Olympics: Spaniard Lopez, 18, scales new heights with historic sport climbing gold

TOKYO – For 125 years, athletes have run, jumped, swum and lifted their way to Olympic glory.

And on Thursday (Aug 5), Spaniard Alberto Gines Lopez becomes the first man to scurry to an Olympic gold medal.

In a sport that has dethroned athletics’ 100m race as the fastest at the Games – athletes can finish a contest in under six seconds – it is fitting that the sport climbing venue at the Aomi Urban Sports Park is a high-adrenaline, action-packed one far removed from the hushed, spectator-less atmosphere at other sports.

“Let me entertain you,” one hears British singer Robbie Williams tease through the blaring loudspeakers before entering, and the event does not disappoint.

One of five new sports in Tokyo, sport climbing combines three disciplines that are as diverse as they are intriguing – think of it as a climbing triathlon, or the Olympic version of Ninja Warrior.

The speed segment, which kicks off Thursday’s final, sees two athletes race each other up a 15-metre wall, set at an angle of 95 degrees. The faster climber from each showdown moves on to the next round until a winner is decided for this segment, which Lopez, 18, claims in 6.42sec as Japan’s Tomoa Narasaki slips and touches the buzzer 1.4 seconds later.

While fans are not permitted, more than a thousand athletes and officials from other sports, journalists and volunteers soak in the carnival atmosphere as rock and electronic music play throughout the day.

As the sapping afternoon heat gives way to a soothing evening breeze, it is also the cue to transit from the blur of speed into the bouldering segment, which looks to be moving in slow-motion in comparison.

The athletes’ warm-up area is called the Playground, but this is far from child’s play. There are three routes with challenges, also known as problems, to navigate. Athletes have six minutes to observe and analyse the set-up, with sportsmanship on show as the climbers are seen discussing how to tackle the obstacles on the 4.5 metre wall.

American Nathaniel Coleman tells The Straits Times: “We talk about beta (information), different methods, what we think will or won’t work. We have seen each other climb, we see their struggles, we know how good it feels to do well, so we want that for each other.”

Four minutes – and unlimited tries – are all they have to skip, hop, contort and sometimes perform a split, to find a way to get both hands on the top hold.

Venga! Allez! Ganbare! The in-venue commentator hypes up the competitors and crowd with different iterations of “Come on!”, but learning a new language seems easier at times as the climbers without safety ropes flail and fall from a great height and heavily onto the mat to gasps from the audience.

Superb upper body strength is a requirement, but so too is IQ to figure out how to conquer the body-bending angles.

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Fastest climber Lopez is the only one who cannot complete a single route and finishes last, while Coleman is the only one to solve the second route as skin from his fingers tear off.

Climbers are no shrinking violets but nobody can conquer the last route that is shaped like a kiku, or chrysanthemum, and so Coleman takes the bouldering segment.

After an hour’s break, the athletes return for the final lead segment to see who can climb highest – determined by the number of holds – through a snaking route on a 15-metre wall within six minutes in just one try.

Amusingly, after their job is done, one by one they fill up two sofas on the stage as they watch the next contender fight gravity and lactic acid.

The positions from each segment are then multiplied to determine the final positions. The lower the scores the better, and a climber can dramatically rise or fall, depending on not just his own lead result but also his rivals’.

And so, with medals at stake, the climbers twist and turn in horizontal or even upside-down positions as they gamble to reach the next hold.

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Lopez cannot bear to watch as the positions swung wildly. The teenager, who will return to high school next year as Spain’s youngest male Olympic champion, says: “I was trying to count, but I’m bad at math, so I stopped counting and started hoping.”

Ultimately, Lopez’s fourth-placed finish in the lead segment is enough for him to win the historic sport climbing gold with 28 points.

Coleman takes silver with 30 points and Schubert with 35 points claims bronze to break the hearts of the local supporters as Tomoa Narasaki is squeezed out of the podium by a single point.

But for these climbers to reach the Olympics, it must feel like they have already scaled Mount Everest.

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