IFSC World Cup Climbing Rules & Scoring Explained

CAMPING GEAR

Perplexed by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC)’s scoring system for World Cup climbing competitions? Here’s how to decrypt Boulder, Lead, and Speed stats and rankings.

For anyone unfamiliar with IFSC competition scoring, decoding the climber’s scorecards is like playing chess with your eyes closed. So, we put together an earnest attempt to simplify the IFSC’s scoring process, clarify any quirks in its rulebook, and break down competition jargon.

The IFSC holds World Cup events in three disciplines: bouldering, sport climbing or “lead,” and speed climbing. The rules and scoring that apply to World Cup competitors vary according to the discipline.

How can a lead climber score 45+ points? What’s the difference between speed climbing’s big and small finals? Find out below. We’ve divided this explainer into sections for Boulder, Lead, Speed, and Rankings, in that order.

For reference (if you want to dive into the gory details), here’s the 96-page IFSC rulebook in full.

Bouldering Scoring & Rules

Natalia Grossman (USA) won the IFSC Boulder World Cup title in 2021 and 2022; (photo/Dimitris Tosidis, IFSC)
Natalia Grossman (USA) won the IFSC Boulder World Cup title in 2021 and 2022; (photo/Dimitris Tosidis, IFSC)

In IFSC World Cup bouldering, climbers can score points without reaching the top of a problem. Competition takes place in a structure of three rounds.

There are two ways climbers can score points on a World Cup boulder problem:

  1. by climbing to the top (“TOP” scorecard notation) and securing the final hold without falling, or
  2. by climbing to a designated zone hold, which lies somewhere in the middle of the problem (“Z” scorecard notation).

For a top or zone to count, the climber must touch the hold with both hands in a controlled manner. Grazing or tapping the hold without controlling it does not count.

A qualifying round comes first, followed by a semifinal and final.

Qualifying rounds consist of five boulder problems, and competitors must attempt to climb each problem within a given time limit (usually 3-4 minutes per boulder). In that time, the objective is to climb to the top in as few attempts as possible. Reaching the top of a boulder on one’s first attempt (a flash) is the most desirable outcome.

Semifinal and final rounds feature four boulder problems, and competitors must attempt to climb each one within a span of 5 minutes. The number of climbers that make the semifinal depends on how many compete in qualifying. Usually, the top 20 advance. The final round showcases the top six.

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Time is the only limiter; climbers may attempt a boulder as frequently as they choose within the allotted time.

Put simply, the climber who achieves the most tops and/or zones in the fewest attempts wins. Scoring is a four-part system. In descending order, climbers rank according to tops, zones, number of attempts to get the tops, and number of attempts to get the zones.

For example, a final score of “3t 4z 4 6” shows that the climber reached the top of three boulders, reached the zone hold on four boulders, took four attempts to attain the tops, and took six attempts to attain the zones.

The best result in a round with four boulder problems is 4t 4z 4 4, meaning the climber flashed every boulder in the round.

Lead Climbing Scoring & Rules

Stefano Ghisolfi competes in the IFSC Climbing World Cup in Kranj (photo Jan Virt IFSC)
Stefano Ghisolfi (ITA) competes in the Kranj Lead World Cup, 2021; (photo/IFSC)

IFSC lead competitions take place on a single sport route that measures 15 m (49.21 feet) high by 3 m (9.84 feet) wide and gets reset between rounds. The IFSC specifies that some sections overhang at least 5 degrees, and that it includes pre-installed quickdraws.

Like bouldering, lead competitions take place in one qualifying, one semifinal, and one final round. If over 80 athletes climb in a single lead comp, the IFSC holds two separate qualifying rounds. (In that case, all remaining climbers funnel into the same semifinal.) Generally, 26 climbers advance to the semis and eight vie for the final.

Regulations limit competitors to a single attempt per round; if they fall, their attempt is over. They must clip their rope into every quickdraw. Skipping a quickdraw, backclipping, or z-clipping will result in disqualification.

