In this post I talk about how distorted the Olympic Combined format is, it’ll be followed up with an interview with the head routesetter for bouldering Percy Bishton.
If you can’t wait for more Factor Two, or you’re just not into comps, scroll to the bottom for an early release of the next episode.
I never used to be all that interested in climbing competitions. They seemed totally counter to the reasons that I loved climbing.
In recent years, however, I’ve watched more of the World Championship events and they’ve moved on as a spectacle. The walls, volumes and holds are more advanced now, and competition style boulder problems are creeping into regular climbing walls too.
The Olympic Format
With climbing in the Tokyo Olympic next year we’ve had an unfortunate collision of interests in the Sport Climbing world (not least the term “Sport Climbing”).
The IFSC were left with a tricky decision - use a combined format of Speed, Boulder and Lead, or don’t get a place at the Olympics. All 3 disciplines have a long history of competition at this stage, but obviously speed stands out for a few reasons. A key one being that most of the standout competitors would never have climbed a speed wall, let alone entered a speed competition, prior to the format announcement. But I’m not here to argue about speed climbing.
To run a combined format, or a series, you need a scoring system. Most sports need some kind of scoring system, and I think this is an aspect of sport we don’t talk about enough. A good scoring system needs to be simple for spectators to understand and it needs to incentivise the right behaviour in your competitors. Whether it’s more points for a try than a drop goal, or an incentive to win the match for league points, it’s all about making it both fair and exciting to watch.
On the face of it they Olympic Format is easy to understand. We start with 20 competitors, and after 3 events your rankings are multiplied together (with some caveats over tied scores) and the lowest 8 scores go through to a final, which follows the same format.
Is It Fair?
After the recent European Championships there were quite a few voices crying foul on this scoring system.
In both the men’s and women’s competitions the overall result was decided by the final climber in the lead competition. Despite the fact that neither could win overall, their performance changed the ranking scores, meaning that 1st and 2nd places were swapped based on the performance of a 3rd party.
This feels unfair, but it’s not really. The scoring system places an emphasis on higher positions, and because of the multiplier it means that 1st place is twice as good as 2nd, but the difference from 2nd to 3rd isn’t so significant and so on. If that final climber wins, the whole field is shifted down a place in the rankings, and strange things can happen. Projecting the “current score” is basically irrelevant until all of the competitors have finished. It creates the illusion that someone is in the overall lead, but they aren’t really.
But how the scoring feels is important to spectators. And how we feel about maths is often not aligned with reality - ask any maths teacher.
So should we use a different system?
Most scoring systems incentivise 1st place. In Formula 1, the MTB Downhill World Cup, Eurovision and the Sport Climbing World Cup to name just a few.
In each case 1st place would gain you more points over your next competitor than 2nd would. We don’t see people arguing over whether that’s unfair, although we do see these sports changing the scoring to incentivise different things.
The interesting thing here is that if any of these scorings were used the results of the European Championships would have been the same, including the illusory flipped places for 1st and 2nd. (If we used the Eurovision scoring then 1st place would be tied).
Any scoring system that has unequal divisions between the scores could have this effect, it’s simply a result of basic maths. We see it sometimes in other sports, but it doesn’t feel so unfair there. I think there are a few reasons why.
What’s the difference?
There are key differences between the Sport Climbing system and the others I’ve described. Those differences have a big impact on what feels fair, but also on whether we see this apparently odd scenario where competitors swap places because of a 3rd party’s performance.
The first is that these systems are measuring the same thing each time. Every Formula 1 race or Downhill event is testing broadly the same skillset. They are also run over multiple rounds. This means that consistency in demonstrating one skillset is important, and competitors who win one round are likely to win others too over the course of a season.
The next difference is that in the case of Formula 1 everyone is racing at the same time. A commentator might speculate on the finishing scorings during the race, but I think we’re naturally inclined to accept that this is a projection. In the case of Sport Climbing, because many competitors have finished already we are less inclined to think of it in this way.
The final key is that the situation we saw in Moscow is not unusual. In fact, we’d expect it to happen quite often. The reason it hadn’t happened so far was simply that the final competitor won overall and disguised the effect.
The startlist for Lead runs in reverse qualifying order - we would expect the last climber out to be the favourite. This happens in the Downhill WC too, and skiing events. It makes it more exciting that each competitor is likely to go slightly higher or faster than the last. If that final climber is out of the running for gold then this apparent distortion of the scores is actually very likely to happen, because everyone’s rankings will change if they win that event.
The Real Problem
The real problem with the Olympic scoring is that any scoring system for combined events creates strange effects. That can be mitigated if the events are fundamentally similar, and run over a long series.
Where those events are different we’re left with sports like the Heptathlon and Decathlon. Both sports with easy benchmarking for performance that can be used to create a scoring system. It won’t be perfect, it might favour runners over throwers, but it removes the awkward maths of ranking-based scores.
But we can’t do that for climbing, because it needs the course to be roughly the same each time. In Speed that happens, but in Lead and Boulder it can’t.
So there doesn’t appear to be a good way of mitigating the maths problems in the Combined format. It leaves us in a very uncomfortable position with the scoring - one that is made worse by the way we run the Speed event.
How Speed Distorts
In Speed the final is a knockout. This distorts the rankings before any other events have run. Climbers are seeded on qualifying performance, so the fastest should face the slowest in the first round. But a mistake in the first round condemns a climber to finish, at best, in 5th place. If they made that mistake in a different round they could be 2nd. Climbers are very consistent in the times they post in speed events, but mistakes are very common.
You might think, “So what? If someone makes a mistake they deserve to rank lower”, but there’s more to it than that. Their opponent, who we’d expect to finish 8th, now can’t rank lower than 4th. This is as significant as going from 2nd to 1st in terms of scoring - it could make the difference in them winning the event or not. Others will gain from your mistake, but they will gain more. It also means that a weak competitor will now face the favourite, and potentially lose another place in the rankings as a result.
Even Injuries Make a Difference
More than this we also have an interesting scenario where an athlete is injured (as happened to Alex Megos). We can’t disqualify an athlete for not competing in a round, because if they’ve completed 2 rounds that could be enough to win overall (winning 2 rounds guarantees victory).
If a climber is a strong contender for winning the Lead round, but is injured in an earlier round, this also distorts the scores unfairly. Their performance in previous rounds has already affected rankings, and by not competing, or competing poorly in the final round this affects rankings again. In a worst case scenario this means that everyone moves up a position, and all gain differently from that.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I think the clear fact is that the Combined format isn’t good for climbing. As competition climbing has evolved there has been a lot of experimentation about formats that will work for both competitors and audiences. This format doesn’t enhance the game for either group.
The good news is it looks likely to be dropped for Paris 2024 in favour of a different format.
The next episode of Factor Two will land in your podcast players soon. Luckily for you, you don’t need to wait if you don’t want to.
Presenting El Capitan - a film by Fred Padula.
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