Horses for Courses: Climbing in the Olympics

To me, the Olympic Games are the Cold Sore of sporting events. They pop up every now and again, make a nuisance of themselves, and then go back into hibernation for another 4 years. If only the same could be said for Christmas…

I truly find it difficult to muster any interest for the Olympics. I don’t necessarily buy the whole “virtues of humanity” narrative, given the ongoing doping scandals and the relentless march of commercialisation which has swamped what was originally a showcase for amateur athletes.

But I digress…

The recent announcement that Competition Climbing will be included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games is a huge development for the sport. Together with baseball, skateboarding, karate and surfing, this has been a calculated move on behalf of the International Olympic Committee to “take sport to the youth.” In the face of waning interest, the IOC has taken steps to keep the games current and relevant.

The first reaction from the climbing community was one of jubilation. It was reported with enthusiasm by outdoor media outlets such as Rock and Ice and Climbing. It was tweeted and re-tweeted by many professional climbers, particularly those whose talents fall largely within the realm of competition climbing such as Sasha DiGiulian, Shauna Coxey and Ashima Shiraishi.

“Today is a historic day for our sport!” wrote Coxey on Instagram.

And then, there was the inevitable backlash. It’s the internet, folks. This is how it works.

The first, and admittedly a minor criticism of the inclusion of climbing into the Olympics is that it will make the sport “too mainstream”. Folks who say this are either decrepit old fools climbing on hexes and hemp ropes, or hipster fuckheads with nothing better to do. Either way, they are wrong. Climbing is already mainstream – case in point, it already proved popular enough to even be considered as an Olympic sport.

Sure, more climbers crowding our crags is not the most ideal situation. But gyms are being built everywhere, every week. Given what I’ve seen in most gyms, the conversion from gym climbing to outdoor climbing is far, far less than 100%. And in any case, this wistful reminiscing back to “better times” belies the fact that more participants ALWAYS elevates the level of competence and achievement within any sport.

With that out of the way, it seems like the chief criticism of the inclusion of climbing into the XXXII Olympiad is that the format is unfair. According to an article which appeared on Climbing.com, “The climbing event will include three disciplines: sport, bouldering, and speed. 40 climbers (20 men and 20 women) will compete over four days, and the medallists will be chosen based on the combined results of all three disciplines.”

The dissent against this triple-threat style format came thick and fast. Everyone from Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra to Timmy McPlastichold who onsights V1’s at your local bouldering gym had something to say on the matter.

“Combined format is the great tragedy for our sport,” argues Sharma. “I think that Olympics is an amazing thing for climbing, but honestly, no other choice could have been worse than combined format. It is just sad to see lead climber on the speed route and speed climber on lead route. It is embarrassing for the climbers because they are on a completely different level. Athletes are going to be forced to train what they do not specialize in.”

Ok, folks… are you ready? If you take the red pill, you’ll close this article and go on with your life as a blissfully uninformed peanut. If you take the blue pill, I’m going to drop some hard truths on you…

Firstly, Competition Climbing (as will appear in the Olympics) has erroneously been referred to as Sport Climbing. This excerpt comes from Wikipedia:

“Sport climbing is a form of rock climbing that relies on permanent anchors fixed to the rock, and bolts placed on rappel and/or with cordless power hammer drills for protection.”

I call your attention to one specific word within that sentence: Rock.

Some would seek to denigrate gym rats, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Competition climbing has its place. It is an athletic sport, where competitors can push the limits of human ability in a safe environment.

Alpinism, by contrast, is none of those things. It is a patently unsafe, unsexy enterprise where the limitations come from objective risk, altitude, technical difficulty, mental acuity, experience and a whole swag of other variables.

There was an abortive attempt to include alpinism into the Olympics in the early 20th century, but it didn’t take. This was for many reasons, some of them ideological, but principally the two activities will never be compatible. This incompatibility has only been compounded over time – just think of the logistical difficulties of trying to film the heats. That’s where competition climbing shines – a homogenous, static climbing environment where the only true variable is the athletic skill of the individual athlete.

Now, I seem to be waffling slightly, as is my wont when I’m a little bit fired up. But the point I am getting at here is that climbing covers an incredibly broad spectrum of activities, skills and techniques. Bouldering, mountaineering, trad, aid, and yes, even gym climbing, are all forms of climbing. How then do we unite all these disparate skill sets in order to place them into a mainstream athletic condition?

For all those who think they know a better way of incorporating these skills – you don’t. This decision by the IOC wasn’t made in a vacuum. It was made in concert with the International Federation of Sport Climbing following deep consultation.

“We are so happy that Sport Climbing (sic) will be participating in the Games of Tokyo,” said IFSC President Marco Scolaris.

You’ll notice that he didn’t say “Well, shit. I sure would have liked the opinion from a bunch of slack-jawed idiots on Facebook before making my proposal to the IOC.”

The combined format is a conscious effort to insert climbing into the Olympics in a palatable manner. It provides a short, sharp competition in what is essentially the world’s most hectic sports carnival. It provides spectacle for climbers and non-climbers alike. It introduces the sport to a larger audience, whilst at the same time allowing high-level competition climbers to become Olympians. And most importantly, it allows climbing to get a foot in the door… I’m certain the IFSC has plans to tweak or expand the format, should it prove successful from the outset.

With all that said, I still doubt I’ll watch the event. That’s not necessarily a complaint as it is a lack of interest that hinges upon my focus on other areas of climbing. As talented as Ondra and Sharma are, hard sport climbers complaining about needing a broader skill set to compete should be taken with a huge grain of salt, perhaps even a whole shaker.

At some point, the sport of climbing went so far down the rabbit hole of weird, specific niches that we forgot what climbing was all about. Our heroes aren’t boulderers who could stick a fuckin’ sweet mono… they’re the all-rounders and the pioneers of yore, the Lionel Terray’s and the George Leigh Mallory’s. I certainly don’t hear Steve House or Ueli Steck complaining about the varied terrain types presented to them on landmark ascents of epic Himalayan faces.

I have no complaints about a combined format which encourages a more holistic approach to climbing as a sport. If a few pebble wrestlers get upset along the way, that’s water off a duck’s back to me. Specialisation is all well and good, but true climbing mastery comes from embracing your flaws and improving upon your weaknesses.

It’s a matter of horses for courses… If you want to compete (or watch others compete) in specific formats such as the IFSC World Cup, there is nothing stopping you. The Olympic format, however, will be different.

The medallists in Tokyo won’t be those who spend the most time pissing and moaning about the format. They’ll be those who train diligently as versatile and accomplished climbers. You can either follow their example, or you can stick to top-roping the rainbow route.

*Drops Mic*

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
August 2016

*Correction*
In a previous edit, I erroneously reported that Alpinism was never an Olympic event. Turns out, I’m a tool and this is a subject that probably warrants an entire article of its own! This gap in my knowledge was passed on to me by Simon from Vertical Life, who remains skeptical about the inclusion of climbing in the Olympics but agrees that the development is “interesting”. Apologies to all concerned.

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?