Climbing upwards and onwards | Olympic debut

August 6, 2021

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Climbing upwards and onwards | Olympic debut
Olympic Games Tokyo 2020

Written by: Emma Horan | Director

Climbing was on an upwards trajectory well before the Olympics. 

Over the last week there has been an eruption of conversations online and in person about the affect the Olympics is going to have on the sport. Whether this will lead to overcrowded crags, a commercialisation of the “essence of climbing”. The emerging pool of “competition climbers” and how that grates  at our perception of the sport and our idea of climbing excellence. Whether this challenges the idea of what good climbing is? And really what the sport looks like for us as climbers moving forward. 

Climbing historically was for the ‘outsiders’, the ‘fringe dwellers’. The counter culture of climbing and desire to live a different way was something that was always going to be appealing over time to a wider population, and after 60 odd years people are noticing. This counter culture succeeded and all those ‘outsiders’ squatting in Camp 4, if we fast forward 60 years, would now be rockstars in Yosemite villas. 

Climbers Reach the Top of Yosemite's El Capitan in Under Two Hours

So let's stop this insular mentality and fraternity of climbing where exposure and growth is bad. Climbing was never going to stay the sport it was 20 or 30 years ago and many of us have benefited from that growth. The movement was gaining popularity well before the Olympics. To pretend growth was stagnant would indicate that organisations such as ACA, Crag Care, etc aren’t needed, but we all know they are. These organisations were formed to protect the interests of climbers. So now that they are here, the more people and businesses that come into the sport, the more funding these organisations have to protect the interests of climbers and build meaningful relationships with stakeholders. Look at the states with Cliffcare, if a climbing area is under threat they buy the land, while this is an extreme example, that’s the funding that Cliffcare can pool together. Awareness creates a world where climbers don’t have to be concerned about climbing in areas or being seen, *cut to Valley Uprising scene ‘climbers running from Yosemite park rangers’*.

Furthermore competition climbing is good, Olympics or otherwise. Giving people goals outside of outdoor climbing actually means there is a smaller percentage of the climbing population at the crag on weekends and during the week. The approach of managing an increasing climbing population and impact on our crags is a holistic exercise of disbursement through many avenues in the sport. The Sydney Boulder Series, which was held on five consecutive Saturdays with an attendance of 400 climbers is a prime example of this. Giving climbers a more broad range of goals, aids in the objective of disbursing the population to lower our outdoor footprint. That competition series meant that there were 400 less climbers were considering going outdoors on that day, and likely many more outdoor days were foregone to train indoors. Everyone has a right to use the outdoors whether we have climbed for a month or 40 years. The reality of an increasing population is something to be managed, not gate-kept to assure that our areas don’t get over used and are given ample time to regenerate. 

98% of the climbing population started climbing in gyms (a commercialised venture). The few that didn't would have shortly found them to make their training more accessible during the week, and like with everything in life convenience comes at a cost. This meant climbers could hold onto that weekend climbing culture while maintaining the humbug 9-5 work life in the city.

Lifestyle sports have been on the boom for over 2 decades now, skating, surfing, climbing and snowboarding which at one point were all ‘countercultures’. The progression of climbing was not unforeseen.

It is worth noting the incredible achievements of the athletes we watched in the male and female qualifiers. Obviously many people know Ondra’s achievements as the outdoor climber of the pack however there wasn’t a male amongst them that hasn’t sent 9a or up, Tomoa flashed a V14! These competition climbers are the peak of our sport no matter what arena you put them in. However, just like everyone else they only have 24 hours in a day and they need to split that between outdoor goals and indoor. Their tick list may be smaller than Megos and Ondras but by no means are the numbers on them any less impressive.

Tomoa Narasaki, Olympic Bouldering qualifications, Louder Than 11 | Climbing

If we are concerned about the essence of climbing and what the Olympics may do to it, join your local access group, volunteer to educate climbers, become stewards of the sport, reach out to your local gym. Because climbing was never going to stay the same way and unfortunately if you want to blame anyone (which isn’t advised) you can blame those ‘real climbers’ like Sharma, Caldwell and Honnold for seeking out massive sponsorship deals that god forbid paid them for their hard work and commercialised the ‘essence of climbing’, or look to the movies, Dawn Wall and Free Solo.

Climbing is cool, we were never going to be able to keep that secret. But rather than criticising the recognition of the sport (which for decades people have yearned for whether it be for outdoor climbing rights or competition opportunities) lets shape where it goes. We can live in a past that is truthfully mired in people seeking recognition for their passion or we can use our WORDS and ACTIONS to shape an exciting future.

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