The strange and uneasy tale of Olympic Climbing

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the big news… Climbing has officially been gazetted as an Olympic sport. The Games of the XXXII Olympiad will be the first to feature competition climbing, and opinions vary widely on the validity of the controversial format which combines the lead, speed and bouldering disciplines in a single vertical jamboree.

But contrary to popular belief, Tokyo 2020 won’t be the first time climbing has appeared in the Olympics, nor has it been the first time that the inclusion has met with controversy. Until recently, I was completely oblivious to these facts and an embarrassing gap in my climbing history knowledge was subsequently revealed to me by a fellow writer. Sufficiently chastened, I have attempted to right this wrong through research and education. Herein are the fruits of my labour.

The inclusion of Alpinism in the modern Olympics may prove surprising to some, myself included. As a sport, it is vastly different to mainstream competitions and athletic pursuits in a myriad of ways, not least the absence of a cohesive system of rules and regulations. And as an Olympic sport, it fails as a spectator event and therefore as a commercial opportunity. The cynics among us would note that advertising helps drive the modern Olympics, and an advertisement without an audience is about as useful as a condom with air holes.

Yes, gone are the days when the Olympics were an excuse for Greek men to oil themselves up and grapple each other’s naked bodies in a field. Nowadays, it’s an international juggernaut, a well-milked cash cow with the International Olympic Committee pulling at the udder.

Pierre De Courbertin and his impeccable moustache, circa 1925. Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

But it wasn’t always so. When Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the IOC in 1894, it seemed that his vision for the Games was somewhat loftier than mere competition. He saw the Olympics as a means to promote his philosophical ideals, stating that “the important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” These sentiments trivialise victory, and therefore allow for a loose interpretation of suitable events.

Aeronautics and Alpinism were two of the many unusual enterprises which Coubertin deemed worthy of inclusion. He himself won Gold Medal for Literature at the 1912 Summer Olympics with his poem “Ode to Sport”. These pursuits (one hesitates to call them sports) epitomised Coubertin’s ideology.  His intent was that the Olympics should be a showcase for the virtues of mankind, a narrative which continues to accompany the Games today despite drastically altered circumstances.

The first Olympic award for Alpinism was given at the 1924 Winter Games at Chamonix, France. It was given to General Bruce’s Everest expedition, which although unsuccessful, represented the zenith of achievement in Himalayan mountaineering at the time.

It was then given out sporadically over the following decades before being dropped entirely in 1946. Initially, IOC claimed to remove their support for the award due to safety concerns. According to an official report of the 1936 Berlin Games, the committee felt that “presenting of prizes for mountain climbing encourages young people to undertake dangerous exploits.”

On the surface, this rationale holds true in comparison to mainstream sports, but I suspect that the weirdness that followed was the result of more nuanced catalysts. Climbing and the Olympics had always been uneasy bedfellows, and now it seemed like the relationship was to undergo further strain.

The rising tide of commercialisation has changed the tone of the Olympics over the decades. It began modestly, with a number of companies such as Kodak, Oxo and Coca Cola seeking advertising space. This aspect of the games became increasingly important as the international audience increased, aided by the advent of the television.

The issue arguably came to the fore with the retirement of IOC President Avery Brundage in 1972. He had been a staunch supporter of the amateur code, stating that “We can only rely on the support of those who believe in the principles of fair play and sportsmanship embodied in the amateur code in our efforts to prevent the Games from being used by individuals, organizations or nations for ulterior motives.”

When Brundage stepped aside, the floodgates opened. Under the leadership of his successor, Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Committee began to seek increased funding by international sponsors, eventually leading to the commercial vicegrip we see today.

This rising tide of commercialisation naturally led to the inclusion of professional athletes into the Games. Coubertin believed that the professionalization of athletes as “undercutting the morality of the competition”, a philosophy which Brundage upheld. Nevertheless, 1986 saw the IOC allow the inclusion of professional athletes in a move designed to increase viewership. And it worked.

Memorial for Polish Climbers – Rafal Cholda, Czeslaw Jakiel and Jerzy Kukuczka – who lost their lives on Lhotse. Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

In the same year, elsewhere on the globe, Reinhold Messner became the first man to summit each peak above 8000m. The following year, Polish mountaineer Jerzy Kukuczka became the second man to “close the loop”. They were both awarded Silver Medals of the Olympic Order for their troubles at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, the first such prize in 52 years. Each climber had a different reaction to the award.

Messner refused the award. He saw alpinism as a form of “creation, not competition”. In other words, Messner’s views on the Olympics and on Alpinism were at an ideological impasse. He declared that he valued the art of climbing more than the competition, and saw the rampant commercialisation of the Games as being at odds with the spirit of alpinism.

Kukuczka, on the other hand, accepted the award. He recognised the competitive aspect which had personally motivated him to complete the Herculean task. “If not for that, maybe I would never have climbed,” he admitted.

It could be argued that both views hold some truth in them and that alpinism is a tricky beast to nail down. How is one to judge such a slippery mix of art and science?

If the recent inclusion of climbing for the Tokyo Games is anything to go off, then the answer has been to remove the “art” component from the formula entirely. Competition climbing is arguably an athletic pursuit, not a spiritual and philosophical one such as can be found in the big ranges of the Himalaya and Karakorum. Once free of these vague and esoteric characteristics, climbing becomes black and white – something which can be compared, contrasted, judged and awarded. Whether or not this is beneficial for the sport is another question entirely.

Competition Climbing as it appears in the Olympic Games was never going to be without controversy. There will be supporters, there will be detractors, and then there will be those on the fence. Whichever category you fall into, one thing is for certain – interesting times are ahead of us.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
August 2016


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