Problems in modern bouldering: Olympics, Presentation & Scoring systems

By Mathieu Elie, February 20, 2018

With the PyeongChang Olympics which began last week, the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo now look like an imminent reality. The particularity of these Olympic Games, for us, is the arrival of climbing as an Olympic sport. Who would have predicted that our discipline would find itself in the limelight around the world, only about fifteen years ago? Obviously, since the early 2000s, climbing has undergone many changes, both with regards to the sport itself and the athletes who practice it. This rapid projection at the forefront also had consequences on its shaping since the big news, confirmed in 2016. In the next paragraphs, we will question the impact on the sport, on its presentation to a general public as well as the importance of a well-structured and fundamentally justifiable scoring system using generally accepted criteria.

Scoring systems: Progress VS Success?

One of the main questions is about the scoring system that will be used during the Olympic Games in Tokyo (and in the future). If we have been able to test many scoring systems in the last decade, time is running out to decide which one is the best – and to be able to justify that choice. Last month, the IFSC announced that the scoring system used for several years would undergo a minor change, which would however have major consequences for bouldering competitions. The old version of this system awarded points for the following items in order of importance: the number of tops, the number of attempts to tops, the number of bonuses, as well as the number of attempts to bonuses . The IFSC has decided to substitute element 2 and 3. This means that from now on, the number of successful bonuses will be prioritized over the number of attempts to top a boulder. This change may seem minor, but the consequences will be major for everyone involved: athletes, routesetters, judges, and even commentators! At the philosophical level, the prioritization of the number of bonuses at the expense of the number of tops will surely modify climbers approach to climbing and competition. We will come back to it shortly.

Munich 2017

On the other side of the Atlantic, in the United States, a similar controversy seems to occur almost annually. In 2015, USA Climbing attempted to bring a new system to determine the winner of national competitions. Without going into too much details, let’s just say that it was a total disaster. Nobody understood the system, and no one seemed to be able to explain it (If you want a good laugh, you can watch the commentators try to explain it in 2015, 2016 and 2017, without too much succes). Finally, in 2018, they decided to change this chaos for a system that is easier to understand, where a problem is divided into 3 or 4 zones, each giving a higher score than the previous one (the system is well explained here). In fact, this is a system that is very easy to understand, but moves away from the international system adopted almost everywhere on the planet. It is a system that rewards progress, whereas the international system rewards success. For example, in the United States, a climber who has not topped any boulder can win a competition against a climber who has 1 or 2 tops. Following this system, an athlete falling on the last move of each boulder could have more points in the end. This system is obviously not unanimous, but we will come back to it. The most important question that emerges is this one: in a bouldering competition, should we prioritize progress or success?

2018 ABS Nationals

The rightness or the spectacular?

Because of the fact that the sport is progressing at a very fast pace and is being presented to large audiences through the live streams of the various major competitions across the world, it is imperative to question the ease of understanding these scoring systems. Furthermore, the sport’s arrival in the Olympic Games underlines this urgent need. In other words, it is important for neophytes to be able to understand what they see on their screen during the 2020 Olympics. Taking this into account, we are also entitled to ask what are the other priorities? Is it the ease of understanding? A system that allows the best possible show? A system that rewards athletes in the fairest way possible? All these questions are at the heart of the many changes in the scoring systems in recent years. After more than twenty years of trying to make climbing ready for its television presentation, there still do not seem to be any conventions to this effect, as Andrew Bisharat points out on Evening Sends.1

