BLISTER Symposium: Climbing, Competition, & the Olympics

Welcome to another BLISTER Symposium, where we present a topic to several of our reviewers for discussion, then encourage you to weigh in on the debate.

This conversation began with a pretty straightforward question about climbing and the Olympics, but opened up into a much deeper discussion about climbing and competition in general, climbing ethics, and whether or not climbers have a responsibility to those new to the sport…


Climbing didn’t make the cut for the 2020 Olympic Games.

• Should it have?

• If so, which disciplines would you most like to see included, sport, trad, or bouldering?

• Generally speaking do you think more competitions are good for the sport?


Jonathan EllsworthPersonally, I would absolutely watch Olympic bouldering, and it would be easy to produce, and it’s easy to televise / get good viewing angles. Simply from a logistics point of view, it seems like it would be a bit trickier to pull off Olympic sport or trad.

If you said: Ping Pong vs. Bouldering? (Ok, whatever, “table tennis”.) I’m watching bouldering.

Synchronized (cough: ridiculous) Swimming vs. Bouldering? I’m watching bouldering, no contest.

Biathalon or Bouldering? I don’t care about people with guns and skinny skis. I absolutely would watch bouldering, and I think it deserves to be in the Games. It’s incredibly athletic and dynamic, beautiful to watch, easy to produce logistically, and far more legit than (fill in the blank with any number of stupid Olympic sports).

And I’m not at all ready to say No to sport or trad…

(In case you’ve never watched a climbing comp, this is an excellent one):


Dave Alie: Regarding the Olympics, the form of climbing that was being vetted as a candidate for inclusion was sport climbing. I think bouldering and sport climbing, much more so than trad, lend themselves to competitions. Adding an element of direct competition to trad climbing seems like it might incentivize unsafe practices regarding gear-placement decisions (as in skipping them), so it seems best to restrict ourselves to the competition-friendly forms of the sport: bouldering and sport climbing.

On the surface, I agree with Jonathan: the sport is aesthetic, it involves elements of skill and fitness, and relative success can be measured fairly objectively (highest hold reached, etc.). It’s more fun to watch than half the sports already in the games, and I think the sport has broad enough appeal to support its inclusion.

My objections, however, are rooted in the fact that climbing (and a few other sports, running being an obvious example) is not an organically competitive sport. Meaning the sport doesn’t necessarily involve an element of direct competition. You can’t play soccer (or baseball, or basketball, or tennis, etc.) without playing against an opponent. Sure, you can have lighthearted competition and play for fun, but you’re still playing against someone. This isn’t really true in climbing.

The origins of the sport, and the way the the vast majority of people experience it, are largely without that element of competition, though obvious exceptions exist through climbing history (race to summit everest, and other similar examples). In fact, I might go so far as to say that that’s a major appeal for many climbers.

Sure, you can “compete with yourself” and push yourself to climb harder, and it has many of the trappings of a competitive sport (training, regular exercise, development of technique), and the fact that people climb and different levels makes it tempting to compare and thus compete, but this distinction feels pretty fundamental to me for whatever reason.

Because of this I think that transplanting the sport of climbing from of it’s natural environment and into a carefully manicured arena is to take a very large step away from the nature of the activity. Of course competitions are held currently, and very successfully. I don’t think they shouldn’t be; I enjoy watching them as much as anyone else and I don’t look down on comps or comp climbers at all. But I can’t get past a feeling that competition climbing is intrinsically different than climbing outdoors for it’s lack of the deeply personal motivations that drive many climbers.

I certainly don’t want to bash competitions here, though looking back I worry I’ve done just that. I guess my concern is that advancing the competitive (and more artificial) aspects of the sport blurs an important line. Perhaps I’m having trouble seeing past my own personal motivations and experience, but climbing has traditionally been built on personal value systems (like responsible decision making, overcoming inward-facing challenges, and so forth). Putting Olympic glory on the line and pitting one person against another introduces motivations and incentives that seem to run contrary to the elements of the sport that I consider to be the best and purest things that climbing has to offer.

Marci Eannarino: Dave’s comments were particularly helpful to me as I was trying to frame my own thoughts about climbing (thanks, Dave!). What I find really interesting is his objection to including climbing in the Olympics based on the idea that it lacks an element of natural competition, and that inclusion would perhaps not properly honor the roots of the sport. He goes on to give the example of soccer and other team sports as being intrinsically competitive.

