Czech and World Champion rock climber Adam Ondra on going for Olympic gold in three ‘radically different’ disciplines

Adam Ondra, photo: Camille Montagnon

Czech professional rock climber Adam Ondra is the only male athlete in the sport to have won World Championship titles in the “lead climbing” and “bouldering” categories in a single year. Along with the category of “speed” – for the first time ever – those disciplines will be a part of the Olympic Games as of 2020, under the catchall category of “sport climbing”.

Adam Ondra,  photo: Camille Montagnon

“I was born into a climbing family – everyone in my family climbs. It’s hard to say if I could have avoided it, but if I wasn’t climbing, I would have been the only one, and that would be weird.

“I started climbing when I was maybe four or five years old, and pretty soon I realized that it was something I was quite good at. I started doing some competitions when I was six, and I was successful.

“Already when I was seven, I thought, ‘Wow, to be a professional climber would be the coolest thing ever!’ And I just continued on this path.”

Adam Ondra spoke to Prague Radio a few weeks ahead of an Olympics qualifier in France about his love for the sport, attitude to training, and trepidation about, pardon the pun, getting up to “speed” in that third discipline.

Adam Ondra,  photo: Camille Montagnon
Fresh from China with another World Cup to his name, Adam Ondra, now 26, was about to go up against some of the other best climbers in the Czech Republic, at the BigWall Center in Prague’s Vysočany district.

Among them were Jakub Konečný, 20, a Czech Cup winner in the lead climbing category; Martin Stráník, 29, a four-time Czech champion in the same discipline, also known as “difficulty climbing”; and Jan Kříž, 23, a champion in the “speed” category.

“So, this is the Czech championship, the elite. For me, it’s kind of a break in between the training for the upcoming qualifying event for the Olympic Games, which takes place in Toulouse, France. So, I’m just here climbing a little bit and trying to enjoy it.

“I should be confident. Of course, this season there is Martin Stráník and Jakub Konečný – they are both pretty strong climbers who made some finals in the World Cup, so it’s definitely not easy. But I’m trying to be confident, and so far in the semifinals it has worked out really well.

“But I don’t even want to try to take it too seriously because the serious one, where it’s very important to do well, is in a few weeks in Toulouse.

“Martin Stráník, Jakub Konečný and also the Czech speed climber Jan Kříž were all trying to qualify but haven’t for the event in Toulouse because it’s only the top 20 from the combined ranking.

“So, all these climbers have another chance to qualify, next year at the European Championships in combined, where there’s only one spot – so they have to win, and it’s going to be hard. I have a better shot in Toulouse as there will be 20 men and the top six will qualify for the Olympics.”

For one medal, climbers must rule them all (lead, bouldering and speed)

Adam Ondra,  photo: Camille Montagnon
In August 2016 it was announced that climbing would finally become a medal sport at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo, Japan. Two events will be held, one for men and one for women. Competitors will take part in “lead climbing”, “bouldering” and “speed”, with the winner determined based on which climber performs best in all three disciplines.

“Lead” is a climbing style, predominantly used in rock climbing. In a roped party, one climber must take the lead while the others follow. The lead wears a harness attached to a climbing rope, which in turn is connected to the other climbers.

“Bouldering” is another form of rock climbing performed on either small natural rock formations or on artificial walls, without the use of ropes or harnesses. Climbers in this discipline need an especially firm grip and nerves of steel.

“Speed” climbing is done on rocks, walls and poles, with artificial walls being the main venue, and clocking the fastest completion time through the course, as the name suggests, the ultimate goal.

As noted earlier, Adam Ondra is a champion when it comes to the first two disciplines, but “speed” is not his specialty. For this reason, the Olympic Games next year in Japan are for him a special challenge, and will require a different regime.

“So, for sure the training is very different because normally I would be training for the other climbing, and the combined format for the Olympics is very special as it combines Lead, Bouldering and Speed and – and especially Speed is something that I have never really trained in before, so it’s a complete novelty for me. And it’s really hard to juggle these three radically different disciplines all together.”

“The fact that climbing made it to the Olympics is great, but I’m definitely not happy with the format. Hopefully, it’s just a stepping stone and in future there will be three sets of medals for three single disciplines in climbing.

“As the combined category was introduced, it’s not very logical. I think if you propose something for the Olympics, it should be something well established with a logical, historical continuation. Unfortunately, it’s not the case, and we have the combined format.

“But in 2024 in Paris, it’s very likely that there will be Speed as a single discipline, and Bouldering and Lead combined, which makes sense. But, still, I think climbing definitely deserves to have three medals.”

Eyes on the Prize – Toulouse

Adam Ondra,  photo: Camille Montagnon
Adam Ondra is far from the only professional climber critical of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decision to combine the three disciplines. U.S. women’s champion Lynn Hill said it was like “asking a middle distance runner to compete in the sprint” while top British climber Shauna Coxsey noted, “No boulderer has transitioned to speed and lead, and no speed climber has done it to bouldering and lead.”

The reason for this is that the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) were only granted one gold medal per gender by the Olympic committee – and they wanted to gain a foothold without excluding speed climbing.

But for the 2024 Summer Olympics, the IFSC were granted a second set of medals, so speed climbing will indeed be a separate event, and lead and bouldering a combined one.

In the meantime, Ondra – who, by the way, won that Czech competition shortly after speaking to Radio Prague – has his eyes on Toulouse. He says he is trying to strike the right balance of training hard but staying fresh; staying confident without getting cocky.

“The hard part is that I’m training hard and want to be in the best shape possible. But at the same time, it’s the end of the season. Normally, in late November I’m not competing, ever. So, the hard part is also not to be over-trained because definitely the body deals with the harder training volume a little different at the end of the season than in the spring, for example.

“So, I’m definitely trying to behave wisely in terms of planning my competitions – so that’s why I didn’t attend the last World Cup in Japan. And also, in terms of volume, I’m not training as hard as I would if it were spring. So, the important thing is to arrive in Toulouse fresh, in good shape, but most important is to be confident, not too nervous – but not over confident (laughs).”

Photo: Camille Montagnon
Like any Olympic hopeful, Adam Ondra knows the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Last month, he added the European crown to the World Championships gold medal he won earlier this year. But this summer in Japan, after stepping on a bolt meant for clipping the rope to as a foothold in the lead qualification at the World Championship, he finished 18th in the combined spot – and missed the chance to secure a place in the Summer Olympics.

Now it all comes down to the qualifier in Toulouse.

“I consider myself to be a rock climber. And from time to time, I’m motivated to train indoors and go for the competitions, which are only indoors. Now, with a dream, a goal so special – which is the Olympic Games – I’m mostly climbing only indoors. But, at the same time, it’s kind of a sacrifice. As soon as the Olympics are over, the first thing I’m going to do is go outdoor climbing …

“For me, it was pretty much the only natural sport that was lacking in the Olympics. There are very simple rules. You just have to climb as high as possible. And I think it’s within our genetic code – we all want to climb up.”

– Adam Ondra was interviewed for Radio Prague by Camille Montagnon.

The IFSC combined qualifier – Toulouse/Tournefeuille (France) 2019 takes place from 28 November through 1 December. You can find more information about Sport Climbing's debut at Tokyo 2020 and the Olympic Qualification System at