climbing to remain popular beyond the Tokyo Games.
“This is what we need to do,” Gawrych said with a smile. “I think Japan is leading what we could do in climbing. That’s what I’m happy with.”
If some of the Japanese climbers can capture medals, especially golds, at the Tokyo Olympics, that would help to boost the sport’s popularity in the country even more.
But of course nobody has even been guaranteed a spot on the national team yet. Plus, participants will have to compete in all three disciplines, not just bouldering, where Japanese excel most.
Three of the six finalists for the women’s competition were 15 years old or younger, while the men’s finals had one teenager.
Noguchi said she has been inspired by more cheering and support from the fans with the Olympics set to arrive in just two years. But she added that the competition level has risen domestically and has made her feel she has to work harder to live up to the high expectations of the fans.
“You have to be able to do all of them,” the 28-year-old, who has become an unprecedented 11-time Japan Cup champion after winning her latest crown this year, said, referring to the three disciplines. “You need time and concentration to work on them. And it makes me feel that I don’t have time to rest, I don’t have a day to lose.”
The 2018 World Cup campaign will kick off in April. With the Olympics in sight, the first-ever Combined Japan Cup is scheduled to be held in Morioka in June.