BLISTER Symposium: Climbing, Competition, & the Olympics

Marci: Fine. If you were going to tie me up in a dark, concrete room with a single bulb swinging overhead and force me to answer the question, I’d say Yes, put indoor climbing (sport and/or bouldering) in the Olympics.

But clearly, this topic is multidimensional, and I feel like there’s so much still to consider.

I have a million other opinions about the value of indoor climbing vs. outdoor climbing insofar as what inspires me to care or to watch.  And regarding climbing in the olympics, I am skeptical that a climber’s total, all round athletic prowess can be best proven indoors on contrived problems. My answer to this might not be completely fair because I am grossly biased toward climbing outdoors.  Because of this bias, I respect the outdoors as a more authentic, more interesting measure for true mastery of our sport.

Zachary Eannarino:  I don’t want climbing in the Olympics. I love bouldering. I love pushing myself and having my friends push me by doing problems I can’t. I really enjoy watching bouldering comps. I guess I just like it the way it is. People are already out there are pushing themselves and others to find some sort of limit to what is possible.

Sport climbing and bouldering are getting very popular. I can see a huge difference in crowd size in the last few years at my local climbing gym. It’s getting crowded. Don’t get me wrong I’m all for it. Come on in and I’ll be happy to show you around myself. I think it will bring money to climbing gyms and make it easier for them to afford larger, safer, awesomer facilities. I just think the climbing is growing fast enough already and the Olympics will  speed that growth up at a rate I’m not ready for.

I grant that there are a lot of good reasons for climbing to be in the Olympics, but I don’t care. For purely selfish reasons I don’t want climbing in the Olympics. I like having a my little niche sport that very few people understand. I like going to crags and only seeing a few people that I know, or playing the game of figuring out who we both know. I love when coworkers ask me how my climbing trip went, and when I give any detail about awesome climbs, they give me the “Oh……cool……..anyway” response.

Most people don’t understand this sport, and I’m fine with that. There are kid climbing teams at gyms and that’s awesome. I wish I started climbing as a kid. But I don’t want there to be climbing teams at every school. I don’t want to sound like that jerk at the crag or gym who tries to make new climbers feel unwelcome, so I try to be very friendly and welcome anyone who comes in the gym. I just don’t want to welcome too many people.

I’m probably the best climber in my division—the 29 year old male, 6’1”, 185 lb,  Eannarino division. But I’m not going pro any time soon. Maybe if I were a pro I would have a different opinion. So all you recreational climbers out there, let’s all say NO to climbing in the Olympics. NO to lines of people waiting to climb at local areas. NO to more trash and impact at crags. No to people literally shitting all over climbing areas. No to people who saw it on TV and thought they would try it with homemade harnesses and rope they bought at Home Depot.

Hannah Trim: After reading everyone’s responses, I really value the full spectrum of opinions presented. But I think that when it really comes down to it, I don’t want to see climbing in the Olympics. And like Zach, this is most probably due to selfish reasons. I grew up learning climbing skills from tons of passionate folks, and it was really the passion behind what they did that inspired me the most to climb. And to this day, seeing passionate climbers climb–in whatever fashion–is a truly awe-inspiring thing for me to watch.

I agree that climbing is competitive. I think that more often than not, climbers are trying to beat out their friends, beat their personal records, beat the rock, etc. And this is often light-hearted and a great motivational tool. But I don’t think that this has anything to do with the fundamentals of climbing. I’ve found that I climb my best when I’m motivated by the pure act of moving through the holds and motions, by the beauty of the line I’m climbing, by the great company I’m climbing with, and by the places that I’m climbing. I am absolutely motivated by challenge, and try to see how far I can challenge myself, but it’s more of a connection to the climb itself and an attempt to more fully understand all parts involved than it is an attempt to try to beat the rock.

And sure, that probably all sounds like hippie nonsense and philosophical jabber, but the prospect of climbing entering the Olympics makes me worry that these more subtle motivating factors will be lost. I think we’ve all seen the new climber in the gym who builds up muscle quickly and climbs V7 two months after starting to climb. But climbing just seems so much more involved to me than that. It’s a lifestyle. There’s history to it, and legends, and ethics, and things that went wrong that we can learn from.

So while bouldering and sport climbing competitions are full of energy, fun to participate in and captivating to watch, I’m afraid that introducing climbing to the general public in such a way in the Olympics would minimize all of the most important parts of climbing. I’m afraid that it would hype up the competitive aspect and reduce the history and the passion involved in all of the other parts of climbing.

