Schubert’s overture: WTF happened in Kitzbühel

Jakob Schubert won the Kitzbühel Bouldering World Cup. To do so, he had to climb the third problem in the final two times. Once during the normal course of the competition and another one after everyone was done climbing.

What happened? Was it according to the rules? Was it fair? Let’s figure it out.

The Issue
Final round of the 2013 Kitzbühel Bouldering World Cup. Jakob Schubert is trying problem #3. So far no one has climbed the problem. With just 5 seconds left, Schubert steps on the wall to give his last try.

Jakob Schubert on problem #3 during Kitzbühel finals

Shubert on Men’s Final #3

Problem #3 is powerful and demanding, Schubert can not relax, he moves with his full body in constant tension making sure each movement is accurate. The crowd cheers him on as he progresses through the route. It takes him about 50 seconds to get the the final hold. He solved the problem establishing himself in second place after Frenchman Guillaume Glairon Mondet. No one else solved #3.

Glairon Mondet couldn’t send problem #4, leaving the door open for Schubert. The Austrian managed to climb the problem on his third attempt, moving to first place with his two tops. His fellow Tyroleans roared as he waved after jumping off the last hold.

For Schubert it was his first victory on Austrian soil. But the competition wasn’t over yet.

While Sharafutdinov was trying problem #4 the speaker announced that there was a problem with Schubert’s last attempt on #3. It had been deemed invalid as he started the problem incorrectly. If that top was invalid then Schubert would drop down to 3rd place.

Apparently, since nobody stopped Schubert during that attempt, the final decision was not to simply take the top away from him, but to give him another chance to climb the problem. He would have to come out again and try the problem for another two minutes. If he sends he wins. Otherwise he’ll get the bronze medal (which, after having tasted the golden one, looked quite unappealing to Schubert and his crowd).

Sharafutdinov topped #4 and disappeared behind the wall. Everyone waited staring at the empty stage. After a few minutes, Schubert came out ready to climb #3 for the second time. He looked focused. The crowd cheered loudly.

Schubert adjusted the beta for the first movements to make sure he could start the problem properly and he moved with confidence and control. He topped the problem making it look way easier than the first time.

Happy ending. Schubert celebrated with excitement and relief. So did the audience. The alternative result would have been a terrible way to end a competition: Schubert in third place after having celebrated the gold. The winner, on top of the podium in a quite awkward spot. The crowd, frustrated after watching his local hero fail for two minutes in a problem they already saw him top.
What a mess this could have been.

How could this happen?
There’s something that we must get out of the way: Was the starting position invalid in the first place? Yes, it was.

A picture of Men's #3 with the starting holds marked

Starting holds on Men’s #3

Problem #3 had three tape marks to define the starting position. According to the IFSC rulebook (pdf file), a problem must have at least two marked spots for the hands and, optionally, up to 4 (two for the hands and two for the feet). They key is that the hands must always be in marked spots (Article 7.9.1). Schubert used two of the spots for his feet and the remaining one for his right hand. His left hand was pressing against an unmarked spot on the wall. That is not a correct starting position.

A Comparison of Schubert's starting positions. Incorrect on the left, correct on the right.

Schubert’s starting positions. Incorrect on the left, correct on the right.

What happens when someone fails to start a problem properly? The judge must “instruct the competitor to stop climbing” (Article 7.9.6). But this time that didn’t happen. My guess is that the judge, along with most of the people in the venue, was too excited to notice the issue.

So was the decision fair?
It is clear that had the judge noticed the incorrect starting position he or she should have stopped Schubert. That would have been the end of it. Schubert had 5 seconds when he started the problem. Seems unlikely that he could have solved it if he had to step off and start again. So he would have been third, with Glairon Mondet and Sharafutdinov in first and second place.

But once Schubert has climbed to the top, celebrated, and the scoreboard updated, the mess was ready. There was no easy solution. Simply correcting the scoreboard would have been quite unfair to Schubert, who got the OK from the judge. But ignoring the incorrect start would have been unfair to everyone else.

Giving Schubert a second chance to climb the problem was probably the best solution. I can’t think of a better one. So yes, the decision was fair and was the best solution available.
Let’s just hope this never happens again. We don’t want things like photo finish or hawk-eye in bouldering. We want the result to as evident as possible. Either you get to the top or you fall to the mat. Simple, clear, without gray areas. And may the route setters be the only ones creating problems ;)

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