What Is Speed Climbing? – The New Olympic Sport Explained

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For the first time ever Sport Climbing will feature at the Olympics in Tokyo. The format includes three different disciplines including Speed Climbing – an exciting “blink and you’ll miss it” dash to the top.

What Is Speed Climbing?

Speed Climbing is a race between two climbers to see who gets to the top first. Competitors start at the bottom on the third beep and must hit a buzzer at the top of the wall to stop the timer.

In early qualification rounds climbers aren’t competing against each other but just trying to get the fastest times. The top sixteen climbers then go on to the 1/8 finals and compete head to head in pairs. The winner goes on the 1/4 finals, the winners on to the semi-final (1/2) and then the finals.

The winner in the finals takes Olympic Gold and the loser Silver. The losers of the semi-final compete to determine third and fourth place which is important for the Bronze medal. The most important thing is not to fall or false start as this automatically loses the round.

Other Types Of Speed Climbing

Climbing outside on big routes for the fastest time is definitely a thing but pretty unrelated to speed climbing as a sport. This is like a sprint on a track whereas outdoors is like a trail run. You can watch Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell trying for a speed record on the Nose in Yosemite in Reel Rock 14.

What Are Autobelays?

The autobelay is the system the climbers use to get up and come down from the wall safely. A drum at the top contains a roll of strong fabric tape and a carabiner (metal clip) at the bottom. The climbers clip themselves into the carabiner which automatically locks to the tie-in point of their harness.

The autobelay act very much like a seat belt in one sense that the tape is always being pulled up into the machine a little bit. This isn’t enough to pull the climber up but just enough to pull the tape in so there isn’t slack in the system. Slack in a fall would mean a big jolt to the climber.

What Is Speed Climbing - Autobelays
The autobelays lower climbers down safely

When the climber falls or jumps there is a braking system that uses a high strength metal coil to arrest the fall and then slowly lower the climber. It’s rated for heavy people and big jumps so competitors don’t have to worry about huge leaps.

Are Autobelays Safe? Have They Ever Failed?

They’re very safe . Most climbing gyms have a few for normal sport climbing routes so climbers can go alone without a belayer. There have been cases of failures but they are generally in much older models or recently to do with maintenance issues.

Most accidents on autobelays are from climbers not actually clipping themselves into the carabiner. This happens mainly to more experienced climbers who have spent years with a partner and normally tie themselves in. Watch a video about what happened on an autobelay fall.

What Autobelay Is Used In The Olympics?

The official machine is the Perfect Descent Speed Drive. It takes in slack tape at 15ft or 4.6m per second, so plenty enough so the tape is always taut. You can buy other brands and models that do the same thing.

Speed Climbing At The Olympics

Speed Climbing is in the Olympics for the first time. It’s featuring as part of the new Sport Climbing event which will debut in Tokyo 2021. Speed Climbing, Lead Climbing, and Bouldering are the three events.

Competitors must place well in all three categories for a medal chance. The rank per event is multiplied together and the lowest overall score wins. For example a climber with 1st in Lead, 2nd in Speed, and 4th in Bouldering would get 8 points (1 x 2 x 4 = 8).

Find Out More
What Is Bouldering?
What Is Lead Climbing?
What Is Sport Climbing?
Complete Guide To Olympic Climbing

What Are The Speed Climbing Rules?

Speed climbers start with one foot on a pressure plate, the other on the wall, and two hands on the starting holds. There is an automatic timing system that starts on the third beep of the machine and finishes when the button at the top is pressed. There used to be person with a stopwatch or timer as well but it’s now computer only.

The judge starts the timer by announcing “ready” and pushing the button on the timing system attached to both sides of the wall. A second later the first beep starts, followed by another two a second apart. On the third beep climbers can go.

The display shows times down to 1/100th of a second but times are recorded down to 1/1000th of a second aka to four decimal places – 0.001. If there is a tie then both climber’s second best time in that competition decides the winner. This hasn’t happened in any IFSC competitions yet and is fairly unlikely.

What Is Speed Climbing - Buzzer
Don’t fall!

What Counts As A Fall In Speed Climbing?

Falling counts as a loss of that round. Touching the side or top of the wall, or touching the ground again after starting both count as a “fall”. The climber can catch themselves and carry on as long as they use the last hold they just touched. Any lower than that and it’s a fall.

Speed Climbing False Start Explained

A false starts is recorded if the climbers foot comes off of the pressure pad before the first beep. False starts count as a loss and result in “no valid time”, without a second attempt. In qualifications the climber will be placed last and in the later rounds they will lose and go to the lower bracket to try again for a lower placing.

There is actually a tenth of a second (0.1 second) after the third beep which also counts as a false start. This is a little controversial but is meant to be about realistic human reaction times. Some climbers however have been disqualified from a false start where their foot left the pressure plate after 3 seconds but before 3.1 seconds.

