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.