The case against climbing becoming an Olympic sport


Should climbing be an Olympic sport?

Apparently last week some guy at the ‘International Federation of Sport Climbing’ (whatever that is) announced that they are putting forward a multi discipline format to the IOC in with the hope that a sugar-coated spectator-friendly approach to climbing will help them pick climbing as an Olympic sport.

It is my opinion that this is a bad idea.

BMC Olympics 2020
Two organisations that will probably see financial gain..?

This is why;

1. The people pushing this through, in the most part, are doing it for narrowly-focused personal or organisational gain not for what is best for the global climbing community.

Thanks to political zeal, Olympic sports can be rather well funded; which can give a great cash-boost for climbing-focused organisations (of the right kind) across the world. Regardless whether the heads of these organisations truly believe that it will be better for climbing over-all,  to ignore the potential of this sort of cash boost for generally cash-strapped organisations seems to be tantamount to professional misconduct. It really wouldn’t be.

“This could give a great boost to organisations and provide more jobs within the sport” I hear you say? Put simply this sector-building argument comes from a selfish drive for constant growth and, constant growth is not necessarily a good thing, it is only the corrupting pressure of money that makes people think it is.

The suggestion that more money going into climbing has to be a good thing depends on where that money goes and how you would like to see climbing develop as a whole.

Personally, when I think about the climbing experience, I think of climbing big walls under azure skies, freezing while battling winter alpine routes, bouldering in peaceful forests. Suffering with friends, overcoming fear and the enjoyment being in amazing places. When you look at the vast experiential-diversity that climbing can deliver, the indoor climbing experience comes out paltry and miserable.

It is this ‘paltry’ side of climbing that will:

  • Get all the money from Olympic inclusion
    Gov’t funding is hardly going to send people to Baffin to climb inspiring new routes if it is not helping them climb plastic better..
  • Grow in ‘importance’ to the organisations which exist to act on behalf of climbers
    Gold medals mean more money for your sport..
  • Become the ‘face’ of climbing & drive perceptions about what climbing is about
    Are you happy with this idea?

2. The proposed event is ridiculous and the whole concept of finding the ‘best’ climber is a fallacy

Being a ‘good’ climber has far more texture and depth than say being a good 100m sprinter – and therefore it will never raise the ‘best’ climbers in the world to the Olympic platform. A good climber may climb something with extreme difficulty or risk with good style when there is no-one watching or applauding, by being diligent and focused a good climber may save a friends life, by caring about the natural environment they may minimise impact or a good climber may climb routes that challenge the perception of what is ‘possible’. I could go on – but the point is that it will never be as binary as the 100m sprint where, quite literally, the only thing that matters but how fast you travel from A to B.

Because of this, we need to ask some questions;

Do we want to shift the focus even further away from the true experience of climbing towards a manufactured and sanitised ‘sport’?

The media is generally incompetent at explaining climbing when it gets into the news – in part due to its complexity and, if they are given an Olympic definition of climbing, will this be the story of climbing that wins-out? Will this vision of climbing, delivered to a global audience, encourage any more than increased climbing-gym memberships?

Will it develop a new breed of Olympic-focused climbers who focus intensely on bouldering on plastic, leading on plastic and, for some strange reason, speed climbing plastic? I suspect so.

Will it deliver a future of  ‘climbers’ motivated only by winning at competitions, bring in doping-inducing desperation to win above everything else in an activity that traditionally has always been embedded in team work and imagination? Will this have an impact on the attitude and culture of the climbing community?

These future Olympians will be the new media-stars of climbing; and when we have them why would a journalist or politician take the views and opinions of a near middle aged man who has climbed some of the most incredible routes in the world (where they have little grasp of his achievements – and he is not reliably near a phone) when you have an Gold-Medalist media-darling on call 24/7 via their London-based agent?  It would be the equivalent of having Tom Daley provide media representation for Deep-Sea Technical Divers. Both ‘diving’ but vastly, vastly different.

The media loves to dumb down complicated things; climbing in the Olympics will be the fastest way to dumb down climbing on a global level.

To summarise.

We must avoid thinking that being in the Olympics is automatically going to be good for climbing as a whole.

A constant push for growth, which doubtless is the key driver for Olympic inclusion, only really makes sense for people who profit from climbing which means it does not make sense for the vast majority of climbers regardless of discipline.


End notes/thoughts:

  • It would be interesting to see if the BMC has carried out a study into climbing and the intangible assets that exist in the climbing community and if there is a likelihood of them being eroded, what impact this may have on climbing as a whole. (For example climbing culture or attitudes that have been developed over the past 100 years or so).
    Have they looked in to the potential affect on ‘real’ climbers and their sponsorship and if they would end up being drawn into the Olympics, away from where passions lie, to make a living?
    I suspect they are mostly blinded by the potential money and have put any nagging concerns to the back of their minds while quoting ‘business sense’.
  • If the BMC have not studied the above – or at least given it careful consideration (for which it would be good to see the research/data that drives it) I would suggest they make poor custodians for climbing as an activity/sport in the UK.
  • I say fuck the money. Climbing has never revolved around money – in fact – save the idiots who pay big bucks to jumar up Everest – a key aspect about climbing is that money doesn’t really help that much. It won’t buy you bigger balls, it won’t make you stronger and it won’t stop that storm coming in!
  • Compared with other industry sectors there is not very much money in climbing; we bivi rough instead of staying in hotels, we eat off stoves instead of at restaurants, we spend our time scaling the worlds faces free of charge. Let’s face it even the most profitable ‘climbing’ brands mostly sell to dog walkers. Not being a rich sector may not sit pretty on balance sheets – but the industry has its size – it is generally sustainable and it will continue to exist. Build it up with Olympic fervor or Government cash and although it may get bigger it will be a more fragile sector.
  • Perhaps if we go ‘Olympic’ defining the weird mix of events as ‘indoor climbing’ may help communicate the narrowness of the proposed Olympic discipline. Olympic ‘Indoor Climber’ Medalist doesn’t sound as good though does it?

This was raised/discussed on UKC – read more here.

1 Comment

  1. Forrest says:

    What a horrible idea!

    Climbing, for me at least, is about being close to alone in beautiful and remote places, close to nature. Indoor gym climbing is boringly antiseptic.

    But I’m sure my opinion doesn’t matter for much. I don’t even watch the Olympics.

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