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Aping gibbons to hit the heights

Pioneering German climbing coach Udo Neumann used to walk to school through Cologne Zoo, says Natalie Berry in Wired. By the time he was running the German national bouldering team, a longing to see great apes in the wild drew him to the Sumatran rainforest. “I marvelled at the gibbons’ speed,” he says, “and the jungle’s complexity.” He hypothesised that if gibbons’ neural circuitry is similar to ours, humans should be able to climb faster and more fluidly by apeing them. Now his hunch is being tested on a global stage as the first Olympic climbers take to the wall.

Rock climbing has always been conservative; one misstep could end badly. The dogma was: “Don’t look down, don’t let go.” But as bouldering (climbing close to the ground above crash pads) boomed in the 1970s, the stakes were lowered, so climbers could try more dynamic, risky moves. The sport became competitive in the 1980s, and in the 2010s, competition organisers incorporated “run and jumps”. Simply pushing and pulling with hands and feet was no longer enough – the whole body had to be engaged to generate momentum for “wild leaps”. Top climbers have evolved from “climbing like sloths” to leaping like gibbons, less modern-day pro, “more ancestral ape”.

Tarzan roars out of the skate park

Dallas Oberholzer takes on the teens in Tokyo. Ben Curtis/AP Photo

🛹 Dallas Oberholzer is “no ordinary Olympian”, says Andy Bull in The Guardian. The 46-year-old South African skateboarder says he has never had a proper job, although he was once singer Janet Jackson’s chauffeur. But he has plenty of stories. He once paraglided off Sugarloaf Mountain. And he was nearly eaten by a jaguar in the Amazon – he “roared like some Tarzan crazy man” and luckily the creature bolted.

Then there was the time he walked into a Zulu village, skint but with his skateboard under his arm, and started teaching the kids tricks. “They liked it so much, they ended up giving me a piece of land. If I didn’t have that I would probably be on the streets.” He still lives there, off and on: “I’m the only white person for a 30km radius and the rest of South Africa thinks I’m crazy.”

Now he has a story about the time he competed in the Olympics. “I’m only here because I heard this was coming around about six years ago and I thought to myself, ‘Well, I’ve got nothing else to do, so let’s stick it’.” Oberholzer finished last in his heat, in a field dominated by teenagers. He didn’t care.

🏇 🏅 Laura Collett overcame a near-fatal fall to win gold in Tokyo, says the Daily Mail. The British eventing team star fell off her horse eight years ago at a cross-country competition – only to have it land on top of her. She was in a coma for several days and lost sight in her right eye. She also had a punctured lung, a lacerated liver, a fractured shoulder and two broken ribs. She was discharged from hospital after two weeks, and got back in the saddle on the day she returned home.