Speed climbing: when climbing rhymes with speed (and goes to the Olympics)

Before speed climbing officially became an Olympic discipline - something that happened on August 3, 2018 during the Rio de Janeiro Games - only a few people practiced it and almost no one talked about this new sport. Therefore, what is speed climbing?

Speed climbing is essentially a minor discipline of climbing, where two athletes climb next to each other on a standardised wall of 10 or 15 metres, and the winner is the one who first touches an electronic plate positioned at the end of the course.

Along with lead climbing - where the athlete climbs a wall on increasingly difficult routes, accumulating points at every hold - and bouldering - where a wall up to 4 metres high but with very difficult passages is tackled without a harness and without a rope, speed climbing will be one of the disciplines where Olympic athletes will have to compete in the combined race during the next Tokyo 2020 Games.

A sport that made the big guns of climbing frown

If climbing is experiencing a particularly happy time, especially among young people - there are about 35 million climbers worldwide, with an average age of 23 years - speed climbing does not seem to gather as much favour, at least among the big names in this sport. Adam Ondra, for example, one of the strongest Czech climbers on the scene today and the first to have climbed on grade 9c, had at first even threatened to boycott the Olympics, stating that, in climbing, speed is not a value but tends to betray its nature. Adam then decided to participate in any case and he is now in Tokyo for specific training sessions.
Alex Honnold, the American climber famous for his big wall climbs in free solo and in particular for the climb of Freerider on El Capitan - something that earned him the Oscar for the documentary Free Solo, believes that the competitive element is totally alien to climbing and that its introduction makes it a completely different sport. "I don't think I'd even be able to qualify," he said in an interview with Reuters, in which he stressed that in speed climbing competitions the element of adventure, which he loves the most, is totally missing.

Yet, it must be said, Honnold himself is no stranger to the pursuit of speed in his performance.

Together with Tommy Caldwell, in fact, he holds the record for the climb along the Nose route to El Capitan, in the Yosemite Valley (1 h 58′ 7″, June 2018).

A vertical race

Let's get now a closer look at how speed climbing works. The most important element is certainly the route, a standardized wall of 10 or 15 meters, which always has the same pattern of sockets. The route was designed 20 years ago by the famous French tracer Jacky Godoffe, whose lines are famous throughout the world for their strong aesthetic sense and for the fluidity of the movements they require. The race organizers asked him, at the beginning of the 2000s, to create a route that was particularly suitable for speed.

As he explained himself, during the shooting of Up to Speed, a film made by Senders Films and Big-up Productions for the Reel Rock 2018 series, he created the route within three hours and, since then, it has been used substantially without modifications for all speed climbing competitions.

The climbing wall is by no means perfect: it has some "oddities" that are now accepted by all speed climbing athletes. There is, for example, a handle originally designed for the feet that everyone now uses with their hands and a large handhold on the left that is completely skipped by the athletes. The tracer is the first to be surprised that this route is still used unchanged and that, in view of the Olympics, more and more gyms that require to install it at their facilities.

The execution requires a sequence of 17 moves that athletes must make in the shortest possible time. It is almost a vertical race in which muscle memory plays a fundamental role and where everything ends in a matter of seconds.

Between Russia and Southeast Asia, where speed climbing is at home

Speed climbing is extremely popular in Russia, where already in the 1940s athletes used to perform in speed climbing competitions, with great support from the public, who came to see and encourage them. This type of climbing requires a very specific, rigorous and hard preparation, which was well suited to the system of precise and formal preparation developed in the days of the Soviet Union. Even today, in any case, at least half of the Russian athletes who climb still practice speed climbing and begin very early, from childhood, to practice non-stop on the wall.
However, the undisputed world champion of this discipline is the Iranian Reza Alipour, winner of the 2018 World Championships, holder of the world speed record with a time of 5.48 seconds and nicknamed "the Persian cheetah". To achieve this incredible result, in addition to an extremely rigid training, Reza has changed the sequence of movements by skipping the fourth grip for the hand. Soon other climbers also adopted this innovation and the manoeuvre is now known as "the Reza".
Speed climbing is also widespread throughout Southeast Asia and Aries Susanti Rahayu is a young Indonesian champion famous in her country. "I want to be an inspiration for Indonesian women and especially Muslim women", she said during the filming of Up to Speed, "so that they understand that they can be successful and do not feel underestimated”.

Anouck Jaubert is one of the few European women athletes capable of defying the Russian might and, in October 2018, she won in Wujiang the second world title in a race that saw the Indonesian Susanti Rahayu on the top step of the podium and in third place the Russian Mariia Krasavina. Finally, for the United States, we have John Brosler, who has been speed climbing since 2009, though he is the first to admit that in America the discipline has not reached the same popularity as in Russia or Asia.

Speed climbing in Italy

What about Italy? Among the top athletes in this sport, the names of Leonardo Gontero, Italian champion since 2012, and Alessandro Santoni, silver medalist in the Italian championships from 2012 to 2015 undoubtedly stand out. In the women's field, however, the top names are undoubtedly that of Jenny Lavarda, winner of seven Italian championships, while among the young promises we remember Laura Rogora, who is currently focused on training for the Olympic qualification.

Furthermore, we have to mention Stefano Ghisolfi - second in the world ranking and among the four holders of the 9b - to be favoured to represent Italy at the next Games in Tokyo 2020.  Will speed climbing find new impetus for the fact that it has become an Olympic discipline? Without a doubt, even the strongest climbers will have to undergo specific training to excel in this very special discipline and it is not excluded that someone will get passionate ... the games are open!

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