More Sports

Going up not only challenge for competitors in climbing

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

After capturing the women’s title at the inaugural Combined Japan Cup on June 24, Akiyo Noguchi insisted she needed to sleep a lot to restore her energy following a grueling qualification round the previous day.

“I slept a lot,” the 29-year-old Noguchi admitted with a smile at Iwate Prefectural Sports Park. “I think I slept for more than 10 hours overall.”

Making its Olympic debut at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, sport climbing is the new kid on the block.

It is a different animal for the climbers, however. It requires them to do much more than just move upward.

The athletes test their skills in three different disciplines — bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing — in one competition.

The Combined Japan Cup was a two-day tourney, but it will be held over four days at the Olympics. At the Tokyo Games the competitions will feature three days for qualifications, one discipline per day, and the top six in each discipline will advance to the finals. In the finals, competitors will perform all three disciplines in one day.

For the 2020 Olympics, 20 participants are scheduled to compete in the men’s and women’s events. Each country and continental region will earn up to two spots for the games.

Physical demands

Unless you are a climber, it is hard to imagine how demanding it is to perform all three disciplines on the same day.

But world-class boulder Shauna Coxsey of Britain had a funny description in her interview with olympic.org, and it might help to understand the sport a little bit better.

She said it is “a bit like asking Usain Bolt to run a marathon and then do the hurdles.”

As the Japan national team head coach, Hiroshi Yasui appears to have a daunting task, too, because his job is to make sure that the country’s top climbers can compete at the highest global level in the combined climbing and collect Olympic medals on home soil.

That said, he and the Japan Mountaineering and Sport Climbing Association are unstinting in providing their top climbers opportunities to work on all the three disciplines.

The Combined Japan Cup was a legitimate first step. Compared with bouldering, Japanese athletes have far fewer places to practice lead and speed climbing (a wall is required for lead climbing that must exceed 12 meters, while those for speed climbing have to be either 10 meters or 15 meters). In fact, there are few for the latter, which is not so familiar here. The tournament was held in Tohoku because it is one of the few places in Japan with permanent walls for lead and speed climbing.

Yasui said that it was probably unprecedented for a national federation to host a tournament like that.

The national team has attempted to give its elite climbers ample opportunities to practice speed climbing through training camps, too. For instance, it hosted another on June 25 at the venue for the Combined Japan Cup.

All in all, the Combined Japan Cup was successful. Not in terms of Japan climbers’ performances, but in them being able to get a better grasp of sport climbing and find out what areas they need more work on.

Understanding challenges

Japan has established itself as a global powerhouse in bouldering, which is often depicted as physical chess because athletes use their brains to conquer their routes.

But now they need endurance for lead climbing plus sprinting ability for speed climbing.

Going through all that in one tournament requires so much energy and adjusting ability with short rest in between.

Miho Nonaka participated in a sport climbing event for the first time ever, like the majority of the other participants in the Iwate capital. After the qualification round on June 23, the first words out of her mouth were “extremely exhausted.”

“I mean, having to go through all three disciplines is tough by itself,” Nonaka said. “But you also have to go to the next (discipline) with about 20 minutes of rest (between speed climbing and bouldering). You don’t have much time for warming up, you only focus on recovering your body.”

She added: “It was much tougher than what I had imagined it would be.”

Despite the physical toll of climbing, the competitors do not think it is smart to conserve energy for other disciplines. They said you have to go all out in each discipline.

The reason has a lot to do with the rule for placement in sport climbing. At the Olympics, scores will be determined by multiplying the athlete’s finishing positions in each of the three disciplines, and climbers with lower scores will be placed higher. So capturing first place in at least one of the three will give the athlete a big edge mathematically.

Tomoa Narasaki, who is currently ranked No. 1 in bouldering in the world, surprisingly fell to fourth place in the discipline at the Combined Japan Cup. But he saved his day by taking first in lead climbing, which was the day’s final discipline. The 22-year-old had scored “one point” in speed climbing as well, and the pair of first-place finishes earned him the men’s title.

Setting goals

Japan’s biggest weakness is in speed climbing. Narasaki set a national record (6.87 seconds) while finishing first in speed climbing in Morioka. But some of the world’s fastest men’s speed climbers, including from Russia and France, clock under 6 seconds on a 15-meter wall. (Iran’s Reza Alipourshenazandifar holds the world record at 5.48.)

So it would be hard to predict, at least for now, that Narasaki, or any other Japanese athlete, male or female, will have their names displayed on the placement board for this discipline at the Olympics and other upcoming international combined competitions.

That said, ultimately you have to be clever and strategical to have a good result at the Olympics.

Narasaki admitted that it helped him claim victory by finishing first in two disciplines. But in order to give himself a better chance to win at international events, he thinks he needs to work on lead climbing more to make sure to finish higher.

“When you fail to take one (first-place finish), it would cost you,” said Narasaki, who claimed the combined climbing championship on the 2017 World Cup circuit. “I was able to win first place in lead climbing this time. But it would be more difficult to score lower points in it at international tournaments. So I would like to improve that.”

Nonaka, who is atop the women’s bouldering list for this year’s 2018 World Cup, placed fourth overall in Morioka. But the 21-year-old maintained a positive outlook.

“I learned so much going through this format,” Nonaka said. “And it was beneficial (to learn about) how much fatigue I would get as well.”

The Aug. 19-Sept. 2 Asian Games in Jakarta, September’s world championships in Innsbruck, Austria, and November’s Asian championship in Tottori Prefecture will all stage combined events this year.

A total of 20 climbers each in the men’s and women’s competitions will take part at the Aomi Urban Sports Venue in Tokyo at the Olympics. The schedule will be released later.