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Sport climbing: What you need to know about the new Summer Olympics sport

Sport climbing is a new Olympics sport with a focus on three disciplines.
/ Source: TODAY

Sport climbing is one of four new sports at this year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo, joining karate, skateboarding and surfing. Unlike its inaugural brethren, though, it’s not as well known.

So, what exactly is sport climbing? If you don't know your lead from your boulder, we're here to break it down.

What is sport climbing?

If you've visited a climbing gym or seen an indoor climbing wall, you might have seen something like sport climbing.

Sport climbers use a range of hand and foot holds to make their way up a wall. “The wall may feature varying angles of either positive (known in climbing as a slab) or negative (steep, overhanging) sections," reads a description of the sport reads on the Tokyo Olympics website.

Sport climbers compete in three disciplines — speed, bouldering and lead. In speed, climbers compete to see who makes it up faster on a 15 meter wall. In bouldering, they scale fixed routes on a shorter wall. And in lead, they climb as high as possible within a time limit.

What is the difference between sport and traditional climbing?

In traditional climbing, climbers carry all of their gear and protection and install it as they climb, rather than climbing pre-bolted and pre-set routes. Traditional climbing tends to be far more methodical, with a much greater emphasis on equipment and technical knowledge versus pure climbing ability.

Colin Duffy reaches for a hold during the IFSC Pan-American Championships 2020 on Feb. 28, 2020 in Los Angeles.Carol Coelho / Getty Images

What is sport climbing vs. top rope?

In top rope climbing, a climber’s rope passes through an anchor system at the top of the route and is then fed down to another person who serves as a belayer for the climber. Belayers are not used in Olympic sport climbing.

Two of Olympic sport climbing's three disciplines, lead and speed, include a harness and rope. The other discipline, bouldering, does not involve a rope. In speed climbing, an auto-belaying system is used. In lead, the climber clips the rope into pre-set bolts while ascending the route, and this protects the climber rather than a belayer.

What is speed in sport climbing?

"The speed wall is identical at all competitions," reads the NBC Olympics site. "Each hold is the exact same size and shape and is placed in the same spot on the wall every time."

Athletes race up against a wall set up in their own lane, with the walls set up the same way. At the top of each wall is a buzzer that the climbers must touch, indicating they have completed the climb.

United States sport climber Nathaniel Coleman competes during the finals of the IFSC Climbing World Cup Meiringen on April 17, 2021 in Meiringen, Switzerland.Marco Kost / Getty Images

What is bouldering?

In bouldering, athletes have to climb a wall that is created by designers. Competitors, who are not fastened to ropes, are not allowed to practice beforehand and the ground below is padded should climbers fall. Competitors will have completed the wall once they have grabbed the top hold on the wall with both hands. Holds can also be of varying sizes, presenting unique challenges for each climb.

What is lead climbing?

In lead climbing, the athletes try to climb as high as they can on a 15-meter wall with a specific route within six minutes. There are specified number of holds on the wall, so if a climber reaches hold 17 and then falls, he or she gets a score of 17. The climber who reaches the highest hold on a wall earns the top rank in the Lead category.

Prior to the actual lead climb, athletes are given six minutes to study the wall prior to climbing in order to analyze how they'd like to approach the route they want to take.

Brooke Raboutou of the United States competes next to Nathaniel Coleman in the semifinals in the season-opening Sport Climbing IFSC World Cup bouldering event in Meiringen, Switzerland, on April 17, 2021.Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images

How is sport climbing scored?

Scores are determined by taking placement in each of the three disciplines into account. The lowest total score after multiplying each finish results in the gold medal.

For example, a climber who finished first in speed, second in bouldering and third in lead would get a score of 6. The lowest score earns a gold medal, while the second lowest takes silver and the third lowest brings home the bronze.

Who will compete in sport climbing?

Forty athletes — 20 men and 20 women — will compete in Tokyo. Four of them will be from the United States. Nathaniel Coleman and Colin Duffy make up the men’s contingent for the U.S., while Kyra Condie and Brooke Raboutou will compete in the women’s field for the country.

When will sport climbing take place at the Olympics?

The men’s combined qualification in speed, bouldering and lead gets underway Aug. 3 at Aomi Urban Sports Park, with the women’s combined qualification for all three disciplines starting the next day. The men’s final is Aug. 5 and the women’s is scheduled for Aug. 6.