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An 18-Year-Old From Spain Wins The 1st Olympic Gold Medal In Climbing

Spain's Alberto Ginés López climbs during the Sport Climbing men's combined final of the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Jeff Roberson
Getty Images
Spain's Alberto Ginés López climbs during the Sport Climbing men's combined final of the Tokyo Olympic Games.

TOKYO — In an upset, 18-year-old Spaniard Alberto Ginés López has taken the first-ever Olympic gold medal in sport climbing, edging out U.S. climber Nathaniel Coleman. Jakob Schubert of Austria won bronze.

Seven of the top male climbers in the world faced off on a wall in Tokyo on Thursday evening local time, as two announcers — a woman speaking in Japanese and a man speaking in English — gave live commentary and a DJ blasted upbeat music. Breakdancers performed — wouldn't you know it — during a break.

The elite climbers competed in three events: speed climbing, bouldering (which rewards problem-solving), and lead climbing (where roped climbers traverse as high as possible along a challenging route).

The combined format, particularly the inclusion of speed climbing, was controversial and a bit of a shocker for some of the world's best climbers.

It means that climbers need to excel across very different events, in a test of both their speed and their technical mastery.

Ginés López became the youngest male athlete to win an Olympic gold medal for Spain. He said he hopes having the event in the world spotlight will help it grow.

"It's a very likeable sport. I'm very happy that it was on TV, and that people finally get to see our sport, and I think probably a lot of people will be attracted to our sport in the future," he said through an interpreter.

Spain runs away with speed climbing

Ginés López shone in the speed climbing section, where two climbers compete head-to-head to reach the top of a 15-meter wall. He hit the top in 6.42 seconds in the final race, besting Japan's Tomoa Narasaki, who clocked in 7.82 seconds. Narasaki is well-known for his speed climbing abilities. There's even a widely-used move to open a speed climb known as the "Tomoa skip."

The speed section is controversial at the Olympics because some climbing purists think it doesn't belong with bouldering or lead climbing, which require more technical skill.

U.S. climber takes top scores in bouldering

Competitors faced three "boulders" – complicated and short rock faces that they're seeing for the first time. They have four minutes to figure out how to get to the top, ideally multiple times. The competition tests their hand and foot holds — and their ability to solve problems. Climbers also receive credit for finding more than one route to the top — but some of these boulders were so tough that the climbers were lucky to make it to the top once.

U.S. climber Nathaniel Coleman competes in the men's sport climbing bouldering final on Thursday during the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Mohd Rasfan / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
U.S. climber Nathaniel Coleman competes in the men's sport climbing bouldering final on Thursday during the Tokyo Olympic Games.

On the first boulder, most of the climbers managed to reach the top.

The second was so challenging that only one climber – 24-year-old Coleman – found a way to make it to the top and grasp the top hold with both hands. That puzzle involved a section where climbers had to make a flying leap off a narrow ledge while traversing nearly 13 feet across the wall, then grab onto a narrow hold while their legs swung freely.

On the third boulder, which was shaped a bit like a flower, nobody made it to the top, but everybody made it to a checkpoint halfway up.

Coleman said this event showed how much route-setting — the way the wall is laid out — can impact the results.

"It goes to show that some boulders are easy, some boulders are impossible, and depending on that mixture, it has an incredible effect," he said.

At the end of the second event, Mickaël Mawem of France, Narasaki and Coleman all had the same number of points at the top of the rankings.

Austria comes roaring back in lead climbing

Climbers have six minutes to inspect the lead wall, and they did it as a group. During that time, all of the athletes were chatting and comparing notes, sometimes miming to one another about how they had find their way up the challenging wall.

When they started scaling the wall, climbers faced a six-minute countdown to reach the top. Falling off the wall would end their attempt. After each climber finished, they sat on a stage to watch the remaining athletes compete.

Ginés López made it about three-quarters of the way up, surging ahead in the standings after facing some difficulty in the bouldering section.

The biggest comeback of the night was pulled off by Schubert, 30, who was last in the standings after the speed event. His bouldering score was fifth in the group of seven. He was the very last to go in the lead event — and he was the only one to make it all the way to the top, to the roaring applause of the crowd. It was enough to get him on the podium.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 5, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly said Alberto Ginés López's time in the final speed-climbing race was 6.43. His time was 6.42, according to the official Olympics website.
Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.