The Summit - the mythical Lost City that sportspeople regularly try to reach, but only a select few ever succeed in their quest. The Summit - the loneliest but most exhilarating place in sport, the location where preparation, talent, mental strength and sometimes luck, rendezvous in acknowledgement that just one athlete or team deserves to be called Champion. The Summit - hard to reach, even more difficult to stay there, as other competitors aspire to snatch the crown that was so painstakingly bestowed upon the favoured ones.
In the world of sport, there are but a handful of sportspeople, who have not only reached The Summit, but who have made it their permanent address. The athletes that when their names appear on start lists, their fellow competitors know that the best result, that realistically can be obtained, is to finish as runner-up to the legendary figure. Who resides at The Summit? Undoubtedly, Simone Biles, Serena Williams, Lewis Hamilton, Tom Brady can all be regularly spotted on this most exclusive of streets. In recent months, a new neighbour has moved into the desirable apartment complex. Janja Garnbret has reached The Summit by literally reaching for the summits.
The Slovenian Sports Climber has had a sensational record-breaking year. Last month, in the Japanese city of Hachioji, she successfully retained the World Championships that she had won in Innsbruck in 2018 in the SportClimbing disciplines of Bouldering and Combined. For good measure, she upgraded the silver medal in Lead Climbing to that of a more satisfying colour. Garnbret’s triumphs have booked her ticket to Tokyo next year, where the sport will make its Olympics debut. Her already impressive CV was further enhanced when she became the first climber in history to win all six Bouldering finals in the IFSC (International Federation of Sport Climbing) World Cup series. Remarkably, the Slovenian, who as a teenager won a silver medal in Lead at the 2017 edition of The World Games in Wroclaw, is still only 20 years old.
What gives Garnbret the edge over her fellow climbers? As one commentator at the World Championships noted, “Garnbret is not only head and shoulders above her rivals, but possibly the waist as well.” She has combined an incredible capacity for hard work with three natural advantages, to make her the unbeatable force in sport climbing. She states “Through the years, I started training harder and harder, and I realized that I could be the best climber in the world. I love when adrenaline goes through your veins, when you are on your own on the wall, and you try to give your best and utilize everything from your training.”
If your ambition is to become the finest climber on the planet, then Slovenia is an ideal country to spend your childhood. The mountainous country provides many natural climbs; when Janja is not training on the climbing wall, she is normally out challenging herself to find a route up one of the peaks of the Julian Alps. The country is so enamoured with mountains, that its most celebrated mountain, Triglav, is the national symbol and appears at the centre of the Slovenian flag. Whilst Garnbret’s height of 1.64 metres may not seem remarkable when compared to other sports, it does give her a reach advantage in sport climbing, where the athletes more often have the physiques of jockeys in horse racing.
Thus when other climbers have to make Indiana Jones-style leaps to try to wrap their fingers around the next hold, Garnbret can adopt the less risky method of reaching across, securing her hold and then pushing her body in the required direction. The leaps, known in the sport as dynamic movements, is where the Slovenian athlete really excels and is what gives her the competitive edge. To make a successful dynamic movement requires the ability to stay tucked tightly into the climbing wall, to generate maximum thrust, that will propel the climber towards the next target. No one is as technically gifted as Garnbret at doing this. Her sense of the precise moment to transfer her body weight and the swinging ability of a primate mean that she can obtain holds that are impossible for her rivals. During the World Championships, she was the only athlete to successfully solve the problematic second zone in the Bouldering competition, with all her fellow climbers failing to master the series of tricky horizontal swings.
It is an exciting time for Sport Climbing in general, even more so if you are the undisputed champion. This is because in 2020 the sport will make its Olympic debut, as it is one of the five new sports that have been added to the Tokyo programme. Fellow sports of The World Games, Karate, Surfing, Skateboarding (Roller Sports) will also experience Olympics for the first time, whilst Baseball is making a welcome return to the Games, having last featured at Beijing 2008. However the Sport Climbing event will have a different format in Japan, compared to the way it is normally presented.
At The World Games and other major events, the sport is contested as three separate disciplines with medals being presented in each category. Speed is a vertical race against a rival to the top, fastest person wins. Lead is done over a diagonally ascending course, where competitors mark their progress by putting pins in the climbing wall. The champion is whoever ascends the highest, with time of ascent only being used as a tiebreaker. Bouldering, the only discipline to be conducted without a safety rope, is a fearsome test of agility, with overhangs or holds that require the climber to be hanging upside down, Medals are determined by the athlete who reaches the top and the various zones the most times.
Tokyo however will not operate this system of competition. The Sport Climbing at the 2020 Olympics will feature a Combined eventand be like the triathlon: climbers take part in all three disciplines, but only one set of medals will be awarded. The scoring system to be used, could not be any more favourable to Janja Garnbret. The final score is obtained by multiplying together the comparative rankings obtained by the athlete across each individual discipline. Thus a climber who finishes 8th in Speed, 2nd in Lead and 5th in Bouldering would have a final score of 80, and the medals will be presented to the athletes with the lowest combined scores. Garnbret is only a modest Speed climber, but she more than compensates for this comparative disadvantage with her dominance in Lead and Bouldering. A word of caution though, as competitors are only allowed one attempt at the course in Lead. An early fall in the lead section would be capable of blowing medal chances. However, should Janja succeed in reaching the top of the wall on the Lead discipline, then it is inevitable that the Slovenian national anthem will be played in Tokyo. Janja Garnbret has reached The Summit in her sport, can any of her rivals join her there? If none rise to the challenge, then sports fans attending the Birmingham 2021 edition of The World Games can look forward to seeing Sport Climbing’s first Olympic Champion and global superstar.
Brian Salmon for The World Games
The World Games is a multi-sport event staged every four years by the International World Games Association under the patronage of the International Olympic Committee. The 11th edition of The World Games will be held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 15-25 July 2021. 3,600 athletes from over 30 sports and 100 countries will take part in the Games.