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Are Japan’s Olympians Japan’s Strongest Cimbers?

Japan's Olympians may no longer be Japan's strongest climbers after two incredible performances by Ai Mori and Kokoro Fujii

The first climbers to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games did so 18 months ago. Since the Hachioji Combined Championships, climbers have aged, strengthened, weakened. It has been long enough that those at the top may no longer hold that coveted first position.

For Team Japan, this point of consideration is more pressing than for any other country. As the only team to fill both of their two-person-per-gender quota positions at Hachioji, their qualified athletes have waited the longest amount of time for the Olympic Games. In some ways, this is an advantage, but in others it allows for uncertainty. Which of the competitors are the strongest?

Since Hachioji, The Japanese Mountaineering and Sport Climbing Association (JMSCA) would contest the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s (IFSC) proposed system of athlete qualification. The dispute was over which body should be able to choose the athletes that would represent Japan.

While many countries struggled to fill their quotas, Japan had a total of eight athletes, four per gender, “qualify” in the first Olympic qualification competition. Though only two athletes per gender were allowed to officially qualify, eight members of Team Japan filled the top sixteen positions in the first combined Championships. These results are reproduced below.

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Women

Janja Garnbret – Slovenia
Akiyo Noguchi – Japan
Shauna Coxsey – Great Britain
Aleksandra Miroslaw – Poland
Miho Nonaka – Japan
Ai Mori – Japan
Futaba Ito – Japan
Petra Klinger – Switzerland

Men

Tomoa Narasaki – Japan
Jakob Schubert – Austria
Rishat Khaibullin – Kazakhastan
Kai Harada – Japan
Meichi Narasaki – Japan
Kokoro Fujii – Japan
Mickael Mawem – France
Alexander Megos – Germany

Due to their top-ranked positions, both the IFSC and the JMSCA agreed that Tomoa Narasaki and Akiyo Noguchi should retain their positions regardless of ruling. The two organizations differed on the last two positions. Due to the fact that Team Japan was allowed one male and one female position in the Olympic roster, regardless of placement, due to the fact that they were the hosting country, they believed that they should retain the right to choose who that athlete might be. In some ways, this makes sense. If no one had qualified, Team Japan would have been able to pick whomever they wished to fill the position. By their argument, this rule should stand despite the fact that they had other athletes qualify.

The JMSCA hoped to have an internal competition among their six other qualified athletes to determine who might best represent their country in the upcoming Olympic Games. This would mean that Kai Harada and Miho Nonaka, who officially qualified at Hachioji, would have to battle it out against the other athletes from Japan that qualified at that competition. The winners of this internal competition would then join Narasaki and Noguchi as Olympic athletes. The JMSCA lost their appeal, and the IFSC determined that Harada and Nonaka would represent Japan in the upcoming Games. For a greater discussion on the morality of the two positions, click here.

The reason that we are dredging up all of this old news up is due to the recent Bouldering Japan Cup Final. The event concluded on January 30, 2021 with surprising results. It is important to remember that this is a Bouldering Cup and not a Combined Championship, however, the individuals that stood atop the podium were not the expected Olympians, but in fact Ai Mori and Kokoro Fujii.

These results are significant especially considering that Ai Mori was most proficient, in Hachioji, in the Lead discipline. Mori did not even make the top six positions in bouldering and yet, just last month, she would be the first-place champion, even beating out Nonaka. This would suggest that the Japanese Lead Climber has improved dramatically over this last year and may now be a stronger contender than Nonaka.

What is even more significant is that Mori would compete against qualified Olympian Akiyo Noguchi just this last week in B-Pump’s THE SIX competition. Mori would defeat Noguchi, taking first prize. This is significant as Noguchi is the top ranked combined Japanese female competitor. It is even more significant considering that Mori beat Noguchi in Lead in Hachioji, third place to fifth place.

This result is repeated, though to a lesser degree, in the men’s category. Olympic-qualified climber Kai Harada would not make podium while an injured Kokoro Fujii would take first position over first-place qualified, V14-flashing, Tomoa Narasaki. In Hachioji, Fujii would finish fourth in bouldering to Narasaki’s first position. In that competition, however, Narasaki was the only climber to top any of the final boulder problems. Jakob Schubert (2nd), Yannick Flohé (3rd) and Kokoro Fujii (4th) would each share zero tops and three zones, and were separated by attempts. To beat Narasaki at his own game, then, would suggest a gross increase in strength for Fujii.

Though a single competition is hardly enough to judge by, Fujii would still take second position in the B-Pump THE SIX Competition. This consistency is significant, especially considering that the greatest reason for Fujii’s loss to Harada was in the trainable speed discipline. Fujii lost to Harada in lead with a score of 29+ to 30 and beat him in bouldering.

All of this is to say that it would seem the JMSCA was right to want an internal competition between their other qualified athletes. It is possible that the strongest female climber in Japan will not be allowed to compete in the Olympics, despite having qualified.

It could be argued that this is fair for those athletes that qualified above their teammates, but if the point of the Olympics is to test qualified athletes against one another to find the best in the world, then it is possible that the Olympic Champion’s title could be contested by the simple fact that the best are not featured due to an IFSC regulation. It should be noted that the JMSCA and the IFSC debated their positions in the Court of Arbitration of Sport, the Supreme Court of Olympic sports, and it was this court that made the ultimate decision. The point of contention, however, is that it is unclear whether this decision was made for the benefit of the athlete or the benefit of the IFSC.

Featured Image of Ai Mori by @tokyofotopress; Tokyo Foto Press