In this trend currently shaping the sport into a more spectacular event, even if it’s not the only reason, bouldering World Cups now often look like parkour or even American Ninja Warriors events in recent years. This tendency has often been criticized by climbers who preferred, in the old-fashioned way, to pull on plastic. This trend has allowed, among other things, the diversification of the climbing styles found in competitions. Thus, what is considered a difficult movement has changed a lot in the last decade. Climbing on a very small holds is difficult. Performing a dynamic movement while running on volumes is also difficult, but in a very different way. We are playing with these new possibilities in order to propose diversified problems that will reward the best climber. This climber may not be the strongest, but he will be the most versatile; he will be the best. The difficulty, today, pushes the athletes to train their finger strength, but also their coordination, commitment, and positioning. For climbers in general, these premises are now natural. What was considered a spectacular or impressive movement ten years ago is now the norm in competition. As a result, the routesetters struggle to push the limits of the spectacular in an environment where everything has been done. 360? Done. Run and jump? Check. Climbing back to the wall? Boring. Quadruple Dyno? Same thing. The next step is obviously to combine all these elements in one movement. But is it still climbing? By opting for this option, are we still giving the best climber a chance to win? The question is valid. And this questioning, if it now seems obvious, is partly because of the need to adapt the sport for the viewer. For many, this propensity seems to distort what the sport ‘is meant to be’. This is perhaps why we are witnessing a kind return to the roots in terms of climbing style in the most recent competitions. All trends come and go, and come back.

Intrinsic bias

Bisharat, whom I quoted above, brings another interesting point to the table. Briefly, his argument is as follows: There is an intrinsic bias to climbing competitions. The routesetters, to designate a winner, must test the strengths and weaknesses of each athletes. Thus, by proposing the different problems for a competition, they always have the competitors in mind. Otherwise, how could one test the strengths and weaknesses of each competitors if they were unknown in advance. In the state of things, these routesetters, after each round of competition, make changes to their problems taking into account the performance of athletes in previous rounds. In this way, final problems will be more difficult or easier than initially thought, depending on the results of the semi-finals.

It is exactly here that the potential bias of the routesetters comes into play in a sort of catch-22: « Setters need to cater to the current field’s strengths/weaknesses in order to create a good, fun-to-watch competition. In other words, they can’t set “blind.” But because they can’t set blind, this opens them up to bias. »2 For example, if a routesetter knows that one of the competitors has very large hands, he could easily use big pinches that would favor him to the detriment of others. Same thing if he notices an athlete’s tibial hamstring injury, he could propose a boulder with big heelhooks that would give him a hard time. In the end, we can question the human factor (the routesetters) in the preparation of a fair competition for everyone. The fact that routesetters rub shoulders with climbers on almost a daily basis makes it impossible to eliminate the potential for bias.

A real example that illustrates the problem in question is the bouldering World Championship held in Paris in 2016. For the bouldering portion, two out of four routesetters were French. Moreover, these two routesetters have been an integral part of the French climbing program for several years. This means that they work with the team during their training on a regular basis. They know every strength and weakness all French climbers in details. Because of a logistics issue, the final problems had been set a few weeks prior to the event and put back on the walls for the finals. Usually, the routesetters open the final problems 2 or 3 days in advance and put them back on the walls the day of the competition. In the final round, 3 athletes out of 6 were from France. Out of more than 150 competitors from all over the world. I do understand that the international routesetters are well trained and without malice. It should also be mentioned that these three French climbers had climbed exceptionally well that weekend. Additionally, the French climbing team has been a reference in terms of bouldering performance for a long time. Also, I do not pretend that all of this was put in place to favor the French who competed in their own capital. However, we must admit that the circumstances are such that some people would be entitled to question the situation. Just the fact that there is room for questioning is a problem for a future olympic sport. Having spoken with some climbers and routesetters from the World Cup circuit, it seems that this situation has caused some eyebrows to raise. Like it or not, and even if the sincerity of the routesetters is beyond doubt, the possibility of bias exists and it seems more problematic than ever in an Olympic context where sporting and monetary issues have never been higher.

Paris 2016

Competitors’ Opinions

While some issues are obvious in the immediate context and taking into account the growing popularity of the sport, it is also interesting to look at the reaction of athletes, routesetters and commentators from the climbing world. In an interview for Plastic Weekly, Tyler Norton spoke with Sierra Blair-Coyle, an American competitor on the world cup circuit; Simon Parton, a renowned routesetter in Canada; Eddie Fowke, photographer and commentator for The Circuit; and Will Anglin, co-owner of a climbing gym, routesetter and coach in the United States. Some of their comments provide us with some insight on the situation.3

With regard to the changes in the American scoring system, there seems to be unanimous agreement that the change was necessary because the old system was far too complex. On the other hand, as Sierra Blair-Coyle mentions, the United States is not on the same page as the rest of the world. That is to say, if the Americans want to compete seriously on the World Cup circuit, they must imperatively train with the same parameters in mind. A training that aims for a performance on the parameter of progress in a boulder will be very different from a training aimed at success. Eddie Fowke seemed to support this comment, highlighting the absurdity of a situation where a climber who has not been successful on any boulder could defeat an athlete who has two tops.

