These days when people learn I love climbing and have this blog, they inevitably say one of two things:
“Have you seen Free Solo?”
“You must be thrilled that climbing is included in the Olympics now.”
In short, Yes, and, Eh.
Yes, I have seen Free Solo. The climb was incredible, but no, my hands didn’t sweat. Maybe because I wasn’t there filming it. I remember when social media exploded with the news Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan alone without a rope. I read about it a ton. It was spectacular. In fact, I even waited to watch the film until after I read Mark Synnott’s book. (I suspect I was the only person in the world to do this.) And I still liked Jimmy Chin’s Meru more.
And as for the Olympics, I am actually indifferent. I’ve never gotten excited about the summer Olympics and I don’t enjoy competition climbing. Although I climb indoors for fitness and center myself, comp climbing is its own discipline.
In fact, the Olympic comp climbing doesn’t fit into my scope: Here are my guidelines I follow (and regularly break for a rant:) Focus on the essence of the alpine experience, Draw on the power of the mountains, No Mount Everest, No sport or comp climbing.
I’ve heard that potential competitors aren’t pleased with the format. The Olympic Committee requires the 20 male climbers and 20 female climbers to compete in all three events, including lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing. All three events are unique, especially for the climbers. The training and preparation for each event is different. We’re all specialists, or at least we’re specialists at one discipline at a time. Speed climbers are usually just speed climbers and the lead climbers won’t be competitive at speed climbing. Either way, the winner will be the best overall. But even then, it’s not just comp climbing, but Olympic comp climbing.
TSM aside, I think the Olympic adoption of climbing events had plenty to do with the growth of climbing gyms worldwide. In Buffalo, where I grew up, I didn’t have a gym in the 1990s. I had to drive north to Niagara County for an odd climbing gym that only had preset knots in carabiners ready for a harness. Now, Buffalo has a large, upscale Central Rock Gym, like those in the greater Boston area. In fact, for a while, the climbing gym industry was seeing 40 new gyms a year being added across the country.
Climbing’s popularity has grown exponentially and fostered more competition events, coverage on mainstream television stations, and I suspect one day soon I will be buying Five Ten climbing shoes (now owned by Adidas, by the way) for my kids at Dicks Sporting Goods, or — gulp — Target.
I think that the growth in climbing gyms has been wonderful. Again, it goes to my general point and value statement that climbing matters. Whether we want an escape from the urban or suburban wasteland, a vista from a summit, or just found a way to get our body engaged with nature, whatever we seek has been met with climbing somewhere, somehow. Even, for some of us, in the Olympics.