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Sport climbing at the Olympics: What it is, how it works, and how to watch

The medal winners in Tokyo will have to be outstanding in three different forms of climbing.

Janja Garnbret of Slovenia during the Sport Climbing Women’s Combined, Lead Qualification on day twelve of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Aomi Urban Sports Park on August 04, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images

One of the new sports at the Tokyo Olympic Games is sport climbing, where 20 men and 20 women will vie for the gold, silver, and bronze medal in sport climbing.

The competition for both men and women is being called the “combined,” which takes three different elements of climbing (bouldering, lead climbing, and speed climbing) and gives the best overall score in all disciplines the gold medal.

Bouldering is lower to the ground as the wall is just 4.5m, and relies on flexibility and tremendous upper and lower body strength. Lead climbing is going up a rock wall that’s at least 15m with challenging transitions from one element to another to reach the top of the wall.

Speed climbing is exactly as it sounds; get from the bottom to the top of a 15m wall, but there’s generally plenty of paths to the top, and it’s much faster than lead climbing. It’s also got a 12-person March Madness-style bracket, and you go head-to-head against the person on the same wall right next to you.

The sport got the short end of the stick from the IOC in its first iteration as while there are three different disciplines (bouldering, lead climbing, and speed climbing), only one set of medals for both men and women will be awarded. It’s like asking each climber to be a decathlete, and on the world circuit there are usually specialists in each event.

This will change in Paris in 2024 as speed climbing becomes its own event and lead climbing plus bouldering are combined. But for these games we’re asking a 100-meter dash sprinter to have one-third of their grade based on the marathon. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, but it will make a major difference to who wins the first medals in these sports.

You can live stream the finals of men’s sport climbing on Thursday, August 5th at 4:30 a.m. on NBCOlympics.com by clicking here. These will also be repeated at 12 p.m. on regular NBC.

For the women’s event on Friday, August 6th, click here at 4:30 a.m. The replay will be on USA Network later on Friday at 5 p.m.