The climbing routes debuting at the Tokyo Games have never been seen before.
They will be created by an elite group of route setters — athletes behind the Olympic climbers who are responsible for putting on a good show and a fair competition.
Route setting is an art form with high stakes.
"I have huge respect for competition setters. Their job is never easy,” said Kyra Condie, one of four U.S. climbers competing in Tokyo. "They get the brunt of the frustration when a round doesn’t turn out how athletes hoped.”
To win the first Olympic medal in climbing, athletes must master three drastically different disciplines: speed, bouldering and lead.
The speed walls have a consistent route up a standardized 15-meter wall. The boulder climb is a short, ropeless ascent over mats. The lead climb is perhaps the most recognizable: a higher climb where athletes are attached to a harness and long ropes. No two boulder or lead climbs are the same; the variables for hold shapes, positions and orientations are infinite, and the challenges differ in each round.
It’s tricky for setters to respectfully test the skills of a world-beating lead climber like Adam Ondra and the talents of a speed specialist on one route. Finding the middle ground is not natural for climbers. But setters must seek the balance point.
"We’re not paid to be nice to athletes, but if they can’t make progress, we’ve gone wrong,” said Percy Bishton, chief setter at the Tokyo Olympics. "Nobody wants to watch climbers who can’t get off the floor.”
To gauge the level of the world’s best, setters climb with the best. Athletes often work as commercial setters, and some setters are former competitors.
Bishton falls into a different category: He’s a pig farmer. "There aren’t many Olympic athletes farming pigs,” he said.
His route to Tokyo began as a teenager, when he screwed pieces of rock to the exterior of the house while his parents were away. Bishton followed in the hand- and footholds of many British climbers of his era, eventually taking a position as a climbing instructor. But in the 1990s, indoor climbs were rarely changed, and Bishton became bored of the same routes. He decided to reset a climb. One new route inevitably led to another, and it developed into a job, he said.
There’s little glamour.
"It’s extreme DIY,” Bishton said. "We’re all eccentric, resilient and tough characters.”
Setters invent new movements and compose complex sequences. Over time, some become easy to decipher. Occasionally, athletes find overlooked solutions. From run-and-jumps to gibbon-like leaps, tiptoe teetering to awkward contortion, moves are added to the setters’ playbook and athletes’ repertoires.
But the physicality of setting is juxtaposed with a cerebral aspect. "There’s an artistic element, and many of us also have an analytical, engineering side,” said Bishton, who is also a woodworker.
Boulder climbs are called problems — they require solving, like a game of vertical Twister. Setters ruminate on movements, visualize sequences and contemplate the myriad ways athletes might climb. Part pacers, part puppeteers, they aim to be one step ahead, manipulating minds and muscles.
Climbs — and reputations — are won and lost by a few degrees or millimeters, depending on hold placements. The athletes’ genders and respective reach, strengths and current forms must be considered. But striking the perfect balance between too difficult and too easy across a range of skills for a range of climbers is nearly impossible. Falling is part of climbing. Occasionally, the setters stumble.
Women remain a minority in setting, despite growing numbers of female climbers. Male setters can struggle to grasp morphological difference — everything from height discrepancy to finger size, strength, power and flexibility.
The inverse is true, and frustrating, for female setters.
"I balance being unable to accurately test some men’s climbs I set with improving the women’s,” Katja Vidmar, a Slovenian setter, said.
Vidmar is one of three ratified female international setters, and the only one selected to work the Tokyo course. She had to withdraw, leaving a field made up entirely of male setters in Tokyo. "Women move, think and set differently,” she said. "I’m happy that scenes are slowly changing.”
Teams have occasionally set the bar too low, or impossibly high, for women.
Athletes have mere minutes to get inside the setters’ heads and apply their own ideas to what’s above. "Understanding the setters’ thought processes is incredibly important when figuring out movements,” Condie said.
The goal is to stagger hurdles up each climb, aiming for the ideal of one "top” per climb and separating the field. Multiple tops are boring, as is every athlete falling at the same point. Both situations can result in ties.
The most challenging section of a climb is called the crux. In Tokyo, a team of seven setters will tackle the crux of their careers, creating 18 climbs over five days for 40 athletes.
"The athletes have had an extra year of training, but few competitions,” Bishton said. "No one’s ever guessed correctly. Maybe it’s the attraction of the job, or what makes it so terrifying, that you don’t know if you’ve got it right until D-Day.”
And after the competition, the Olympic masterpieces will be stripped.
Bishton will climb a ladder to take the climbs down, a scene capturing the absurdity of a sport where puzzling the hardest way to the top is the whole point.
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