Should Climbing Be an Olympic Sport?

A post went up on the Eastern Mountain Sports blog about the fact that that on Monday, July 4th, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that sport climbing made the short list for the 2020 Olympic Games. Of course, everyone has an opinion, myself included. 

I'm divided on the issue. Generally, I don't think sport climbing in the Olympics such a good idea.

But what about allowing professional climbers the notoriety they deserve? Climbing competitions already exist on a global stage, why not let climbers compete on the global stage? Wouldn't it be an amazing boost for the sport and the outdoor industry? Shouldn't the world know how captivating it can be to watch a climber who truly excels at the sport?

I've done a handful of bouldering competitions, one outdoors, and find them an incredible amount of fun. It's great to be around people climbing hard, and I'm competitive by nature. It's also always fun to have a goal to train for. I love watching professional climbers compete, but a big part of that is the fact that it's still done on a relatively small level. The comps I've attended didn't draw tens of thousands of people, and it makes it easier to feel like you're really a part of the action.

The crowd going wild during women's finals at the
Earth Treks Roc Comp in Maryland.
I also certainly don't think indoor climbing or climbing on manufactured walls is the same as climbing on rock. The fact that gym climbing is done on plastic or the like doesn't make it a sport unworthy of participation and praise, though. It's true that there's nothing quite like placing your fingers and feet on real rock, surrounded by trees with gusts of wind all around you. To me, indoor and outdoor climbing are almost different sports with their own benefits though they require essentially the same knowledge base and technique.

Climbers warming up for the Philadelphia Rock Gym's
annual Winter Burn.
There are two main things that bug me about the idea of sport climbing in the Olympics. The first is the likely influx of people at climbing gyms, even outdoors, and the associated danger factor. To sport climb safely, to climb safely at all, you need a certain level of knowledge. There are already so many accidents that are a result of human error and lack of preparedness. If sport climbing were introduced to the Olympics and the sport gained notoriety quickly, the frequency of accidents could feasibly increase. It's so important that all climbers understand the risks of the sport and learn skills accordingly. How can the climbing community make sure getting out with the right skill set is a priority for what will likely be an influx of new climbers? And what if speed climbing is chosen as the Olympic sport, not sport climbing?

The second is pretty selfish, though I don't have any specific crags in mind. I don't climb outside often enough or in popular enough areas to have serious issues with overcrowded crags, but if everyone in the world sees how amazing climbing is and scrambles to get outside and try it, we'll have some serious access and overcrowding issues. An influx of people, all of whom impact outdoor and wilderness areas whether they practice Leave No Trace or not, might be too much for our climbing areas to handle. How can we ensure we're protecting the places we climb if they become even more crowded?

There. My two cents. What do you think? Climbers, I'm sure you've got something to say about this! Comment below or on our Facebook page.


Patrick said…
I agree with you, i'm not 100% for climbing in the Olympics simply because it will spawn a bunch of unsafe noobs who just want to climb because it is cool. Safety is one of my biggest focuses in climbing, and it is difficult to stay safe if there are others around you putting you in harms way due to their lack of knowledge. Also I like my activity climbing of to remain a mysterious fringe activity to the masses. It makes it more fun to talk about :-P

I'm sooooo with you on reason number two! People that are attracted to the atmosphere of climbing comps are not people I want to share my open space with. NIMBY, baby, NIMBY!
P.S. Except for Sharma. He can share space with me. Heh.
Katie L. said…
I certainly don't want to suggest that introducing new people to the sport is a bad thing by any means. It's more that I think introducing climbing to such a large audience could result in a significant increase in the number of beginner climbers. I'm all for people climbing, I love climbing! But only if everyone remembers that climbing mindfully and safely is paramount.
Katie L. said…
and with respect to comps, I'm definitely attracted to bouldering comps in particular because of the social aspect of that type of climbing. I've found bouldering generally more social than other climbing disciplines, mostly because you're not just climbing with a partner. I love having a group of complete strangers cheering for me while I try to do something hard for me! At the same point, there's a lot of associated fanfare, and that's why I tried to draw the clear distinction between indoor comp climbing and outdoor climbing.
Gif said…
I kind of disagree with you guys here.  I think climbing in the Olympics would mostly result in a positive outcome.  It will bring more money into the sport and that is not a bad thing for gear companies, pro athletes, or access.  If climbing was an Olympic sport, gear companies would be more likely to actually pay the athletes like they deserve, especially in the US.  Look at Ueli Steck.  That dude has major corporate sponsors and top notch training at his disposal.  I think the American marketplace would step it up (let's hope) if climbing was an Olympic sport.  

I also don't think that having climbing in the Olympics will create a huge influx of interest in the sport.  Look at WW kayaking or Snowboarding.  When they were brought into the Olympics, you didn't see the rivers overcrowded or slopes suddenly jam packed. People start a sport because it genuinely interests them and/or if their friends do it.  I enjoy watching the Luge in the Olympics, but I'm not gonna go out there and try it.  I don't think rock climbing is a mystery activity that people don't know about.  People know about the sport and they either chose to get involved or not.  

I also don't think it will effect safety.  When people watch pros they think they are just that... pros.  They have obviously been training for years and know what they are doing.  Again, I'm not just gonna go jump in an ice luge and hurl myself down a course.  

If climbing was in the Olympics, I think we would see major breakthroughs in performance.  Country pride will bring in the best sports trainers that the specific country has to offer.  We will be exposed to new training methodologies and people previously involved in the sport (us) will benefit.  

Just my humble (sarcasm) opinion...haha.  What do you think?
Katie L. said…
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Gif! I agree and disagree with some of the things you've pointed out, which is why I said I'm divided on the issue.

I think the idea of professional climbers getting paid like professional athletes is a cool possibility, but at the same time, I wouldn't want climbing to become as mainstream as other nationalized sports. There's too much associated nonsense with sports like football, etc. I agree that someone who decides to dedicate their life to the sport shouldn't be forced to live on Ramen,

I'd actually disagree with you about a few things... Climbing isn't a well-known sport yet. It's gained a lot of popularity recently, but the IFSC wouldn't have pushed so hard to get sport climbing on the docket for the Olympics if there wasn't a lot of room left for exposure to the general public. There could be a few good things that come out of increased popularity, like legitimacy of the sport and participation in the Access Fund...though the money associated with increased participation might just end up back in the competition-based form of the sport.

Basically, I see it as a sport on the brink of popularity with disastrous effects associated with accidents, and when things go wrong. If sport climbing is the discipline included in the Olympics, there are a lot of pieces to that discipline that need to be learned and practiced, even if you're in a "safe" gym environment. I'd like to think everyone who tries climbing is concerned primarily with safety and protecting the environment, but I just don't think that's the case.