Each hold on the route corresponds to a number; “1” is the hold closest to the ground. As soon as a climber’s hand touches the next higher hold, they get a “+.” When they control it, they get a point. A perfect score on a route with 45 hand holds, then, would be a 45+.

The climber that reaches the highest hold, clipping correctly without falling, earns the round’s best score. But the best performer in the final round doesn’t necessarily win the competition, because performance in all three rounds factors into the final scores.

If multiple climbers reach the same height and tally the same score after all three rounds, the climber who records the fastest overall time (rounded to the lowest second) wins. Should two or more climbers reach the same hold in the same amount of time, their performances in the previous round will break the tie.

Speed Scoring & Rules

Kiromal Katibin (INA) breaks the men's world record with 5.009 on the clock in the men's Speed qualification round; (photo/IFSC)
Kiromal Katibin (INA) breaks the men’s world record with 5.009 on the clock in the men’s Speed qualification round, France, 2022; (photo/IFSC)

The scoring for speed climbing is different but pretty simple. In the qualification round, climbers get two attempts to scale the 15 m wall and log their fastest time. The route is an international standard and does not change between any competition or round. Times then determine the climbers’ ranking for the upcoming tournament-style round, first through 16th place.

In it, the top-ranked climber will race against the bottom (or 16th) seed, the second seed goes against the 15th, the third seed goes against the 14th, etc. The winners from each race then move on to the next round, where the first place faces eighth place, second faces seventh, etc.

Once four climbers remain, they get to duke it out for the podium in two rounds. The fastest two climbers in the first round move on to compete in the “big” final, while the slower two climbers move on to the “small” final.

The winner of the big final gets first place. The loser of the big final gets second. The winner of the small final gets third, and the loser gets fourth. Note that the small final winner cannot get first place, even if they post a faster time than the big final winner.

Series Rankings

IFSC world rankings in Boulder, Lead, and Speed are the products of a cumulative points system. This means that competitors receive points at the end of each World Cup event based on their final ranking at that event. Just below, you’ll see the IFSC-sanctioned rank-to-points conversion chart.

IFSC Rank-to-Points conversion chart;(graphic/IFSC)
IFSC Rank-to-Points conversion chart; (graphic/IFSC)

Ranking Boulder, Lead, and Speed Competitors

To determine world rankings in Boulder, Lead, and Speed at the end of a season, the IFSC looks to a climber’s cumulative World Cup points for each discipline. Generally speaking, consistent performers rank higher in the long run than sporadic performers.

In other words, if a climber podiums consistently in the Boulder series, they will very likely end up taking the Overall Boulder Champion title in that discipline at the end of the season. Natalia Grossman and Yoshiyuki Ogata recently exemplified that with their wins of the women’s and men’s Overall Boulder titles; Grossman won five straight events to take the championship, while Ogata made the final in all six events and podiumed five times.

Lead semi-finals routes, Innsbruck World Cup, 2022 (photo IFSC)
Lead semi-finals routes, Innsbruck World Cup, 2022; (photo/IFSC)

Combined Rankings: Boulder & Lead

At the end of the year, one female and one male climber receive the Overall World Champion distinction. Competitors must have competed in at least three qualifying Boulder World Cups and three qualifying Lead World Cups to be eligible.

To obtain a climber’s overall ranking, the IFSC sums the results from their top three Boulder performances with the results from their top three Lead performances.

Speed World Records

The IFSC also tracks the continental and world record speeds, which are separate from world rankings. That’s why you might hear about a climber setting the “Asian” or “North American” record during a competition. If you’re a speed freak, stay tuned to this webpage, where the IFSC keeps current speed record information.

The 2022 Speed World Cup stage in Villars, Switzerland
Speed climbing final, Villars World Cup, 2022; (photo/IFSC)

Finally, Updates Can Occur

Like any sport’s governing body, the IFSC reviews its rules for Boulder, Lead, and Speed climbing on a rolling basis. As of this writing, the last rules updates were posted just before the 2022 season, in early February. The update also included a COVID-19 addendum and will apply to climbing disciplines at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

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