Climbing in the Olympics?

24th August 2012
In: Blog
I started writing this post the day after the closing ceremony of the London 2012 summer Olympics. TeamGB surpassed all expectations, delivered some incredible performances and headed home from the East End with more medals than you can shake a gellied eel at. Fantastic. When I look at GB's position in the medals table I can hardly Adam & Eve my mince pies (as a cockney would say). It doesn't seem five minutes since those days when the only medal we'd get would be courtesy of Redgrave and Pinsent.

John Coefield climbing in the Churnet Valley

As often happens when the Olympics are on, the question of climbing, in one form or another, making an appearance at a future Olympic games rears its head again. Now climbing already enjoys the on-paper status as and "Olympic sport" - whatever that means - and as early as 2016 there will be a vote which could see it as a full competitive Olympic event in the 2020 games.

Clearly the facet of climbing which is "soloing around at Stanage with your mates having a laugh on a spring evening after work" is unlikely to make the cut, so realistically for climbing to feature in Olympic competition we're talking indoor/plastic sport routes (including speedclimbing), indoor bouldering, and maybe even potentially artificial ice/mixed climbing in the winter games.

I often hear or read about top climbers complaining that there's not enough funding in the sport, that its status and exposure needs to increase, and what better way to increase its status than Olympic billing. Its true, I mean before it featured in the Olympics who had ever heard of Beach Volleyball? Yeah we knew that people liked to knock a ball over a net on the beach, but we didn't realise it was a sport. It would be a similar deal with climbing. With increased interest and funding climbing could raise its game and look after our top talent and approach training in a professional way like the athletics and track cycling do.

So whats not to like? Surely climbing in the Olympics would be great for the sport? When the prospect of climbing in the Olympics is mentioned it seems that most climbers greet this prospect with unabashed glee, a bit like learning your favourite back-room-of-a-pub folk band is going to headline at Glastonbury. But personally I'm a little uneasy about this whole idea. I don't see climbing in the Olympics as the win-win scenario its made out to be.

The Numbers Game

At present climbing seems to be increasing in uptake and popularity. There are now more indoor walls than ever. Sheffield currently has 5 indoor walls (Foundry, Edge, Works, Matrix and the Virgin gym self-belay wall) and a few outdoor artificial boulders, and a recent development which surfaced this week seems to indicate another big new wall in the city is planned, presumably catering for the less traditional climbers market.

When you go to the existing indoor walls its clear that these walls are not just sub-dividing up the existing pool of Sheffield's potential climbing customers, they're doing what any good business does and actually stimulating demand and growth by getting new people into the sport, expanding the market. I think the Climbing Works has achieved this especially well. Boulders for kids, courses for beginners, nice sofas and coffee, its pretty civilised. There's no reason to think the new wall being built with good transport links (near the M1), ambitious plans and savvy management won't also be a success and increase numbers who go climbing.

Couple this with climbing appearing as an Olympic sport and you have a potential boom in participation on your hands, even more than we already have. Some people stand to make a lot of money out of climbing as a result - wall owners, wall builders, retailers, and manufacturers of shoes, ropes, hardware etc etc. Not to mention anyone who can sell you a book about climbing or sell their expertise as a coach etc etc.

Now the problem with increased numbers is that these bodies need somewhere to climb, and a certain percentage of them will not be content just to stay down the wall supping coffee with their shirts off. Overspill to the crags is absolutely inevitable, no matter what anyone tells you. Its not like, say, track cycling, where increased numbers means you can just build another velodrome and the overspill goes onto the existing road network which is constantly maintained and renewed. Great Britain is not Spain or the USA with quality and extensive new crags being discovered every week. We live on a relatively densely populated island and one third of the population can reach the Peak District inside an hour. In Sheffield we are graced with a lot of fantastic crags a short drive away, but these crags cannot absorb increased numbers indefinitely. Some already have access issues, and some have erosion and wear issues. We can't build more crags, and we can't rebuild crags once they're ruined - what we've got is it, so we have to look after them.

The other issue is that the overspill users from indoor walls, in contrast to the "traditional" apprenticeship into climbing of decades past (through walking and scrambling etc) may not be equipped properly to use the crags in a responsible manner. Its a difficult concept to try and quantify or prove but anecdotally I think we're already seeing this to an extent at the crags today. There's already a failure in the climbing community to properly educate people, and that is something we're really going to have to smarten up our act on for the future. I would like to see the parties that benefit from more bodies climbing pulling their weight a little bit more on this - and by that I mean shops, manufacturers, and not least indoor walls.

Is it all bad news?

I'm trying not to be doom and gloom, but the only benefit I can see to increased numbers is that climbing would have a larger and stronger lobby when it comes to issues of access, management of crags, selling off the national parks, that type of thing. However it remains to be seen if this would outweigh the disadvantages. Climbing already has enough numbers to make itself felt but precious few climbers actually ever take any interest in issues of access. It's all too easy to take it for granted that you can flick through your guidebook, pick a crag and turn up and climb. But having attended numerous Peak District BMC area meetings* over the last few years I can assure you that this could not be further from the truth, and access should never be taken for granted especially in this day and age. I am yet to be convinced that a large boost in numbers made up largely of indoor-only climbers will take any interest in the pressing issues of the day on the outdoor crags.

It might seem selfish of me to bemoan the increase in popularity of climbing, that I would seek to deprive other people the joy I myself get from climbing. Well it kind of is selfish, I am a climber already and I can't change that, but I would like future generations to be able to enjoy our natural outdoor spaces in the same way I have, and in largely the same state if not better. Am I just being a miserable sod? I probably am, but I don't think its entirely unjustified. A lot of what I worry about with climbing appearing in the Olympics is already happening albeit on a smaller scale.

Unknown climber enjoying a midsummer evening's solo at Millstone Edge

It seems that climbing is approaching a bit of a crunch period. Do we step forward into the mainstream with all that entails, or sit back and be happy to play second fiddle to "real" sports and enjoy our evenings out soloing at the crag? Sorry but I know where my priorities lie.

*If you would like to get involved or just be more aware of current crag Access issues, then check out the BMC website. For anyone with spitting distance of the Peak (statistically one third of everyone reading this in the UK), I would urge you to come to one of the Peak meetings - the next one being Weds 12th September in Glossop. I'll be great to see you there.

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