Climbing On The Up

It’s been a big week for the sport i love. It has now officially been announced that climbing will, in four years time, be included in the Olympic programme. With a combination of Sport Climbing, Speed Climbing and Bouldering, the sport will soon take it’s place among the elite competitions in the world.

The news has had a mixed reception, though, with many climbers not reacting with the enthusiasm that many other sports ordinarily would. Other changes around the sport have also had a mixed reaction. So what’s actually happened? And why the long faces?

The Olympics and it’s traditions

Let’s start by taking a look at the Olympics. The first international Olympic Games of the modern era was held in Athens in 1896 with only nine sports taking part.  Four years later in Paris, this had grown to nineteen and the games have continued to evolve ever since. In Rio di Janeiro in 2016, the number will return to 28, following a drop to 26 in London in 2012.

The number of sports often fluctuates with each games, every four years. In 2002, The International Olympic Committee put a cap on the number of sports at 28, although that may be due to change, with the five new sports, including climbing, not set to replace any of the existing 28 sports currently about to take place in Brazil this summer.

However, the IOC is set to review the existing sports where “Discussions on the event programme in the existing 28 Olympic sports for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 are ongoing, and will be finalised by the IOC Executive Board in mid-2017” according to the IOC website.  Likewise, there is no guarantee that any of the new sports will maintain their Olympic status past Tokyo.

What is certain is that sport climbing, along with surfing, skateboarding, karate and baseball combined with softball with have their chance to demonstrate their appeal to the wider world. With the IOC continually reviewing the programme of included sports, every new sport is gathering excitement at this opportunity.

Climbing’s Previous Inclusions

While competition climbing has never been included in the Olympic agenda previously, there is a precedent of receiving Olympic medals for notable ascents.

In the 1924 Winter Olympics, thirteen members of the Everest expedition from two years previous were awarded medals for mountaineering, despite not reaching the summit, with a further eight mountaineers of the same expedition similarly honoured latterly.

During the London Olympics in 2012, British mountaineer Kenton Cool made good a promise by the original expedition and took one such medal to the summit of Everest. The promise had been made by the expedition’s leader, Lt Col Edwards Strutt to place one of the medals atop the mountain and came among a wave of Olympic interest around the UK as the country hosted the games for the first time in 64 years.

Other medals have been awarded linking the sport and the organisation, although comprehensive records are scant. Most notable may be Swiss couple Gunter and Hettie Dyhrenfurth, who were awarded medals at the 1936 Olympics. Meanwhile, Reinhold Messner was recognised for his achievements in Calgary by the IOC.

These medals do not feature in the official medal tables, though, and Tokyo 2020 will be the first time climbing in a competitive scene will take place while associated with the five famous rings.

What Else Has Changed

In the UK at least, changes had already begun to be made before this announcement. The governing body overseeing rock climbing, hillwalking and other mountain activities, the British Mountaineering Council, recently announced a radical name change to Climb Britain. While these are not officially directly related, many believe the timing of the change was more than coincidental, being only ten days from the Olympic announcement.

The official line from supporters such as Sir Chris Bonington was that the organisation needed to “move with the times” while the BMC itself, on it’s website, states: “The switch to Climb Britain will create exciting opportunities to extend our reach and influence in future years”

The reaction from the climbing community was not particularly welcoming. Many took to social media to object to the change, leading to BMC CEO Dave Turnbull to offer a statement on “the level of interest there would be in our Climb Britain announcement“. Meanwhile, many commentators made the link and further assumption that the changing face of the nearly 72-year old organisation would reflect a similar change in focus.

This has been ardently denied. On a page of “facts” on the BMC website, the response to the question “Is this to get Olympic funding?” the response was thus:

No. This decision is not connected to the Olympic bid – although it has come around at a similar time. The consultation was funded by Sport England who fund grass roots, mass participation and non-elite level sport. UK Sport covers the top end of Britain’s sporting pathway: supporting athletes and sports to compete and win medals at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Nevertheless, for a lot of British climbers, shown through the forums, this is still not an acceptable change for one of the governing bodies.

