In a photo provided by USA Climbing, Colin Duffy competes in the Pan American Championships in Los Angeles in March 2020. Duffy had his eyes on the 2024 Paris Olympics. A natural climbing ability and mathematical mind pushed his timeframe forward, allowing him to become one of the youngest athletes at the Tokyo Games at 17. (Lucas W Webster/USA Climbing via AP)

TOKYO (AP) — Sport climbing’s Olympic debut will have an element of surprise.

The key to the sport is strength, particularly in the fingers and arms, but there’s also a degree of problem-solving involved.

So to keep the playing field (or wall) level, climbers won’t get a chance to see the wall in two of the three disciplines until right before their first attempt.

“Probably the most difficult thing for non-climbers to understand is how we can look at this spray of holds that look random and kind of know what we’re supposed to do,” American climber Nathaniel Coleman said. “But it’s all pattern recognition and intuition, I guess.”

Climbing at the Olympics will have three disciplines: lead, boulder and speed.

Lead is pretty much what recreational climbers face at climbing gyms, only on a much higher wall (15 meters) and far more difficult. There’s a six-minute limit, whoever climbs highest wins.

Bouldering is a set of four “problems” on 4.5-meter walls where turning upside down is sometimes the solution to reaching the top. Climbers have five minutes — four in the final — to solve each boulder in as many attempts as they want.

Speed is a race to the top of a 15-meter wall on a standardized route.

The inclusion of speed has been a bit controversial because it takes a different skillset than the other two disciplines. The Tokyo Games only has two medals for climbing — it will be four at the 2024 Paris Games — and the IOC wanted something a little more eye-catching to go with the methodical other disciplines, so speed was included.

Since speed is the same every time, there’s no need to keep the wall a secret.

Part of the challenge in lead and bouldering is figuring out the best route to the top, so those walls will be kept under wraps until competition day.

No training or warmups on the walls as in other sports. Show up and figure it out on sight.

“In bouldering, when you turn around you have five minutes to come up with a solution, a best guess, and then also climb it,” Coleman said. “Throughout that five minutes, you might realize that your first intuition wasn’t correct."

Part of what will make climbing unique is the collaborative effort of the competitors.

Before qualifying and the final in lead, the climbers will have a six-minute observation period to search out the best routes. The six-minute observation period will only be before the boulder final, not qualifying.

When the climbers get a chance to look at the wall, many will hash it out with their fellow competitors, pointing up and discussing the best way to reach the top.

After that, they’re on their own.

Climbers are escorted to an isolation room after the observation period so they don’t get an advantage by watching the others make their way up the walls.

“Those athletes who are more creative and intuitive and can improvise quite well are typically the best at this,” said U.S. assistant coach and national team manager Meg Coyne.

For the climbers who reach the final, there will be a new challenge the next day.

The wall won’t change, but the holds will be swapped out, likely for harder ones.


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