The Rise and Fall of Olympic Contenders
Side note: As per our usual practice, if you have limited time just skim for BOLD and to look at the tables and graphics. Cheers! — The Beta Angel Project
Two of climbing’s Olympic Qualifying Events (OQEs) will be held shortly. The first is the World Championships for Climbing’s three disciplines starting on the 11th of August in Hachioji, Japan. Anyone with even a remote interest in Climbing’s Olympic debut will be interested to see which seven men and women get invitations to complete in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. There are currently (subject to change by time of publishing) 93 men and 79 women registered to compete in the Combined Olympic discipline. Within those fields, 26 men and 25 women are what we call “wildcards” because they cannot, at this point, obtain a combined world ranking from the 18 World Cup event circuit, which will be used to determine which athletes get invited to the second OQE in Toulouse – an invitational only. As a result, these “wild cards” will either make the Olympics at the World Championships or they’ll have to wait for their respective continent’s OQE happening in early 2020 – an event which will only select one Olympic slot per gender.
The “invitational” OQE will come after Hachioji and will be located in Toulouse, France, starting on the 28th of November. While Hachioji will certainly be interesting, the race for an invitation to the Toulouse Invitational in November is hot. For those athletes who don’t get a bid to the Olympics at the World Championships in Hachioji, Toulouse is a fantastic second option where six additional Olympic slots per gender will be handed out… if you play the World Cup Game right.
To oversimplify and catch you up: the game is played by multiplying your top-2 World Cup ranks for each discipline: Bouldering, Lead, and Speed. Climbers are competing for what are called low “multipliers” across two events in each discipline – for six scores total which will be multiplied together. Not to confuse you, but there are 6 World Cups per discipline, or 18 total events. Bouldering is over. Speed has one more World Cup scheduled, and Lead Climbing has three left. You’re not penalized for going to more than two World Cups in each discipline but only your best two scores count.
There are currently 59 men and 50 women who have a combined world ranking, making them eligible for one of the top-20 coveted invitations. However, there are an additional 38 men and 31 women who still have the potential to get a combined ranking. At this point, we are fairly confident that 10 of those 38 men and 9 of the 31 women will be joining the combined rankings primarily because they have already completed 5 of the 6 events required to have a ranking. Additionally, due to changes in the US team, US athletes Natalia Grossman and John Brosler can be included in this “hypothetical” because they have just joined the US Overall National Climbing Team and will therefore receive invites to the remainder of this season’s World Cups.
The Current US Overall National Team and the “Hot Spots” of Talent
Not everyone is aware that the US Overall National Team was just changed following the Briançon Lead World Cup. The team was changed to take into account points accumulated through the World Cup season thus far – ostensibly to give the opportunity to gauge the potential of US Climbers on the world stage. The new 4-member female team is Ashima Shiraishi, Kyra Condie, Margo Hayes, and Natalia Grossman. The new 4-member male team is Nathaniel Coleman, Sean Bailey, John Brosler, and Drew Ruana.
The current teams are a small shift from the original teams which started the World Cup season. Natalia and John replaced Brooke Raboutou and Zach Galla. However, both Brooke and Zach are still ranked 5th, giving them the opportunity to compete in the World Championships along with the 6th place athletes Alex Johnson and Joe Goodacre. Alex, Natalia, and Joe were not in the original top 6, but managed to showcase their World Cup skill and break into that top-6. These 12 athletes will all be heading to the World Championships with the exception of Margo Hayes. Sienna Kopf (currently ranked #7) is registered in her place.
On a side note, it may not initially seem relevant, but there are several trends in our current team make-up that bear consideration for understanding where talent is being cultivated. For example, two of the top four males (Sean Bailey and Drew Ruana) on the US team are from Tyson Schoene’s Vertical World in Seattle, Washington. Three of the top six females (Margo Hayes, Natalia Grossman, and Brooke Raboutou) on the US team are from Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou’s Team ABC in Boulder, Colorado. That’s 50% of the top-4 males and females and 42% of the top 12 from two teams. Also, Kyra Condie and Alex Johnson are from Minnesota and Wisconsin. This fact alone makes me want to get into anthropology.