The Bid for Inclusion

Climbing’s inclusion isn’t from a lack of effort. One such campaign group to be championing the sport has been Climb 2020 who have made it their quest to “raise greater awareness of the sport and unite climbing communities across the UK in support of this Olympic proposal”.

Backing includes many athletes from the GB competition circuit and prominent members of the BMC, although this isn’t much of a surprise, with people such as Rob Adie, the BMC Walls and Competitions officer, who is quoted as saying,

“I thing it’s going to be fantastic project and not only good for climbing communities but a great way of reaching out to people who don’t know much about the sport”

Constrastingly to the Climb Britain debate, UKClimbers seen largely taken with the decision to include climbing as an Olympic sport, mainly not agreeing with the format. There seem to be two areas of discontent.

The first being the inclusion of Speed Climbing, although this may be largely due to the lack of participation in this discipline in the UK. In the US, it seems it is more of an accepted form of climbing competition, bridging the gap between climbing competition and more mainstream sports.

It is also seen by many as more appealing to the general public – something which is obviously crucial to the success of including any new sport in the programme. With speed climbing being described as “a crazy fast time, with a very frantic announcer” by websites such as Action in Solitude and you can see why the IFSC would be encouraged to add speed climbing to the more traditional facets.

The other major complaint is the awarding of medals. Currently, the format proposes medals going to the best competitor over the three disciplines, rather than medals for bouldering, sport and speed climbing individually. For some like Shauna Coxsey, the only British winner of the Bouldering World Cup to date, this becomes a distinct disadvantage, as she eludes to in an interview with the Guardian newspaper. 

“I’m a boulderer so I would have to adapt to compete in the two other disciplines” she is quoted as saying, although points out, “this could be a positive thing”.

Nevertheless, with most climbers these days specialising in one discipline over others, this seems a decision made by those not heavily involved in the sport.

The Rise of Climbing

What is undeniable, whatever the outcome of climbing’s Olympic inclusion, is the rise in profile for the sport. The BBC, an organisation normally overwhelmed with constant news from more mainstream sports, has already started showing more of an interest. After Shauna Coxsey’s recent results, she made headline news. As further recognition, she found herself honoured in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

It is hard to deny that climbing has been on the rise in the UK for quite some years lately; with the IFSC competition circuit gathering momentum, more Brits being involved and coverage available for all to watch. The sport has even begun to infiltrate mainstream life, appearing in advertisements for all sorts from batteries to panty liners.

The growth in indoor climbing has had a further upturn in the last few years, with many more opening up all the time. In 2005, Birmingham, one of the largest cities in the UK, was serviced by a single wall, the Rockface, which closed rapidly and unexpectedly. Now, a little over ten years later, there are at least three, with more within easy commuting distance into nearby Wolverhampton and yet more potentially to be added in the near future.

Not For Everyone

While the new method of experiencing the sport through indoor walls first may not sit well with a lot of the old fraternity, it is becoming an increasingly popular route. There is no doubt that this latest development to a sport that dates back well over 100 years will add more to this discipline.

But of course, the two paths for the modern climber aren’t easy to combine together. One such example is Alex Honnold, who pointed out his lack of desire to become a member of the competition circuit in an interview with Reuters.

He points out,

“It’s like asking an ultra marathoner if he’d like to win a 100-meter sprint. Sure, it sounds cool to win the Olympics, but I’ve already gone down a different path”

Meanwhile, some climbers are able to walk both paths, from back with Jerry Moffat in the 1980s to even Daniel Woods, who stated on his Instagram account:

I started out as a competition climber where numbers and podium finishes were the only thing that mattered. Eventually, I found a love for the outdoors and the competition came from within rather than with others

Whatever your opinion, one thing is for sure: those not taken with competitive climbing will find plenty of solitude out in the crags and mountains…


Further Reading

IOC approves five new sports…

Climbing Going For Gold – BMC

Sport Climbing Olympics Bound! – IFSC


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