TOKYO (Reuters) - Climbers from around the world got a glimpse of what awaits them at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics during the World Cup event in nearby Hachioji on Saturday.
Sport climbing is set to make its Olympic debut in two years time after being approved by the International Olympic Committee for inclusion at the Tokyo Summer Games.
Japan is the perfect place for the sport’s inauguration into the Olympics as the nation boasts some of the best climbers in the world, particularly in the bouldering discipline.
Many of those athletes competed during qualification on Saturday, including 2016 bouldering world champion Tomoa Narasaki and multiple World Cup winner Akiyo Noguchi.
Though there will be a combined format for climbing in Tokyo - featuring speed, lead and bouldering, with the winner decided by the highest cumulative score - only bouldering features in Hachioji.
In bouldering, climbers scale as many fixed routes on the wall as they can within five minutes. The routes vary in difficulty with the climbers having never seen the wall before.
Sport climbing promises to be one of the highlights in Tokyo, according to Narasaki, who hopes a new generation of climbers can be inspired by the sport’s introduction to a wider audience.
“The Olympics is pushing me forward and giving me a lot of motivation. This makes me want to improve more and move into the future,” Narasaki told Reuters after his qualification.
“I will enjoy the Olympics a lot because it will be on home ground, so more and more people are coming to cheer for me,” added the reigning combined World Cup winner.
Japan’s domination of the bouldering discipline – four of the top 10 men in the world rankings as well as two women hail from Japan – comes on the back of its popularity in the country, which boasts over 500 climbing gyms.
“Japanese people all love climbing because there is a lot of practice facilities and gyms,” said Noguchi. “Japanese players have had a long time to practise so that is why we are so strong.”
For many of the athletes, this was their first time in Japan and a welcome test ahead of the World Championships in Tokyo in 2019 followed by the Olympics.
Canadian Sean McColl and American Sierra Blair-Coyle have been on the circuit for years but never believed they would one day get the chance to compete at the Olympics.
For them, inclusion in the Olympics is reward for years of toil in the background.
“I mean to qualify for the Olympics, to compete at the Olympics for me is something I have dreamed about since I was a kid, since I was five-years-old and would turn on the TV and start watching the Olympics,” said the 30-year-old McColl.
“To have it here in Tokyo is going to be really, really cool and I think the whole event is going to be amazing.”
For Blair-Coyle, who has been climbing for sixteen years, the Olympics is an unexpected surprise.
“I think in my head, when I was little, I always thought climbing was going to be in the Olympics and then maybe as I started to get older I realised that might not happen just because it can take so much time,” said the American.
“I think bouldering is really exciting in general to watch. People are taking big falls, the moves are really interesting and a lot of the moves are sort of showstoppers, where you want to scream when they do it, or if they are small technical moves, it is always really hard.
“I think people will enjoy seeing it.”
For International Federation of Sport Climbing Technical Delegate Graeme Alderson, who worked at the first-ever World Cup in Leeds in 1989, the Olympics presents an opportunity to spread the sport he loves.
“For the sport itself it will be in front of... how many people watch the Olympics? A billion? Two billion? We are going to get more people interested in the sport,” Alderson said.
“People will begin to understand a lot more, because it is a relatively complex sport to understand at first, so it is great for the whole sport.”
The qualifying athletes will return to action in Sunday’s finals.
Slovenia’s Jernej Kruder leads the men’s bouldering World Cup rankings, with Narasaki in second, while Japan’s Miho Nanaka is top of the women’s leaderboard.
Reporting by Jack Tarrant; editing by Sudipto Ganguly