Fans around the world rejoice when they see their heroes climb in World Cup finals. Climbing is an epic sport and its top athletes are starting to become proper superstars. Why then change a little rule that makes these athletes look like going from hero to zero in exactly four minutes?
In the recently published IFSC rulebook for 2017, two major differences were introduced for World Cups. First, climbing time for lead finals was reduced from eight to six minutes. Second, climbing time for bouldering finals was reduced from four minutes plus to four minutes dead. This means climbers can no longer continue their attempt after the four minute mark, even if they’re off the mats before the clock runs out, which was the previous rule.
While a valid argument can be made for retaining the eight minutes climbing time for lead finals, I feel that the change to just six minutes will make for a more exciting and continuous competition. However, I am a strong opponent of the change made to the climbing time for bouldering finals.
First of all, I should explain the most commonly cited justification for this change. Climbers that start their attempt before the four minute mark and let the clock run out tended to slow down the competition and, more importantly considering the 2020 Olympics, made the schedule for finals unpredictable. In case climbers take their time on slabs or problems with really good holds, for instance, their turn on that specific problem could easily increase from four minutes to six minutes or so. This could introduce problems for scheduling of commercials in broadcasts of competitions. It can also be argued that climbers taking their time after the clock has run out isn’t adding to the viewing experience of spectators.
I wholeheartedly disagree with this reasoning and feel that it is absolutely detrimental to the images of the athletes. Furthermore, I feel that it is a crude solution for a problem that could be solved far more elegantly and more subtly.
My first issue with this new rule is that there will inevitably be some discussions throughout the season about whether or not climbers topped their problem in time. Yes, video footage is shot of all the climbing action and can be reviewed in case of any ambiguity. However, by its very nature, topping a problem in climbing isn’t 100% objectively verifiable. Unlike sports like football, where the ball passing the goal line can be measured, obtaining a stable position on a problem’s final hold is always going to be subject to the jury’s judgment. This can be difficult with no time constraint present, but if a jury needs to verify both whether a stable position was obtained and if this was achieved in time, things get tricky.
Additionally, reviewing this footage takes some of the the pace out of the competition and the publication of its final results. Now wasn’t that the very reason the rule was changed in the first place? Naturally, in semifinals, this rule has been used for a long time. It should be noted though that in semi-finals, the stakes are considerably lower and therefore any ambiguity has less grave potential consequences.
These are just my technical objections though. My main concern with this new rule stems from my love for seeing these top athletes perform at the top of their game. I love seeing the best climbers in the world fight till the very end and giving it their everything. At the recent Climbing Works International Festival (CWIF) in Sheffield, this new rule was used in a top competition for the first time. With finalists like Jongwon Chon, Alexander Megos, Sol Sa, Jan Hojer, Melissa le Neve and Julija Kruder, the competition was essentially an unofficial World Cup.
On multiple occasions, climbers saw the clock was down to fifteen seconds or so and (rightly so) deemed topping the problem impossible. It broke my heart to see these superstars give up even though there was still some time left on the clock. These athletes cannot possibly be blamed for that though, they’re just saving their strength for the next problem and being realistic about things. I feel that this new rule makes the athlete look like going from hero to zero giving up in just four minutes.
Additionally, this new rule will probably result in fewer problems being topped. Climbers need some time and attempts to work on the problems in finals. Having one more chance to climb the problem, using the knowledge they gathered in their previous attempts, increases the odds of seeing a send. So inevitably then, fewer problems will be topped, or the setting will have to factor in the reduced time and we’d see easier problems in finals. I can’t imagine that’s something that will benefit our sport.
It could be argued that since this rule is already used in semifinals, what’s the harm in using it for finals? The final round is fundamentally different from the semifinal round, making any comparison of the two useless. As explained before, the stakes are far lower in semifinals. If an athlete walks off before their time has run out in semifinals, the feeling of giving up is far less present for spectators. What helps as well is that in most instances, multiple athletes will be climbing, while in finals only one or two athletes are out. This means less attention will be focused on individual athletes.
What’s frustrating here is that I feel a rather blunt solution was found for an insignificant problem that could’ve been solved far more elegantly. A simple hybrid solution comes to mind: why not retain the old system, where climbers can keep climbing past the four minute mark if they started their attempt before that mark, but have to come off as soon as the clock reaches five minutes. Effectively, this means climbers can keep climbing after four minutes until they fall or just take too damn long. Attempts rarely take longer than a full minute, so the number of times discussion will arise about whether a problem was topped in time will probably be far smaller than with the new rule.
What’s more, the pace of the competition is retained and the predictability of the time finals will take is increased as compared to the old situation. Most importantly though, climbers will no longer look like they are giving up and instead fight till the very end.
As a final piece of evidence I’d like to leave you with this moment from the 2014 Innsbruck World Cup. Listen to the crowds go crazy as Rustam Gelmanov somehow manages to stay on the wall for multiple minutes and squeeze out a top in the end. Now tell me with a straight face you wouldn’t miss seeing moments like this in competitions.