Sean McColl on Climbing at the 2020 Olympics

Photo: Swiss Alpine Club

Just last week climbers celebrated the announcement that sport climbing was added to the programme of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Social media feeds were filled with prominent climbers sharing their excitement about the news. Magazines published quotes from the IOC and IFSC press releases. Generally, people were happy to see climbing recognized as an Olympic sport, but discussion and criticism about the proposed format quickly took over the comment sections.

We reached out to Sean McColl, a professional climber who will almost certainly be competing in the Games, to get his perspective.

First of all, tell us what climbing in the 2020 Olympics means to you personally.

I have watched the Olympic Games on TV for longer than I can remember. For me, it always represented the highest level of sport on our planet! To have my sport of climbing enter the OG is a dream come true.


You’ve been competing internationally for over 10 years and you’re now one of the oldest climbers active in the World Cup circuit. Can you maintain this level of performance for another 4 years?

I will start by saying that I am confident that I will not only be able to maintain my level of climbing, but also raise it in a few key areas where I feel I can improve. The reason I have been able to have such a long competition career in climbing is because I didn’t take any short-cuts or do anything that could jeopardize my health or career. Since I started climbing at 10 years old, my former coaches Andrew Wilson and Mike Doyle made sure that my career would be as long as possible with specific exercises and drills.


You’re currently ranked 1st in the World for the combined results of all 3 disciplines of competitive climbing. You will be competing at the IFSC Climbing World Championships in Paris next month. How will this event compare to the Olympic event in 2020?

The IFSC Climbing World Championships (WCHS) in Paris will be somewhat similar to the OG with a few key differences. One, not all competitors at the WCHS choose to compete in Overall, some prefer to specialize in one specific discipline. Second, there will be over 600 competitors at the WCHS so the formats will be different. Finally, at the OG there will be 20 men and 20 women so the overall format and scoring is still in discussion. I am confident that the World’s best climbers will be present at the 2020 Olympic Games!


What types of climbers perform well in the Overall World Championships?

To be the best climber in the world, you must be versatile and I personally believe that means excelling in all of Sport Climbing’s disciplines (boulder, lead and speed).


What will the competitors that only excel in one discipline need to do over the next 4 years to prepare themselves for the 3 disciplines at the Olympics?

I believe that competitors that are strong in lead or boulder can be very successful in the other discipline just by a small tweak in their training. Lead climbers need to learn how to be bit more explosive and coordinated. Boulderers need to purely work on their resistance. For Speed climbers, their challenge is bigger than the others, but most of them already climb at a reasonable level and they will need to work on both bouldering and lead climbing equally.


You don’t take advantage of a personal trainer or climbing coach. Will this change so that you’re at your peak in 2020?

I regularly check in with mentors and my former coaches throughout the year to make sure I am on track. I am open to having a personal trainer, especially to guarantee I peak at not only the qualifiers for the OG, but the Games themselves.


As a Canadian, what near term changes do you expect to see from Canadian governing bodies to support competitive climbers?

As Canada is one of the countries that does not financially support their competition climbers, I hope to see that change sooner rather than later. It is a full time job training, traveling and competing on the World Cup circuit. I hope to see the Canadian federation continue to evolve to best support their athletes.


You are the President of the IFSC Athletes’ Commission. What are your responsibilities for this position and what role did you play in the bid to make Olympic Climbing happen?

My role and responsibility has been to bring the combined voice of the three disciplines (lead, boulder and speed) to the Sport Department and Executive Board of the IFSC. As athlete president, I stand for all 3 disciplines equally and objectively.


Many people have criticized the decision to include Speed Climbing, including Adam Ondra. There must be good reasons why all 3 disciplines are required. Can you elaborate on that decision making process?

For the 2020 Olympic Games, we were only given 1 [gold] medal per gender and I believe the overall format highlights the strength of all our disciplines. I believe that the 2020 games are a great opportunity to showcase our entire sport with the ultimate goal of having all 3 disciplines as separate events in the 2024 games AS WELL as the overall event a few days later.


Details about who actually gets to compete are vague. We’ve been told 20 women and 20 men and that the selection process will be presented by the IFSC early next year. What do you think is a fair process for selecting competitors?

I can confirm it will be 20 women and 20 men eligible for Tokyo 2020; I believe the selection process will be done starting in 2018 at our World Championships with selections also possible at some other events in 2018 and 2019. Personally, I believe World Championships, Continental Championships and Overall World Cup Champions should be eligible.


How confident are you that we’ll get to cheer you on at the Olympic Games?

Qualifying for the Olympic Games, should it happen, will be a dream come true! To represent Canada at the highest level of sport with the entire country standing behind you cheering you on sounds equally magnificent as well as terrifying!


Thanks Sean for providing your insightful perspective! The climbing community should realize that the inclusion of Climbing in the 2020 Olympic Games is a positive first step. It will pave the way towards a larger event in 2024, which could conceivably have gold medals for each discipline. Regardless, an event showcasing 40 of the World’s best will be exciting to watch!

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