competition climbing: everything you need to know
SINCE THE MID-1980S, modern competition climbing has grown from a single lead climbing event in Europe to dozens of elite international competitions in places as far-flung as Bulgaria and Qatar. In 2020, climbing will reach the crowning achievement of athletic competition by being included in the Tokyo Olympics. But competitive climbing goes way beyond just international events. There are local, regional, divisional, and national competitions, or “comps,” with categories like youth, open, collegiate, and paraclimbing, also known as adaptive climbing. Climbers can compete in boulder, lead, and speed styles, often all three at a single event. Competition climbing has taken on a life of its own, with many athletes foregoing outdoor climbing goals in order to train indoors and pursue the podium. From a weekly comp at your local gym to the world stage of the Olympics, there are thousands of climbing comps every year. Some are just for fun, while others mark lifetime achievements for professional climbers.

Kyra Condie has been competing since she started climbing and is now an athlete representative on the USA Climbing Board of Directors. She started competing because she was always a competitive person, but now she loves “meeting people from around the world who have the same passion and drive that you do.” She also loves the opportunity to travel and the constant motivation to get better. “Not only because you want results,” she says, “but because you see what other climbers are capable of, even more than when you’re just in the gym.” With the help of Condie, below is a framework of everything you need to know about competition climbing, from the categories and types of comps to the expansion of paraclimbing and qualifying for the Olympics.

Isolation: Every competition starts out with isolation, also called iso, which is a secluded room away from everyone except other athletes. This is to ensure that no competitors are cheating and seeing the climbs beforehand, which would give them an advantage with their warm-up and being able to talk through things with a coach. You usually have an hour to check into iso, and you can’t be late, otherwise you are disqualified from the competition. When you get to iso, you hand in your phone so you can’t have access to the internet while you’re in there. That way no one can receive videos of climbs or results. You have a time that you will be taken out to the wall, so you know when you want to start your warm-up (usually about an hour and a half before they take you out). Iso usually has water, snacks, a large zone of open area, and a warm-up wall.

Climb: To make sure everything runs smoothly, you can’t be late to your climb time, otherwise you will be disqualified. For bouldering, when you go out to the wall, you’re seeing the climb for the first time, so you first make sure you see all the holds and then you start trying to figure out the sequence. Then you start trying. Once you’re done, you have to sit for 5 mins in isolation to make sure there are no appeals against you. Then you can leave and go back to the general public. This is when you find your coach, parent, or friend to talk to them about how it went, where you are in the ranks, and about the round in general.

Route preview: In bouldering this happens only in finals, but it happens in all rounds for lead. It usually goes the same. All the competitors are allowed to see the route at the same time for a few minutes. You look at it for a little bit by yourself, and then you talk over ideas with a competitor or teammate who you are friends with. If there is a section you really have no idea about, you talk to a few different people about it. Some things you keep to yourself, while some things are better to talk through.

Format: For bouldering, you have a set amount of time to complete each boulder problem, and there are four or five problems total. This is the same format for bouldering qualifiers, semi-finals, and finals, with the top competitors advancing each round. For lead, you have one attempt on two different routes in qualifiers, then one attempt on the semi-finals route and one attempt on the finals route. For speed, it’s always the same route, and climbers get a few practice sessions, then two attempts. While they are climbing beside another competitor, it doesn’t matter who “wins” that round, it’s all about your fastest time. The top fastest times advance to finals, where there are two more attempts, and the fastest time wins. —Kyra Condie

Local: Most of the more than 500 commercial climbing gyms in the U.S. offer some kind of competition, and many of the events fall into the “just for fun” category, like a weekly bouldering comp. Other local events are sanctioned by USA Climbing, meaning the competition follows an approved format for qualifying and scoring. Doing well in a local USA Climbing competition qualifies you for regional USA Climbing events.

Regional & Divisional: These are the next two levels of USA Climbing competitions. Within sport and speed comps, which are held at the same event (often bouldering is a separate USAC event), there are 16 regions and eight divisions. Do well at a regional event, and that qualifies you for divisional. Do well at divisionals, and that can qualify you for a national event.

National: There’s a Bouldering National Championship and a Sport & Speed National Championship, with four events total: one of each for the youth category and one of each for the open category. USA Climbing also introduced a National Cup Series in 2019, a series of three bouldering comps for adult athletes, that in addition to Bouldering Nationals, will result in a national ranking and a prize purse awarded to top-ranked competitors.

