The Olympics and How Sport Climbing Won’t Change the World

Summer Olympics: noun, an international competition and public spectacle of nations in various sports that usually have little or no interest to serious alpinists.

Sport Climbing: noun, a sub par version of rock climbing that disregards the unwritten idea that climbing is not a spectator sport and is often the subject of scoffing and jokes from serious alpinists; See via ferrata.

The idea of adding climbing events to the Olympics comes up periodically, particularly during the games. I have one question — that lead way to several more: Would it benefit climbing?

To add climbing, it would have to be sport climbing, because that’s the only way to make it competitive; same “course,” same bolted wall or boulder problems. Plus, sport climbers are already accustomed to having impartial (and partial) judges. It’s also already suited to the international style of Olympic events.

This however, limits the interest and, by extension, the support from other climbers that don’t embrace sport climbing. It’s ultimately up to the International Olympic Committee and they run the big show like a business; I would guess that they’re wondering (perhaps doubting) whether the market audience is sufficient enough to make it worthwhile.

Getting the rest of us to be interested in sport climbing is a bit of a stretch. While we embrace similar skills and heritage, the two fundamental differences between sport climbing with other types of climbing — mainly trad and various styles of mountaineering — is our emphasis on the place of spectators and the form of competition.

Climbing for me, at least, has been historically a private affair. I’d go to the Adirondacks or Chugach and talk about it with other climbers or with people I considered intimate friends — people that would understand. Climbing isn’t typically something we evangelize.

And despite that sport climbing injects rules where freedom of stylistic expression is highly valued in other forms of climbing, it’s appeal is sometimes broader than we might give it credit for. Take this example: A couple of weeks ago, a friend and reader I correspond with said despite not being a sport climber, it sure was nice to go out and clip some bolts. I scoffed initially, but I knew what she meant. Despite my commitment to alpine and trad climbing, I do… er… recognize that sport climbing has it’s place.

I generally haven’t liked the idea of sport climbing. Climbing by placing and removing pro whenever possible is not only good ethics for the environment, I think it’s essential to climbing in the wilderness. And sport climbing isn’t wilderness. It’s the equivalent of following a paved path for some compared to open tundra. That’s an exaggeration, but one some feel is a good analogy.

Adding sport climbing in the Olympics would clearly benefit sport climbing, but I don’t think it needs the Olympics to be successful. Climbing also prides itself in being sub-cultural, or at least appearing to be separate from whatever is popular in the mainstream. An Olympic event might counter that.

But it’s possible that having sport climbing as an Olympic event would benefit other forms of climbing. The stage of the Olympics is enormous with a broader audience than the normal international sport climbing stage — particularly in North America and likely elsewhere too. Take David Lama of Switzerland for example. He is now an alpinist for his work in Patagonia but most of his career has been spent in sport climbing competitions — indoors.

Since we appreciate mountaineering and mountain climbing (to the highest point) in particular, attracting talent through sport climbing’s various stages — recruitment conduits, perhaps — we might see what the future of climbing is from stadium seating. While the future can’t be determined precisely, the evolution of greater and greater challenges lies in bigger, harder and colder routes. Maybe this is a way to get there.

And thank you for dropping by yet again. If you got something out of this post, you might want to consider following me on Facebook or Twitter because I believe climbing matters, even though we work nine to five.

One last note… My use of the word “serious” in the definitions earlier was probably superfluous; true alpinists are driven and serious by the nature of the pursuit.


6 thoughts on “The Olympics and How Sport Climbing Won’t Change the World

  1. First, I think it’s unfair to define sport climbing as a “sub par version of rock climbing.” Everyone has a different vision of what climbing means to them. For some this includes sport climbing, for some it doesn’t, but I think this division within the climbing community is arbitrary and a bit juvenile. (FWIW, 99% of my climbing is of the trad variety. Mainly because of this I have had the opportunity to see more then my fair share of ignorance regarding gear placement, anchor building, etc. Folks just transitioning from gym climbing should probably stick to sport climbing until they make the investment in properly learning to trad climb. This is one of the main reasons that I see a very valid role for sport climbing in the realm of climbing at large.)
    As regards climbing becoming an Olympic sport, my main concern would be the impacts to already sensitive ecosystems from a flood of new people entering the sport after being “inspired” watching it as an Olympic event. Since this kind of impact could great access problems, I think it’s worth considering how to handle this issue before it becomes an Olympic sport. ironically this is one of the advantages of sport climbing. Since it is essentially a “paved road” one can choose where to concentrate the impacts and leave the wilderness less impacted.
    Also as regards the opinion you express, I believe it is a very “American” opinion of climbing and what that is. In Europe, there is less distinction between sport and trad,mits just climbing. Since the Olympics are an international event, I doubt many involved would make the distinction that it is only sport climbing.

  2. You bring up another great point, Betty. If it were added as an event, would the sport grow and what would the impact on the environment be? That’s an interesting risk. Thanks for that.

  3. I don’t know why the climbing community thinks the sport needs to be taken to the next level. I think the sport is in a good place right now. People are climbing that never would have before either because of indoor climbing gyms or it being more visible online. I think adding the sport to the Olympics would make your local crags over crowded and ultimately more dangerous because of uneducated people trying to be the next rockstar. Now for sport climbing getting a bad rap it always has. Sport clilmbing is the safest way for someone with no climbing experience to get started. You have to start somewhere, I did. Although I would love to see it in the Olympics because I love climbing so much to see it on that level would be awesome. Of course I am all over the place with this topic.

  4. Well, I’m not a sport climbing fan, and I don’t think adding it to the Olympics would set the world afire with climbing fever. But I do think it will open the way to introducing climbing — something that is quite wonderful — to some we wouldn’t otherwise reach. I say this by taking a great deal of faith because sport climbing culture, especially at comps, I find distasteful. Climbing is a skill, and it’s also like a religion, at least for me, and it’s best practiced in wilderness. I wish more people could see that.

    As for good news about your concerns, I don’t think the climbing community has rallied to promote sport climbing. It has been limited to some within the sport climbing space.

  5. You are absolutely right about the group of people generally associated with sport climbing. Let me rephrase that, the group of people that sport climbing attracts. Unfortuantely that just comes with the territory. I would prefer to be out there climbing mountains and putting up trad and ice routes but unfortunately were stuck in an area that doesn’t have that. I am just saying that I am trying to enjoy what I have around me until I can get somewhere to do the thing that I really want to. Anyway I really enjoy your website and following you on twitter, hopefully we can sit down sometime and really talk about what we love and want to do in the sport.

  6. I would prefer to put up some trad routes and climbing mountains too.

    Thank you for the compliment, John. I would definitely like to catch up (preferably over a craft beer) and talk climbing.

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