Where the US team sits now in the hunt for an invitation to Toulouse
If our US athletes don’t make the top-7 at the World Championships, their next chance will be Toulouse. Recently, the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) posted the combined world rankings, which will determine the 20 invitations per gender to Toulouse. Ashima is currently in 15th place, with Kyra following closely in 17th place. Margo is in 27th, Sienna is in 31st, and Brooke is in 34th. Natalia and Alex Johnson do not currently have a ranking because they have not yet competed in the necessary number of World Cups – they both still need one more speed and two lead World Cups. On the male side, Nathaniel is in 14th, Sean is in 24th, Drew is in 30th, and Zach is in 43rd. John Brosler still needs two lead World Cups, and Joe needs one more speed and two lead World Cups in order to be ranked. There’s still some question as to whether Alex and Joe will receive invites to enough World Cups given that they are not in the top 4. Some of the top climbers will have to pass on the remaining world cups. That remains to be seen.
To give you some perspective, there are only 20 invitations which will be handed out to Toulouse. However, it is possible that up to 7 of the top 20 athletes will be removed (naturally) from the invitational if they earn Olympic invitations at the World Championships in Hachioji. It’s also possible that athletes from some countries will not get invited if two of their country’s athletes are already qualified through the World Championships. Additionally, only two from each nation can even be invited.
A hypothetical for the US Team’s chance to receive an invitation to Toulouse
The easiest way to view the above information is to consider that you have to make the top-20, with some potential for more (discussed below), to be invited to Toulouse. Currently, that leaves Ashima, Kyra and Nathaniel in a good position to get invitations. However, there are a number of individuals who we expect to move into the combined world ranking who are fairly good climbers, such as Adam Ondra, Romain Desgranges, Keita Dohi (Youth Olympics gold medalist), current speed world record holder YiLing Song, and Jain Kim (assuming she manages to come back from her current finger injury) – just to name a few. If the expected athletes (an extra 10 on the men, and 9 on the women) join the world ranking and we provide a score for their missing world cup assuming they performed similarly, Ashima is in 16th, Kyra moves down to 19th place, Margo moves up to 25th, Brooke moves down to 37th, and Sienna is down to 40th.
On the male side, Nathaniel falls to 17th, Sean to 27th, Drew to 34th, and Zach to 46th. With this hypothetical, Ashima, Nathaniel, and Kyra would receive invitations, and *possibly* Sean and Margo (depending on the World Championships) but while Margo may be high enough in the rankings, the “two athletes per gender” rule would mean she would not receive an invitation. Margo needs to improve on her position at the remaining World Cups to try and catch Kyra or Ashima, and Sean will be looking to get off the bubble spot. Unfortunately, we have little idea what Natalia, Alex, Joe, or John will end up doing in a lead World Cup.
In a more complicated hypothetical, which involves adding in all of the potential combined athletes, things get very complicated. While some scenarios have US climbers moving up in the rankings, few of the US climbers can rest on their current standing and may end up deciding to go to one or more of the remaining World Cups to better their scores. Ashima and Nathaniel may be fine if they were to stop now, with Kyra being slightly closer to the bubble. Sean, with one 6th place finish and a 24th (note: these are not against other combined athletes, which have the potential to change as certain competitors enter the field) could stand to turn in one more solid lead performance.
We can use the current world ranking as a corollary for the potential top-7 spots at Hachioji. Even though this remains a gigantic assumption, it’s still fun. Here is a table of the top-7 following Briançon:
Hopefully you’re as happy as we are to see that our neighbors to the north have an athlete in the top-7. If these 7 were also the top-7 at the World Championships, Mia Krampl (SLO) (ranked 8th) would also get an Olympic slot because Ai Mori wouldn’t be eligible due to the fact that Akiyo and Miho would secure Japan’s two slots. And that’s only the beginning of the havoc the “two athletes per gender per country” rule would cause. Futaba Ito (currently 14th) would also not be eligible to receive an Olympic slot for the same reason, along with Slovenia’s Lucka Rakovec (10th) and Vita Lukan (23rd), and the United States’ Margo Hayes (27th) and Sienna Kopf (31st). On the male side, Japan’s Kai Harada (11th), Rei Sugimoto (12th), and Meichi Narasaki (19th), France’s Mickael Mawem (20th), Italy’s Michael Piccolruaz (27th), and Stefano Ghisolfi (29th), the United States’ Drew Ruana (30th), Slovenia’s Domen Skofic (31st), and Indonesia’s Fatchur Roji (35th) would all be ineligible, freeing up potential invitations.