This is compelling to me because it would seem that his use of these sports as the example of having undeniable competitive roots, is predicated on the notion that what makes a sport belong in the Olympics is that the measurement for “winning” be raw besting of another team, and that the nature of the sport should have been, from the dawn of its life, intrinsically competitive in this way.

I love these ideas because they make us think about two things: (1) What makes “competition” in sports, and how do we measure who wins? and (2) How much should we consider a sport’s original form and purpose when we consider it for Olympic inclusion?

Bouldering championships, Blister Gear Review.
2013 IFSC Bouldering World Cup, Summer Mountain Games, Vail, Colorado.

It seems right to say that soccer and some other team sports are organically competitive because they have a clear opponent. And to add to this, these sports are played with rules that are structured such that there is a very clear winner and a very clear loser. Interesting because yes, indeed, we’ve got clear origin in competition and therefore a very easy clarity when it comes to defining the sport as “competitive”.

But then, I wonder what this means for the Olympic worthiness of many of our classic Olympic sports like gymnastics, swimming, cycling, diving. The metric for determining winners and losers in sports like swimming and cycling are speed, and for sports like diving and gymnastics, we have judges. Were all of these sports designed for competition at their birth? I don’t think so. Does a sport need to have clear rules for winning from its origin to be included in the Olympics?

If I had to form an opinion on this, I would say Absolutely Not, because for me, the Olympics is about celebrating human athletic endeavor and the beauty that goes with perfecting one’s athletic artform. Also, for me, the olympics are about the human trial and tribulation of athletes both in the Olympic contest itself and in the often Herculean struggle many of these athletes undergo to achieve greatness at an elite level long before the Olympic contest actually happens.

I would also add that for me, including a sport in the Olympics is not about staying chaste to the sentiment of the sport’s origin or its intrinsic competitiveness; nor is it about whether or not the rules for winning and losing came later in the history of the sport for practical reasons of measuring who has best perfected the art of that sport.

So for me, I’d most want to ask whether or not climbing could add to the games by way of celebrating human athleticism and achievement.

I think that we are also working with what it means for a sport to be competitive.

To say that climbing is not naturally competitive as a sport is, I think, not quite true. I would say that modern climbing today is actually steeped in competition. Climbing media like magazines and extreme sports adventure films are possibly responsible for this because, like lots of our media out there, these things define success and tell us who and what is rad when it comes to our sport. They also play on the human impulse and desire to want to be the one of the elite best at things. Anyway, it seems that always in the magazines and in the media surrounding climbing is coverage of who’s hot right now, who’s done the hardest climb, and who’s been on the top of what rock or mountain.

And climbers are always talking about who sent what and where, and how “strong” that guy or gal is….

To add to this, the coveted FA (First Ascent) is proof of competitive underpinnings in the sport. It’s just another version of wanting to cross the finish line before the other competitiors. And I would add that wanting to be the first human to do X is actually true of every sport there is.

Does this mean that we as climbers are all competitive and slathering and mouth breathing to get the FA? No. Climbers, just as in other sports, have a huge variety of reasons for climbing, and I think the folks who are sending the hardest stuff or who get to claim an FA on some proud line are actually an elite few. But to say that these few are not shaping and directing our sport by being the first to do whatever it is and demonstrating to us where the inspiring new human limit is for the sport would be disingenuous.

I think it is true to say that many of us compete with ourselves. But I would say that without these folks who are “competing” to cross the proverbial finish line first, our sport would not be as we know it today, because without these “competitors,” we might not have a way of measuring our own progress in terms of grades, speed for ascents, or whatever it is…

Another thought is that climbing is not unique in that I think all athletes, no matter what sport they find themselves in love with, are pursuing it for private, personal reasons. Climbing itself is rewarding for some because we overcome things like experiencing terror or defeat in order to accomplish things that we did not think possible before. But I felt the same feelings as a gymnast, as an equestrian, or on my summer soccer league team even though the these sports are a bit different than climbing.

So I’m thinking that part of the beauty of all sports, olympic and non-olympic alike, is overcoming personal trials in order to come to a place of mastery and to take the sport to the level of art, no matter if you started climbing yesterday or have been at it for decades.