International: There are dozens of major international competitions, with World Championships, the World Cup series, Continental Championships, and the Olympics being the biggest. Each has its own qualification requirements, format, and scoring system, but all of them include bouldering, lead, and speed events.
This category is open to anyone with a physical disability. While many competitions have paraclimbing within the same events as boulder, sport, and speed climbing, there are also separate paraclimbing events, like the Paraclimbing National Championships and Paraclimbing World Championships. The competitor pools are arranged as follows: neurological/physical disability, visual impairment, upper extremity amputee, lower extremity amputee, seated, and youth. Climbing is done on toprope and in redpoint style, meaning each competitor has a few hours to try and send a handful of routes. A route can be tried as many times as possible, with the best score turned in. With paraclimbing growing exponentially since the first USA Adaptive Nationals in 2014, it’s likely that adaptive climbing competitions will evolve further to include more disability types to meet the needs of a diverse set of athletes.
These categories refer only to a competitor’s age. The open (adult) category is reserved for athletes that are 16 years of age or older by December 31 of the year in which the National Championship is held. Youth competitors are divided into five categories, with Youth D being the youngest, Youth C, Youth B, Youth A, and Junior being the oldest, up to 19 years of age.

Like any mainstream sport, climbing has governing bodies that help decide rules and regulations, map out competitions, train judges and routesetters, and develop the sport in a positive way. For international climbing, the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) is responsible for all styles of climbing and all levels of international competition. On their website, they describe the IFSC as “an international non-governmental non-profit organization whose main objectives are the directions, regulation, promotion, development and furtherance of climbing competitions around the world.”

For American competition climbing, it’s USA Climbing. On the USAC website, they write, “We promote three competition disciplines, bouldering, sport and speed climbing, through our series. USA Climbing: Adaptive; USA Climbing: Bouldering; USA Climbing: Collegiate; USA Climbing: Speed; USA Climbing: Sport”


In August 2016, the International Olympic committee announced that climbing would be part of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Forty professional climbers (20 men, 20 women) would compete over four days, and medals would be given out based on each person’s combined performance in all three disciplines (boulder, sport, speed). No country is guaranteed a spot, and each country would only be allowed four athletes total (2 men, 2 women). “This is a hard balance for the U.S. team because we want each other to do well, but we also want to do our best,” Condie says. “That means when one person qualifies, it’s harder for the rest of us!” For Americans, there are three chances to qualify: the World Championships (top 7); the Toulouse Combined Invitational (top 6); and the Pan-American Championships (winner).

While the World Championships and the Pan-American (Continental) Championships have clear-cut requirements to compete there, the Toulouse IFSC Combined Qualifier is a new event created specifically as a qualifier for the Olympics. To get an invite to Toulouse, you need to be in the top 20 competitors from the combined World Cup Season, which takes your best two results from a Bouldering World Cup, best two from a Lead World Cup, and best two from a Speed World Cup. In order to be eligible, you had to compete in at least two of each.

“It’s hard to put into words what it means to me that climbing is in the Olympics,” Condie says. “I never had an Olympic dream because climbing was never in it to begin with, but having that possibility was a huge motivator for me. I already had goals for world competitions, but this added a whole new aspect.” Despite knowing immediately that she wanted to compete, it took her a while to tell people about her goal. “There was some stigma in my climbing community about competition climbers in general, so I kept my goals to myself,” she says. “Now I’m super proud of the work I’ve put in the last few years and am really excited at my chance of qualifying.”

In June 2019, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to provisionally include climbing in the 2024 Paris Olympics. The format will shift to feature a combined bouldering and lead event, as well as a separate speed climbing event, with a total number of 248 athletes. The provisional inclusion means that the IOC will observe the sport and how it does from now until December 2020 (which will include the Tokyo Olympics), and make a decision then as to whether the IOC will confirm it as a part of the Paris Games.


Technically there are four national teams: overall, bouldering, sport, and speed. (Condie is a member of the overall and sport national teams, and athlete Alex Johnson is a member of the bouldering national team.) According to USA Climbing, the national teams are selected as follows:

The composition of the U.S. Overall National Team is based on benchmark performances at a Combined Invitational, each single discipline National Championship (Phase 1), and major IFSC international competitions (Phase 2). In order to be eligible for the U.S. Overall National Team, a competitor must participate either in the Combined Invitational, or all three of the Open National Championships (Bouldering, Sport, Speed), unless receiving an injury exemption. The U.S. Overall National Team shall be constituted twice annually, once after the four (4) major National competitions and once before the IFSC World Championship competition.

Not being on the national team doesn’t mean you can’t compete in international competitions, but members of the U.S. team do get some perks. In addition to agreeing to a code of conduct at the events, team members get uniforms and apparel, as well as their major expenses covered for many of the international competitions throughout the year.