If we look at the style of routesetting during US Nationals, we can better understand why they use such a system. American boulders are usually very long, often testing endurance rather than pure finger strength. We can take the example of the last ABS nationals which were taking place at the same time as the Japanese nationals. During the finals, the total number of movements for the girls’ boulders was about 36 movements whereas in Japan, the girls had to climb a total of about 20 movements. So, for the same number of boulders and the same time allocated, the Japanese women had almost 50% fewer movements to climb. This element is major in the style of a competition, especially since the competitors now have to deal with a strict four-minute rule. In the United States, girls were often limited to 2 attempts due to a lack of time and energy. In Japan, the focus was more on subtleties, complexity and coordination to test the competitors. Thus, while the American style of climbing gives some sense and meaning to the value of progress, it seems that this direction is irrelevant if the Americans want to compete with Europeans and Asians at the international level. Only by looking at the comments on the social networks, all (or almost) seemed to agree that the Japanese competition was far better in terms routesetting.

In fact, Alex Puccio won her 11th consecutive American bouldering title. Young sensation Ashima Shiraishi finished second. On the other hand, if one had followed the old American system or the IFSC scoring, Ashima would have won the competition. Again, this highlights the subjectivity in the crowning of a climbing champion. Can we claim that Alex Puccio is the champion for the 11th time in a row if, in previous years, and everywhere else, Shiraishi would have won hands down? Again, far from me the idea of diminishing the achievements of Alex Puccio, as she has always been an impressive climber, but it seems imperative to look into these kind of questions.

Ashima Shiraishi at 2018 ABS Nationals

In the same line of thought, we can draw an interesting parallel with another well-known sport if we wish to understand the dichotomy between the valorization of progress in comparison success. Will Anglin gives us the example of the last Super Bowl in which the Patriots faced the Eagles. During the game, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady set a new record for the number of yards in a game at the Super Bowl. Never another quarterback has traveled as much distance on the field as Tom Brady during a Super Bowl. However, the Eagles scored more touchdowns, thus getting more points. If we only look at the statistics of the game, we could think that the Patriots played a better game. In the end, they still lost because they scored fewer touchdowns. After this game, no one claimed that the Patriots should have won the match because, despite the distance traveled on the field, they made many mistakes. It was clear, the Eagles got more points, they won. In my opinion, it’s the same thing with climbing. It is the number of tops that ultimately counts, regardless of the progress of the athletes on the boulders. Falling on the last movement of a boulder is a costly mistake, one that is similar to dropping the ball in the scoring zone on a 4th down, even more so when it is done repeatedly. Moreover, in American football, there are an infinity of rules difficult to understand for the uninitiated, but it is still easy for them to watch a game and understand what is happening on the screen. This is exactly what bouldering climbing should aspire to. Obviously comparisons with other sports are dangerous, but this example helps to illustrate the situation.

So what?

In conclusion, this overview of some modern issues in the competitive bouldering circuit highlights the strong relationship between the growing popularity of sport, the impact on the presentation of the sport to a general public, the scoring systems used and the consequences on the competitors on the field. Obviously, it would be interesting to delve into each of these questions more heavily to try to understand the impact of the decisions that are made as we speak and that shape our sport towards its presentation at the Olympics. It is difficult to write such a text without pointing to certain concrete examples and the intention is obviously not to throw anyone under the bus, but rather to analyze the situation as it is while taking the opportunity to provide some solutions to current problems.

1 Andrew Bisharat, « Bouldering Nationals: A Monday Commentary ». Evening Sends. Accessed February 12th 2017. http://eveningsends.com/bouldering-nationals-a-monday-morning-commentary/

2 Bisharat, 2017.

3 Tyler Norton, « Ep. 29 – Settling Score ». Plastic Weekly. Accessed February 12th 2017. https://www.plasticweekly.com/episodes/2018/2/8/ep-29-settling-scores