Where Can I Try Speed Climbing?

Check your local climbing gym’s website or social media to see if they have an autobelay set up for speed climbing. Normally you can do a bouldering or climbing intro course and they’ll show you how to use the autobelays as they’re pretty simple. You’ll probably find these other types of climbing you get introduced to way more fun and engaging.

What Is The Tomoa Skip? Skipping Holds In Speed Climbing

The fastest way to get from A to B is always in a straight line – unless there are obstacles. The speed climbing route has holds that zig and zag across the wall. Climbers don’t have to touch all of the holds on the way up so plot out routes that work the best for them.

As a result many of the holds further out to the side get skipped completely and climbers aim to go in as straight a line as possible. Previous record holder Reza Alipour started the trend called the “Reza” where he skipped the third hold entirely. Watch it here. Most also skip the third to last hold.

The next step up (…literally) came when Tomoa Narasaki started skipping the third foothold on the left and bringing his foot up to his hands on the third handhold. This allows him to push directly up from there as is called the “Tomoa skip”. Watch below.

Now basically everyone does it. In general the lower on the wall the faster you are going so it’s easier to skip lower holds. However, it looks like the Indonesian team have started skipping another hold further up the wall, leading to…

What Is The Speed Climbing World Record?

The current Men’s Speed Climbing World Record is 5.208 seconds. It was set by Veddriq Leonardo of Indonesia at the Salt Lake City Speed Climbing World Cup on May 28th 2021.

Incredibly that was the second time the record was broken that day! The 5.208 was set in the final where Veddriq faced off against Kiromal Katibin, who had earlier broken the world record with a 5.258 seconds in the qualification round.

Previous to that it was 5.48 seconds, a record which had stood for four years. Reza Alipour Shenazandifard set this back on the 30th of April 2017 and he was long thought to be favorite for the fastest times at the upcoming Olympics. However, he ended up not qualifying largely because his bouldering and lead climbing results were poor.

The current Women’s Speed Climbing World Record is 6.964 seconds. It was set by Iuliia Kaplina of Russia at the IFSC Europe Continental Championships in Moscow on November 21st 2020. Previously it was held by Aries Susanti Rahayu with 6.995 seconds.

Iuliia will be competing at the Olympics in 2021 though Russia are officially banned. It’s likely she’ll compete under a neutral nation and won’t be allowed to display a flag or have a national anthem. She’ll also have to get through strict doping tests.

Iuliia Kaplina has held multiple Speed Climbing World Records and even beaten her own record a few times. It’s likely she’ll place high for speed climbing at the Olympics.

Who Will Win Speed Climbing At The Olympics?

Though there isn’t a separate medal for Speed Climbing, there is still something to be said about being the fastest climber at the Olympics. For the Women it’s most likely that either Iuliia Kaplina of Russia, YiLing Song of China, or Aleksandra Miroslaw of Poland will be taking the top spot.

All three are very consistent Speed climbers. This is important when false starts and falls take many out of the game, and when to win you don’t need to be the fastest overall – just faster than your opponent. Iuliia is the current world record holder and YiLing Song had one a couple of times back.

For the Men Rishat Khaibullin of Kazakhstan, Ludovico Fossali of Italy, and Bassa Mawem of France are all up there for taking 1st in Speed Climbing at the Olympics. All have personal bests of under 6 seconds and are very consistent in their training and results.

What Climbing Shoes + Harness Do Speed Climbers Use?

Climbing shoes are very different to normal shoes. They fit tightly to the foot for good control with the toes curled at the front so pressure can be put onto tiny holds. The rubber used is very soft and sticks the the holds and even to the surface of the flat wall itself. The rubber comes over the front of the foot and the heel for more surface area.

Most climbers use a soft, supple shoe that slips on easily and weighs as little as possible. A popular speed climbing shoe is the La Sportiva Cobra 4.99. It’s a trimmed down version of the Cobra and the 4.99 is named for breaking the 5 second barrier.

For harnesses really the lightest is the best. The Petzl Sitta is one of the lightest climbing harnesses on the market. You’ll see the distinctive orange and white on many competing at the Olympics. Some competitors even cut off unnecessary parts like the gear loops – though we don’t recommend you go anywhere near a harness with scissors.

If you’re looking to get into climbing or have recently started we actually don’t recommend either the Cobra or Sitta as they’re very specialized. Instead take a look at our picks for gear that have better value and work more for all-round climbing.

Our Favorite Climbing Gear Hand-Picked For Beginners
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How Hard Is The Speed Climbing Route?

The official speed climbing route is around a 5.10c/d or 6a+ grade. It’s not very hard as the holds are generally pretty good. The difficulty is more in the reaches but if you’re going at speed that’s not a problem. In fact, most climbers aim to skip as many holds as possible on the route to save time.

