Zofia Reych is a climbing anthropologist
specialised in writing, research
In love with training and the great outdoors, she believes that the process is more valuable than the achievement.
Her writing has been published by The Guardian, The Huffington Post, Climbing Business Journal, Outdoor Women Alliance, GÓRY Polish Climbing Magazine, and others.
In August the International Olympic Committee announced climbing’s inclusion in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Since then almost everybody within the community has been speculating about what to expect. Chris Sharma called the proposed competition format “a big shame” and Adam Ondra went on to use the word “tragedy”. Whilst the format is definitely controversial, there’s even more to consider.
How did we get here?
Nearly a century ago, a group of alpinists were recognised for “the most beautiful kind of heroism” and awarded silver medals during the world’s first winter Olympiad in Chamonix. This fact is often cited as a historical proof that climbers belong in the Games. In reality however, there’s little continuity between George Mallory’s failed Everest expedition of 1922 and Tokyo 2020.
A much more compelling argument can be built around the modern competition scene. The first international event was held on real rock in Italy in 1985, with Germany's Stefan Glowacz taking home the first ever gold medal. A year later, Edlinger and Destivelle won at the first indoor comp in Lyon. Within just a few years the lead World Cup circuit had emerged. Speed climbing was added in 1988 and a year later - bouldering.
The new, competitive aspect of climbing needed a governing body separate from the UIAA (International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation), and the IFSC was born in 2006. From the outset, newly appointed officials had their sights firmly set on the Olympics.
Last year the IOC made a non-negotiable offer: 40 competitors and only one gold medal. Suddenly the IFSC had a tough decision to make. To make everybody equally happy - or, as it turned out later, equally unhappy - they decided that Olympic climbing should become a kind of triathlon, with the winner determined by combined results from lead, speed and bouldering events.
Speed climbing what?
Although speed climbing may seem a little esoteric, in countries such as Russia, Ukraine and Poland it’s a popular sport with long history. The first competition was reportedly held as early as 1947 in USSR and it was derived from the rich tradition of Soviet mountaineering.
Over time, the discipline has evolved into a duel played out on a slightly overhanging, 15-metre route. Graded around 6b, it’s the same in every competition and training venue around the world. The current record holder, Daniel Boldyrev from Ukraine, runs up the wall in a ridiculous 5.6 seconds.
With speed climbers rarely excelling in bouldering or lead climbing, the Olympic format will put them at a huge disadvantage. Some argue that they might have a hard time even qualifying, although the procedure won’t be revealed until March 2017.
The current World Champion, Marcin Dzieński from Poland, is optimistic: "Everything's just a matter of training. With good coaches and motivated athletes, there’s nothing that can’t be done," he says.
However, he regards the Olympic format as “pointless and counterproductive” and goes on to explain how excellence in one discipline rules out world-class results in at least one other. Nonetheless, he hopes to make the cut in 2020.
The majority of pro comp climbers are of a similar opinion. Daniel Woods called the format “kind of lame” but, like Dzieński, he too is already preparing for the big event. Both hope that the IOC will be willing to offer more in 2024 and allow for the creation of a format that better suits the world’s best climbers. However, for now it’s equally possible that after Tokyo climbing will be dropped from the Olympics altogether. Like all new sports introduced to the Games, it is yet to prove its value to both the audience and the organisers.
Although speed climbing’s inclusion caused the most stir within the community, for a crowd that’s new to the sport, a vertical race might actually be far more spectacular and easier to understand than bouldering or lead. And, as noted by Alex Puccio, it is speed climbers who actually set world records.
Admittedly, not all athletes are as enthusiastic, and Adam Ondra weighed in with a critical voice.
“Competition climbing comes in a straight line from rock climbing, where the idea is to get to the top of a rock [...] That’s the case both in bouldering and lead climbing,” said the Czech champion in an interview for EpicTV.
“Speed climbing is an artificial discipline played out on one standardised route that can be found in hundreds of gyms in the world [...] For me, it doesn’t have much in common with the philosophy of rock climbing. I’m yet to make a decision whether I want to participate [in the Olympics] or boycott it.”
Do we belong here?
For many a salty trad climber, Ondra’s argument can be applied not only to any type of comp climbing but even to bolted routes outdoors. Our community is fragmented and diverse; at one end of the spectrum there’s adventurous new routing in remote areas of the world, and at the other - indoor comp climbing. Traditionalists bemoaning climbing’s inclusion in the Games should note that the IFSC only represents the latter. Still, you don’t have to be a purist to raise an eyebrow at the scandals and controversy often associated with the Olympics.
The world’s greatest sporting event can sometimes seem like the greatest sham. Athletes often pumped full of steroids compete at stadiums built in place of demolished neighbourhoods, often then derelict only months after the closing ceremony. The frequently sexist media coverage is a mere pretext for advertising revenues, and the supposed celebration of athleticism is sponsored by beer, sugary drinks and fast food. What’s more, Olympic ideals are overshadowed not only by consumerism but also by corruption.
Three years ahead of the event, the Tokyo Games is already mired in controversy. Allegedly, Japan’s successful bid to host the event was enabled by mysterious, multimillion-dollar payments to IOC stakeholders. Is this really a world that the climbing community wants to be a part of?
Alternative sports such as surfing, skateboarding or climbing (all three debuting as Olympic disciplines in 2020) are largely characterised by their countercultural, anti-establishment roots. As climbers, we are who we are because our collective identity can be traced back to the fifties in Yosemite, or the seventies and eighties on British grit. And now, lured by the promise of Olympic glory, we’re willing to do away with that heritage.
This is of course only one side of the story. On the other side there are elite athletes for whom the Olympics is a great opportunity. With more mainstream interest comes more sponsorship money that increasingly allows competitors to go pro. Fully focused on training, these climbers could raise the bar in a sport that’s arguably still very far from achieving its full athletic potential. That is, if the money actually materialises.
Rather worryingly, pro free skier Cody Townsend said that nothing good happened to his sport after it had been included in the Winter Olympics in Sochi. After an initial, short-lived spike in interest from sponsors, the free skiing industry has reportedly seen no further gains.
It might in fact be that the IOC needs alternative sports much more than alternative sports need the IOC. In the US, tape-delayed Olympic coverage has lost its charm. Even aired in prime time, the Games can’t compete with the internet. Before the IOC is ready to overhaul its broadcasting system, it’s trying to court a younger audience with the inclusion of new, exciting disciplines. The question is, will we care to watch? Millennials are experts in authenticity; co-opted, commercialised versions of our beloved sports might simply not cut it.
Whether we tune in or not, the Olympics will bring further institutionalisation of our sport. Luckily, whatever gets people involved in physical activity, while learning to take responsibility for their own actions, can’t be a bad thing. In addition, the Games might enable climbing to reach more individuals beyond its traditional white middle-class base.
As a community, we have to make the most of the Olympic hype while safeguarding the values that make climbing what it is. If we like to count inclusivity among them, we should perhaps embrace the Olympic dream too.