We might find that some people pursue climbing for its compelling “value systems,” as Dave calls them, and this is a beautiful thing. But I might take Dave’s thread of thought about value systems and say that all sports have “value systems,” regardless of whether or not they are in the olympics, so I can’t get to a place of factoring this into whether or not to include climbing in the olympics.

Do I actually think that climbing belongs in the olympics? I actually have no idea. I think that I’ll stop talking now, but I think that there is still conversation to be had about whether or not putting climbing in the olympics will catapult it into mainstream, money-grubbing sport land, and we may want to ask what would that do to the sport.

I may be wrong, but I think much of the spirit in American climbing culture is a little countercultural, a little anti-establishment, and a little about not conforming…What do you guys think? I think I might be bringing this up because our modern olympic games seem so highly commercialized to me. And to put climbing in the olympics we might find some who would view this as a “sell out” on some level. There are also (to me) obvious questions of sustainability and environmental ethic regarding impact involved in this conversation… but this might be for another day!

Jonathan: I’m jumping back in, cause I can’t help myself. I definitely see where Dave is coming from, and he makes some excellent points. But Marci made a couple of points that, for me, are the primary reasons why I’d like to see at least bouldering – and also sport climbing – in the Olympics. (I’ll accept Dave’s argument against trad climbing).

She says, “the Olympics is about celebrating human athletic endeavor and the beauty that goes with perfecting one’s athletic artform. Also, for me, the Olympics are about the human trial and tribulation of athletes both in the Olympic contest itself and in the often Herculean struggle many of these athletes undergo to achieve greatness at an elite level long before the olympic contest actually happens.” And, “I’d most want to ask whether or not climbing could add to the games by way of celebrating human athleticism and achievement.”

I love that definition of the Olympics. Maybe I’m being naive, and that understanding / meaning of the Olympics is dead and gone. But if we think that Marci has articulated one of the best, highest ways to think about the Games, then I would still want to argue that the sport of climbing meets these aims as completely and beautifully as any sport out there. Literally.

Climbing is special. It involves so much struggle, so much overcoming, it is so athletic, so graceful. It is not about memorizing and executing a difficult routine, or performing the sickest trick, or simply being the fastest, or simply being able to lift the most weight, it’s about drawing on a deep reserve of resources: balance, power, the preservation of energy, problem solving, overcoming doubt and fear (often multiple times on the very same climb), blocking out pain, problem solving and remaining calm while in pain… It’s an amazing sport, and at bottom – and this is actually where I’m really going with all of this – yes, I want climbing to become more mainstream.

I definitely appreciate Dave’s worries and concerns, but would accept those risks in the interest of exposing more people to this sport, to witness all that I’ve just described, and to go give it a try. I’d like there to be more kids with posters of their favorite climbers up in their rooms, not just football and basketball and soccer players.

I can see the downside of busier and busier crags, but I think a world where more people are climbing, undertaking the discipline of climbing, is a better world.

I’d love to see more urban climbing centers / gyms. Skiing is stupid expensive. So is mountain biking. Bouldering requires a pair of shoes and some chalk. And even if you’re in a crowded urban environment, far from any mountains or trails, it’s not hard to build good climbing walls.

This sport ought to go more mainstream, and the Olympics seems like an awfully good platform / launch pad to help make that happen.

Oh, And Marci, you really ought to answer the damn question: Yes or No – if you had the power to put bouldering or sport or trad into the Olympics, would you? I can see reasons for or against, and you’ve laid them out incredibly well. But would you? I’m thinking you’d say Yes, but I’d like to either hear you say it out loud, or correct me and say why, ultimately, you’d go Thumbs Down.)

1 comment on “BLISTER Symposium: Climbing, Competition, & the Olympics”

  1. I think climbing should have made the olympic cut.I was very upset when it did not:( I would love to watch sport and bouldering. I do realize that speed will probably make it in first because it is fast and exciting.Best would be all 3!!:) I personally enjoy watching compettions. I would like to say that when you compete in climbing it is for yourself, but ultimately with competitive spirit you are trying to do better than your challengers,and as an Olympian youre competing for your country:)

Leave a Comment