What Is Speed Climbing - Ondra screaming
Adam Ondra screaming. Is he happy? Is he angry? Nobody knows…

The walls are slightly textured too so climbers can push their feet against it. This is really common on indoor climbing walls as it is more like the porous textured rock you’ll find outside.

Speed Climbing Holds

The holds are just one hand hold and one foot hold repeated at different angles. Some parts of the x shaped hand holds are better than others so climbers will memorize when they can take big jumps to almost guaranteed holds.

You can buy official Speed Climbing route holds manufactured by Volx though there are copies that use the official dimensions published by the IFSC

How Tall Is The Speed Climbing Wall?

The speed climbing wall is 15 meters or 49 foot high. That’s around the height that most indoor climbing walls have – plus or minus a few meters. The wall has two lanes that are both three meters wide. Outdoors routes can be way taller.

It has an overhang (leans back) of 5 degrees which makes it a little harder than a completely upright route. This is only a mild overhang and is helpful for stopping climbers hitting holds on the way up or down. The routes you’ll see in the lead climbing part of the competition will feature even more steeply overhanging sections.

Speed climbing wall height might differ indoors for training. National speed climbing training centers usually have two or three smaller walls set with top or middle sections only. That allows climbers to practice those sequences separately.

Why Is Speed Climbing In The Olympics?

In the western climbing world, Bouldering and Lead climbing are the biggest sports by far. Speed climbing really isn’t very well known – to the point where many famous comp climbers had never tried it before the Olympic announcement. However, it’s massive in Russia and many other countries like Indonesia.

When Sport Climbing was proposed to the International Olympic Committee, they told the IFSC there were only limited medals available. The choice was essentially all three categories or just one. As a result the IFSC decided to go with a combined format where competitors had to climb in all three categories to compete for an Olympic medal.

Why Is Speed Climbing Controversial?

Speed Climbing being in the Olympics is controversial because of the combined format. Climbers used to be divided roughly into strict Speed Climbing specialists, and climbers who did Lead and Bouldering but might be better in just one of the two.

The skill difference is massive. In Lead and Bouldering there is a lot of route reading, planning to deal with new problems, delicate balance, as well as finger strength and core conditioning needed. Essentially the main difference between those two is just stamina and endurance.

With Speed Climbing it’s all about explosive power and practicing dedicated sections over and over. People who generally climb outdoors but might train at climbing gyms tend to not see the appeal in Speed but can respect it.

The big problem is that the best climbers in the world are now being forced to practice something they’ve never really done before and might not enjoy at all. It means the best “climber” might lose, and also that Speed specialists might completely dominate others but not get a medal.

It’s not a great situation for either group and some are pretty grumbly about it. Thankfully there will be two set of medals for Paris 2024. Boulder and Lead will be combined, with Speed separate. You’ll probably see a lot of climbers only competing in the things they’re good at.

When Did Speed Climbing Start?

Speed climbing has been around in different forms for many years but more as friendly competition. In Russia it was fairly popular outdoors as a spectator sport. They used gloves, helmets, and included rappelling down in the competition.

Modern climbing competitions started in the 80’s but were generally fairly slow and static, with competitors taking turns on one route to see how far up they could get, with timings being for tie-breakers. To climbers this is interesting, to most casual viewers it can be less so.

Modern speed climbing really started with the X Games in the 90’s. They intended to show off the dynamic and powerful moves of climbing and started pitching climbers up the same route head to head. It didn’t really take off but many pros found it a great way of making money on the side to fuel their outdoors adventurers.

Russian and ex-soviet state climbers in particular found they could train for the competitions fairly cheaply and win comparatively large sums when taken home. It’s very popular in Indonesia and Russia though less so in the west.

What Is Speed Climbing - speed climbing route and speed climbing holds
The shorter sides of the holds are deeper than the shallow sides

Is Speed Climbing Always The Same Route?

Yes, the route used in Speed Climbing is always the same. Everyone can practice on the same holds in the exact same positions, knowing they’ll be competing on the same route. It’s been that way since the speed climbing route was originally set back in

There used to be different routes but it got standardized really because there hasn’t been much of an official organization for speed climbing. There are calls to change the route every few years. Now with the Olympics it would make sense to change it every four years straight after the games finish.

Who Set The Speed Climbing Route?

Jacky Godoffe set the standardized route back in 2007 in Arco. He was being asked by competition organizers to set a more dynamic route. He threw it together in one afternoon using holds he found and it worked. The next competition used the same route and then everyone just followed suit.

How To Train For Speed Climbing?

Explosive movement and power beats standard climbing technique by miles. Heavy squats and weighted pull ups done fast are the key. On the wall you’ll find practicing dynos, or dynamic moves, will help with your balance and proprioception.