And furthermore, I’m afraid that it would increase climbing popularity. I think that many of us climb because in some way, it’s different than all the other popular sports. And making it mainstream would popularize gyms and possibly overrun popular outdoor sport and bouldering areas, many of which are already facing access issues.

So while I would most definitely watch climbing in the Olympics, and while I think that bouldering/sport climbing competitions would be great formats for the games, ultimately I think that it could seriously detriment climbing as a whole and alter the way in which we think about the sport that we hold onto so dearly.

Jonathan: I definitely understand why it’s hard to get excited about more crowded crags and climbing gyms…

But there seems to be an underlying assumption here that, while you guys were fortunate enough to have good people introduce you to the sport in the right way, *clearly* those newbies who come to climbing – having been inspired, perhaps, by seeing it in the Olympics – are only gonna shit in climbing areas and generally do things the wrong way, kill the best parts of the sport.

But one little question: Don’t you guys – and all climbers – have a responsibility to bring up the newbies in the right way, show them the ropes, exactly as experienced climbers did when you were newbies? Isn’t taking on that pedagogical responsibility one of those “best things about the sport” that you guys want to preserve? And it’s obviously not just your responsibility, it’s every climber’s responsibility.

Dave has often spoken really well about trad climbing’s tradition of passing down received wisdom to the new guy or girl. And in general, I think there is a lot of good will in bouldering and sport climbing, too, where experienced climbers will teach receptive, new climbers how to do things the right way. Zach: you definitely are welcoming to new people at the gym and help them out a ton – I’ve witnessed it over and over. But I think that you and Hannah and Dave are operating on two assumptions that are worth considering:

(1) That you guys don’t have that pedagogical responsibility, and are, therefore, mostly lucky, I guess, that the people who brought you up felt differently.

(2) Somehow, the Olympics would be an event that would deter or disincline new climbers from being open to learning about the right way to do things. (I’m not ready to assume that.)

So I totally get the “It would suck to see the crags and gyms more crowded,” part, but then it seems like some sort of unspoken yet sort of fundamental component of climbing is being compromised on that side, too, no?

Matt Pincus: In terms of whether climbing deserving to be included in the Olympic Games, I’d say that it absolutely does. While I understand the concerns raised about this causing a drastic increase in the popularity of the sport and about the focus being shifted away from the “lifestyle” side of climbing, I see climbing’s popularity exploding already. New gyms are popping up left and right in cities around the country and youth climbing teams, which place the emphasis on competition, are becoming more prevalent and organized.

Sure crags are going to get more crowded, and new access issues are going to arise, but as Jonathan said, it is the responsibility of established climbers to integrate new climbers into the community and teach them how to participate responsibly.  Ultimately, with climbing already exploding in popularity worldwide and the bouldering and sport climbing world cup circuits being so successful, I see inclusion in the Olympics more as a form of recognition than an actual game changer.

For me, the really interesting underlying question here isn’t whether or not climbing should be part of the Olympics, but what competition format creates both the fairest and clearest separation between competitors and provides an interesting and engaging experience for the audience.

Personally, I can sit through hours of competition footage (like the video of that Vail Bouldering World Cup posted above) and find that it has all the drama of most mainstream sports.  For me it doesn’t matter if its a sport climbing or bouldering competition, I enjoy watching the movement, thinking about the setting, and seeing how hard the athletes try.

However, I think for the general public, watching even the best climbers in the world attempt the same sport route or try the same boulder problems over and over again can become a bit monotonous. Ultimately, I don’t think this is an issue for a live audience (there was just a competition in Millau with 20,000 spectators), since a live sporting event always creates its own energy, but more for people watching on tv or the internet. This repetitive nature of competition climbing may be a necessary evil as it seems to be the only way to create a fair competition in which the “best” climber on that given day wins, but I do think that as climbing moves forward it will be a hurdle climbing has to negotiate to appeal to the masses.

I don’t yet have a good answer to this question, but I’m definitely interested to see how it gets addressed in the future.

One attempt will be happening this year at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Trade show, where Chris Sharma is holding the first deep water solo competetion on American soil. Personally, I don’t think there is any way watching the best climbers in the world take fifty foot falls into a pool cannot create an engaging spectator experience.

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:)

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