What this means is that – in this super-hypothetical scenario only – all females up to the 33rd place and all males up to 36th place would either (a) have an Olympic slot, (b) have an invitation to compete at Toulouse, or (c) would not be invited due to the “two athletes per country” rule. Note that this assumes a few interpretations of rules that I’m checking into and not totally clear about.
One way for us to view the current state of competitors is to look across all of the data and see how consistent the climbers are and then attempt to control for the number of World Cups they’ve been in. For example, unless you’ve been living under a rock you know Janja swept all 6 bouldering World Cups, giving her an unbeatable average, minimum, and maximum of 1 with an N of 6 – see blue highlights in Table 1 below. Even keeping in mind that the top competitors weren’t at all of the bouldering World Cups due to a combination of Olympic focus and injury, this is still an exceptional feat arguably only rivaled by Anna Stöhr’s 2013 year in which she swept 7 of 8 bouldering World Cups (and took 2nd at the 8th).
First, you should know we ranked against all competitors, not just combined competitors. We did this in an effort to smooth out some of the challenges posed by certain World Cups not necessarily well-attended by combined competitors – but this method also has its own problems. Second, the top 2 Bouldering competitors were incredibly consistent. Miho (in third) was also consistent, but only attended two World Cups. When we get to Jessy Pilz, we start to see that it pays to go to multiple world cups. Her two best scores were third and fifth and her worst (Meirengen) was 21st. YueTong Zhang, currently in 5th place, vacillates between 11th and 47th. Below is a table of the ranges for the female side.
A better way to visualize this information is by looking at the below three graphs. It gives us a better sense of consistency by calculating average, min, and max error bars. This way you can see how Ashima’s best score in bouldering relates to other competitor averages – suggesting (for whatever reason) that she has extreme variability on the World Cup Bouldering Circuit. This variability could be an indicator that she had an off-day either physically or mentally, or perhaps that she is specialized in her boulder skillsets. The other point of interest is the significant difference in variability between the males and the females. Competition is a little hotter on the male side.
Now let’s take a look at the data for Speed. Speed obviously has a highly different character, suggesting what we have all suspected which is that the boulder and lead climbers aren’t as great on the speed World Cup circuit. However, what’s fascinating to note is the range of individual rankings in relation to that range’s overlap with the ranges from other competitors. This is also true for Bouldering but since there are more no more Bouldering World Cups the information won’t matter until the athletes get to the OQE’s themselves.
If the above data holds true for a wider range of competitors just outside the top 20, the last Speed World Cup in Xiamen on October 18 could be just as interesting (if not more so) than the last 3 Lead world cups. Additionally, the overlapping ranges may also indicate the extreme volatility we can expect which has significant potential to the OQE’s highly unpredictable – especially once we move past the top females. Like with Bouldering, a different way of reading this data is that a lack of consistency in how they placed may be an indicator that ranking distinctions are extreme fluctuations in the top potential at which they are physically capable of running. There are ways of training consistency (over top-end speed) in the Speed discipline.
The last point I’ll make about Speed climbing is that it’s fairly obvious to see who the speed specialists are in the data. On the male side, there are only 1-2 speed specialists: Bassa Mawem (FRA) and Nikolai Iarilovets (RUS), although the latter could be classified as more of an all-around athlete versus a specialist. On the female side, at this point we can comfortably say that Anouck Jaubert (FRA) and Aries Susanti Rahayu (INA) are going to be competing for that top spot in Speed. Additionally, current world record holder YiLing Song (CHN) has yet to join the world ranking but when she does, she will likely also be in the top-20 overall. If these three don’t take the top 3 spots in the speed discipline we would be a little surprised, although Miho Nonaka did reportedly install a Speed Wall on the side of her residence.
