Monday I finished my Calculus II class, which has kept me inside the last 3 weekends, but I am looking forward to getting back outside this weekend. I was ruminating on some thoughts as I’ve followed along with the Olympics and it was hard for me not to ponder what it would be like if climbing were to actually be an Olympic sport. This year, as the events get underway in London, England, many climbers are talking about how wonderful it would be to have climbing as an Olympic sport. It’s interesting to address some of the obvious questions that possibility brings.
First of all, it’s hardly clear that climbing (as a sport) would benefit by being in the Olympics. It’s easy to want to fantasize about seeing Chris Sharma or Alex Puccio on the podium with a gold medal dangling from their neck, tears in their eyes, and our national anthem playing. That kind of fairy tale is often created by the media to sell advertising, and it hardly tells the whole picture.
While I feel an emotional desire to see that image myself, and would find much inspiration from it, here are several rational concerns that arise from having climbing in the Olympics.
Drugs: A number of online articles suggest that more than 10% of Olympic athletes are cheating, by evasively using banned substances. Many are familiar with the controversy surrounding Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis in regards to substance abuse, and once so called “heroes” like Marion Jones, who was stripped of her medals. She had been taking illegal drugs as far back as 2000, although had vehemently denied it for years. For every step it seems the IOC takes in detecting drugs, some athlete finds another loophole around it. This has marred not only Olympic sports, but the professional sports world as well. Performance enhancing drugs and the negative press that goes along with it plagues nearly every modern day sport that tests for the drugs. Thankfully, so far, climbing has avoided such pervasive drug use. Is it because it is less competitive? Because there is less money involved? Because it is a life-style sport? Whatever the reason, with Olympic attention, climbing will almost certainly go the way of other sports. Top athletes will take drugs, and they will cheat to win a gold medal if they can. There is little evidence to suggest otherwise. I prefer to keep climbing clean, and if that means one person doesn’t get to win a gold medal or some retail store sell as many chalk bags, so be it.
Environment Climbing is different from almost every other sport in the Olympics in that it is best executed outside, away from standardized equipment. The greatest achievements of our sport have never been in the gym. I can’t name one problem indoors that Daniel Woods, Paul Robinson, Nalle Hukkataival or Dave Graham has done in the last 3 years but their outside first ascents are entrenched deeply in the iconography of our sport. Livin’ Large, Jade, The Game, The Island. And the places names are even more iconic. Rocklands, Chaos Canyon, Red Rocks, Fontainebleau. And these climbs are still there, sitting in the woods for everyone to admire, be inspired by and enjoy. One of the most beautiful aspects of climbing is that as climbers we spend most of our time outside, in incredibly scenic places, enjoying nature and climbing challenges that are permanently (mostly) set in stone, forever. Now the reason I bring all this up is that bringing climbing to the masses could have a very negative effect on the areas where we go climbing. Is Lincoln Lake, Hueco Tanks, or HP40 ready for 1,000 people show up, because they saw Alex Puccio on the cover of a Wheaties box? Is that what we want? Is that what will happen when money hungry people push harder and harder for climbing to be in the Olympics? When the outdoor world is viewed soley as an apparatus for competition or money making, it’s concerning that more people will have a lasting negative impact on the beauty of the areas we love and cherish. It will also draw people who don’t necessarily even like climbing, they just happen to be good at it and they like winning. It’s hard to imagine this would change our sport for the better.
Climbing in its infancy Is climbing even ready to be put on such a huge stage? The US currently has no climbing team that trains consistently, no coach, and no unified facility to train at. Many of the best climbers smoke pot and some do other drugs. We still have not developed a satisfactory way that is truly fair and balanced to determine a winner at climbing competitions. Most climbers are poor public speakers, and have difficulty holding down menial labor jobs which require little effort. How is this motley crew expected to stand up on a world stage in a professional manor as a representative of something much larger than the athletes themselves? This remains an unanswered question. Certainly someone like Sasha Diguilian would unquestionably handle themselves with dignity and grace. I am confident she would be an outstanding representative for the sport (as she has demonstrated to be over the last few years). But I would argue that she is the minority. I would like to see climbers be more capable in this regard, but there is little evidence to suggest climbing is ready for such a spotlight.
Preservation: How important is it to us (as climbers) that we preserve what it is that we are doing? Does it matter? Should we push things as far forward and as quickly as possible simply in order to push things forward, even if there is a sort of mindlessness to it? Having grown up playing baseball as part of a very competitive and good team (I was the only member of the team who didn’t go on to play college baseball, and that was by choice) I have seen first hand the negative effects such competition has on parents, children and baseball. My parents were wonderfully supportive, but many of my friends parents were demanding, condescending and worked hard to unintentionally drive their child away from the sport. It certainly wasn’t a good thing, for baseball or the children. Climbing, with an increased focus on competition, would certainly go the same way.
I have and will continue to advocate that the leaders of our sport find new and inventive ways to go bouldering, create beta, give names, create media, find boulders, etc. But just because we can think of something (like putting climbing in the Olypmics) doesn’t mean we should do it, or that it would benefit the sport. The law of unintended consequences doesn’t stop us from doing new things and it shouldn’t. But it should give us the foresight to give things a second thought, even if it strips Adam Ondra of the gold medal he probably deserves. Thoughts?