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Slovenia wins gold, U.S. shut out in women’s sport climbing final

U.S. climber Brooke Raboutou struggles to make a transition during the bouldering portion of the women's sport climbing final
U.S. climber Brooke Raboutou struggles to make a transition during the bouldering portion of the women’s sport climbing final Friday at the Tokyo Olympics.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Six years ago, when sport climbing at the Olympics was still a fantasy, Janja Garnbret predicted her fate with an Instagram post.

“See you in Tokyo,” she wrote.

Representing Slovenia in the Summer Olympics was her simple goal. Then, over the years, with the sport added to the 2020 program, she solidified herself as the top female climber in the world, if not the greatest of all time with six first-place world championships finishes. On Friday, she added to her legend, winning the gold medal in the inaugural women’s sport climbing final at Aomi Urban Sports Park.

“I’m so happy that I can’t even describe it,” said Garnbret, who became the third woman ever to win a Summer Olympics gold medal for Slovenia. “It’s a dream come true.”

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The hands make all the difference in Olympic sport climbing. Fingers must be strengthened and thickened over years, all the better to dangle from a ledge.

Miho Nonaka and Akiyo Noguchu, both of Japan, finished behind Garnbret. Nonaka, the silver medalist, is from Tokyo. Noguchu, the oldest finalist at 32, retired after her bronze finish. Brooke Raboutou, the only American among the eight finalists, finished a disappointing fifth.

The 22-year-old Garnbret was a cut above her peers. She finished first in two of the three events — bouldering and lead — in front of an enthusiastic gathering of officials, event workers, team members and media. Music blasted before, after and during climbs. Two PA announcers narrated the action — one in English, the other in Japanese. It was the X Games meets an outdoor concert.

The sun sets over the women's sport climbing final Friday at Tokyo's Aomi Urban Sports Park.
The sun sets over the women’s sport climbing final Friday at Tokyo’s Aomi Urban Sports Park.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Garnbret’s teammate, Mia Krampl, held up a cardboard sign in the crowd with Garnbret’s name and a picture of a goat, not-so-subtly referring to Garnbret’s place in the sport’s history. In the climbing world she goes by both GOAT and Queen.

“This was the hardest competition in my entire career,” Garnbret said. “I felt like all pressure was on me, that the whole world had decided that I’ll win the gold medal.”

Sport climbing made its debut at these Olympics across four nights — the qualification and the final for men and women — as three disciplines combined as one competition.

Climbers look up with their hands in the air as they analyze the lead wall during the women's sport climbing final.
Eventual gold medalist Janja Garnbret of Slovenia (in front, wearing a blue mask) and other climbers analyze the lead wall during the sport climbing final Friday at the Tokyo Olympics.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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The first is the speed event, a head-to-head race to the top of a 15-meter wall between two competitors.

The second is bouldering, where the climbers, on their own, are challenged to scale a 15-foot wall with three distinct arrangements of hand and foot holds. Each is called a problem. Solving them requires as much mental fortitude as physical mettle The third discipline, lead, is the closest to outdoor rock climbing. The climber ascends a 15-meter wall until they reach the top or fall in a test of stamina.

The format was unpopular within the community. Competitions usually separate speed climbing from the other disciplines because it’s so different, creating a subset of speed specialists. As a result, Paris 2024 will hold speed as its own event.

That humans can scale a 50-foot wall, scurrying from one small climbing hold to the next, and tap the buzzer in about six seconds makes this new Olympic event startling.

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The sport climbing competition at these Olympics featured a jumble of strengths and weaknesses.

Raboutou, a 20-year-old Colorado native, is not a speed specialist. She fell in her first speed heat. She then set a personal record of 8.77 seconds in her next try, but Garnbret bested her by one one-hundredth of a second in a thriller. She completed the speed portion with a win over South Korea’s Seo Chae-hyun to avoid finishing in last place.

Poland’s Aleksandra Miroslaw set the world record in the event’s final climb, finishing in 6.84 seconds to take first place in the first discipline.

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Raboutou remained in medal contention heading into bouldering, her strongest event. She finished second behind Garnbret despite slipping off the end rock on two of the three problems. Garnbret was the only competitor to solve a problem. She casually scaled the first two to clinch first place in the discipline before her third climb. She didn’t reach the top, but it didn’t matter.

U.S. climber Brooke Raboutou dangles by her fingers after losing her grip during the bouldering final.
Brooke Raboutou loses her grip during the bouldering final.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Slovenian finished first in lead, too, while Raboutou’s night ended in frustration when she slipped off the wall earlier than she expected, all but eliminating her from medal contention with several climbers remaining.

One of them was Garnbret. She leaped onto the wall with the pressure of a heavy favorite and she didn’t flinch. She’ll leave Tokyo a gold medalist, solidifying her place atop her sport.


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