Lead Climbing, on the other hand, is odd. With fewer competitions to date (3 vs. 5 and 6) we are unclear what the data should mean in comparison to the other disciplines – for a wide range of reasons, the female side has less volatility than the male side. As a result, it’s hard to say whether we would expect this trend to continue.
On the male side, we wouldn’t hold that really low score against YuFei Pan – for some reason he didn’t do the second qualifier for one of his World Cups and we still don’t know why. Hopefully it’s not due to injury. Additionally, note that Adam Ondra isn’t on this list – when we replicate his lead and speed results, he would jump up into the first-place position. Another podium finish for Lead and he could tank Speed without that affecting his first-place overall finish.
It’s hard to make any broad generalizations. There’s lot of data, lots of ways of looking at the data, and there are lots of reasons not to trust the data. What we can tell you is that there is more volatility on the male side than the female side. Competition appears to be greatest in the Bouldering discipline for males (with Speed climbing a close second) and in the Speed discipline for females. Additionally, we would expect Speed climbing on the female side to become much more competitive past the top 3 (perhaps 4 – Team Miho!) climbers. This may just be because we have a larger data set for Speed and Bouldering – however.
What we can also tell you is something which is basically common sense: going to more World Cups will provide a higher likelihood of getting a better score since you’re not penalized for additional World Cups. If a climber feels they have a “strength” or a “weakness” that may be taken advantage of in any single World Cup boulder or lead set, or if their current Speed World Cup rankings don’t reflect their Personal Records (PR), they should certainly attempt to get to more of the lead World Cups. In fact, they may have to struggle with whether to increase the risk at these events to “go for broke.” Risk can be modified in a number of ways, especially in the Lead and Speed World Cups. Looking forward, it may make sense for climbers to prioritize the remaining three lead world cups and one speed world cup, and possibly shift strategies depending on their current multipliers. This is especially true for bubble athletes, and it may even be more important if one or more of the “wildcards” take a top-7 spot at the World Championships.
The Wildcards and The Injured
The “wildcards” are climbers who will attend the World Championships but aren’t eligible to receive a combined world ranking at this stage of the game. Among these are Chaehyun Seo and Natsuki Tanii, both of whom have podium finishes in this year’s lead world cups. These are climbers who could jump into the “top competitor” pack and take an Olympic bid. A wildcard will make it harder for any climber with a combined world ranking to receive an invitation to Toulouse.
On the other hand, promising competitors can end up sidelined by the rigors of training and competition. Russia’s Alexey Rubtsov had a tear in his upper arm which has reportedly been repaired, but we’re unclear when he’ll be able to rejoin the world cups; his compatriot Anna Tsyganova appears to be out of contention after a bad fall fractured her spine; Slovenian Katja Kadic appears to be out of contention as well with a bad shoulder injury; and Serbian Stasa Gejo is recovering from knee surgery. Jain Kim has a finger injury which may be recovering well; Adam Ondra has a wrist injury which doesn’t appear to be hindering him too much. Every time we watch Miho on a hard shoulder move, we cover our eyes–she started the season with a shoulder injury but appears to be on the mend. As of this writing, the author’s favorite climber Fanny Gibert better not have an injured knee or he’ll consider burning his own website to the ground and taking up a sport that doesn’t involve knees – like darts.
The World Championships are going to be fascinating, but the game will really heat up once the top-7 for both genders are selected and out of “the game.” At that point, competitors may start math-ing to determine what they *potentially* need to get at the final World Cups of the season in order to break into a Toulouse invitation slot. There will understandably be a lot of uncertainty since athletes will have little control over other competitors. But with uncertainty comes both concern about maintaining one’s position and hope from those looking to move up. We don’t know what you’re calling it. But in our house, where spreadsheets are Queen and the names of international competitors slip off the tongue at every meal conversation, it’s called: “Invitation Watch 2019.”