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Canadian pioneer fails to qualify for the men’s final, but helps to usher in a dynamic, youth-pleasing new sport at the Games

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Canada's Sean McColl competes in the bouldering section of the Aug. 3 climbing event at the Olympics.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

There’s never been anything quite like sport climbing at the Olympics.

As it made its debut Tuesday at the Tokyo Games – with Canada’s own American Ninja Warrior competing – its climbers did three gruelling disciplines on different areas of the wall in one fascinating night. The competition featured booming music and superbly fit contestants climbing the wall like Spiderman, dangling from holds by their fingertips, and improvising their way across boulders while battling against the clock.

Canada’s Sean McColl, a 33-year-old from North Vancouver, B.C., placed 17th out of 20 men in Tuesday’s qualifying, but only the top eight advance to Thursday’s Olympic final.

He’s a professional climber, a four-time world champion in the combined event, and has competed on the high-octane reality show American Ninja Warrior: USA vs The World. In pictures and videos posted to his Twitter feed, he makes it look easy to suspend in a mid-air plank or master bizarre advanced-level pushups.

During the pandemic, with many climbing walls closed and competitions postponed, Mr. McColl built a small covered “climbing cave” at his house, with the help of his girlfriend’s stepfather, a metalsmith. They installed $40,000 worth of holds on the walls so he could keep training for his Olympic opportunity.

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The pandemic didn't deter McColl from training for the Olympics in a privately built space.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Tuesday’s Olympic debut took place in hot, humid 32 C weather at the Aomi Urban Sports Park in Tokyo’s waterfront district. It’s an enormous outdoor artificial climbing wall with a stage at its base and an awning overhead for shade.

The climbers each walked out on stage to loud hype music before their climbs, in tank tops, shorts and climbing shoes, with small chalk bags strapped to their waistbands, so they could chalk their hands to climb.

The men’s competition was scheduled first at the Games. The world’s best 20 male and 20 female climbers all compete this week in three climbing disciplines for a combined ranking, which decides the medalists. Their sport takes distinctive strength and athleticism, meticulously trained fingers, and problem-solving ability.

During Tuesday’s five-hour long competition, the athletes twisted and moved their bodies in ways not seen in other sports, and did it while battling the nerves of performing before an Olympic television audience for the first time.

The women’s competition takes place Wednesday and Friday in Tokyo. Canada’s lone female competitor is Mr. McColl’s long-time family friend – from Vancouver – Alannah Yip.

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Climbers have to compete in three disciplines for a combined ranking that decides which of the 20 male and female athletes walk away with medals.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Sport climbing is one of five new sports added to the Olympic program (along with surfing, skateboarding, karate, three-on-three basketball and the short-lived return of baseball/softball).

Mr. McColl played a huge role in getting it there as president of the athletes’ commission for the International Federation of Sport Climbing since 2012.

He did presentations to the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland as the organization considered new sports. Mr. McColl argued that sport climbing demonstrated the IOC’s “higher, faster, stronger” motto, and attracts a youthful demographic. Climbing failed to be included in the Rio Games in 2016 but got in for Tokyo.

Although speed, lead and bouldering are totally separate events at most climbing competitions, with different athletes excelling at each, the IOC chose to combine them and give medals for one combined event. Mr. McColl said that’s just getting the sport’s foot in the Olympic door. In the Paris Olympics in 2024, those will be three medal events.

“We’re here on the ground and I’m proud,” said Mr. McColl, doing interviews for a long while after the qualifying round Tuesday, his hands still covered in chalk. “I pass Canadian athletes in the hallways and on the elevators, and I get giddy.”

Mickaël Mawem of France leads the competition, with Japan’s Tomoa Narasaki in second, and American Colin Duffy third.

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Mickael Mawem, top, is leading the men's climbing competition. His brother Bassem, bottom, is also competing for France in Tokyo.Clodagh Kilcoyne and pool/Reuters

One could imagine how the event might have played live to a young, active-minded Olympic audience in Tokyo, if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t prompted a ban on fans at these Games. It is at times fast and thrilling, other times deliberate and analytical. It’s like chess moves being made up a wall.

First the athletes competed in the speed event, in which two climbers race up a 15-metre wall while attached to a safety rope, like superheroes scaling a skyscraper. Competitors get two tries, and their best time counts. Mr. McColl’s finest was 6.93 seconds – a personal best – but it put him in 14th place among the 20 men.

Second they did bouldering. Each man climbed on a shorter wall without any ropes, solving boulder problems – which are groups of large boulder-like formations on the wall placed in a sort of path – set uniquely for each competition.

There were four problems on the large wall, and each climber got five minutes on each one to grab and swing and propel his body to the furthest hold and touch it with both hands. They didn’t get to see the problems before facing them live.

To add to the difficulty, the humidity made the holds a little slippery.

“It feels like you’re sliding off,” said Czech climber Adam Ondra, who placed fifth in qualifying. “You have to forget about the sweat and grease and keep going.”

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Adam Ondra of the Czech Republic came in fifth at the Aug. 3 competition.Jeff Roberson/The Associated Press

Night had fallen, and the stage was illuminated, the heat breaking a little. The venue took on a concert-like vibe with music playing. When the climbers touched the final hold in a problem – for those who actually could – they flexed and celebrated. Mr. McColl made repeated attempts but struggled to solve any despite getting inches away once. Sometimes the boulder problems suit your skills and body type and sometimes they don’t. One in particular was better for taller climbers – called a Morpho boulder – but not great for 5-foot-7 Mr. McColl.

“I was really hoping it wouldn’t happen at the Olympics, but it did,” Mr. McColl said. “That’s all part of the game.”

Mr. McColl was in 15th place after that part of the night, but it didn’t bother him. He’d been 20th out of 20 climbers at the event in which he qualified to compete in Tokyo by excelling at the lead climbing event, which was the last discipline on Tuesday night.

Each competitor climbed as high as he possibly could in six minutes with a safety rope, up a wall with many holds spaced out to make them reach and strategize.

He needed to be first or second in this discipline to qualify. But he placed eighth – not quite enough. He smiled and waved to the crowd when he finally fell and his rope brought him gently to the ground.

“About halfway through the route. I could feel myself having fun,” Mr. McColl said. “You kind of know when you fall where you are [in the standings] relative to the crowd reaction. ... I knew most likely the Olympics was over, I wouldn’t be in the finals, but I didn’t care. I smiled. I clapped. I had a blast.”

IMAGE ALT TEXT Speed climbing: A slow-motion view

Unlike in bouldering or lead climbing, you won’t see an athlete’s prowess at speed climbing unless you can freeze time. So visual journalist Timothy Moore did just that

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