The Olympics & the Battle for Climbing – Part I

This piece originally appeared in VL #18, download the entire magazine here.

Like a Chinese ring trick, Simon Madden tries to disentangle the Olympic rings and find out if they will entrap the soul of climbing

WORDS: Simon Madden, IMAGES: As credited

Everyone knows what The Olympic Dream is.

It is a tale of practice and discipline, sacrifice and service, a dream implanted in a young child, nurtured and fired over years to be realised in a glorious culmination of individual brilliance in the face of fierce-yet-fair competition, with victory casting a golden reflection over an entire nation.

‘I touched the wall and all my dreams, hopes and ambitions basically coalesced into one moment.’ With these words on winning gold and setting a world record at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Australian swimmer Duncan Armstrong described the best moment of his life.

And now climbers, long banished – often in self-imposed exile – to the margins of society, are being folded into the institutional middle and will have the chance to win Olympic gold.

Climbing will be included in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

This is Speed climbing. IFSC World Cup Villars 2016. Photo Eddie Fowke

This is Speed climbing. IFSC World Cup Villars 2016. Photo Eddie Fowke

A short four years from now Australian climbers could find themselves in a position many thought might never come. ‘Competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be an absolute dream come true,’ Australian team member Lucy Stirling echoes Armstrong’s dreaming, ‘I will do everything I possibly can to train and prepare myself’. Captain of the Australian men’s youth team, Campbell Harrison, also draws on the language of dreams, ‘From my perspective as a competitive climber, it opens up a new world of support and sponsorship opportunities that further my ability to pursue my dreams.’

And who could deny the dream’s lure for a young, driven competition climber? Not me. However, gold fever comes at a cost. There are many things to consider with climbing being let into the Olympic club, a club plagued by drug and corruption scandals, a club of colossal weight that could shape what climbing is in the future. Climbers should think hard about ‘growth’ and what the society-wide hunger for it means. Climbers should consider what being in the Olympics means for climbing, and what climbing means for the Olympics, and what it will mean for the indefinable-yet-contested ‘soul’ of climbing.


The International Olympic Committee (IOC) states potential Olympic sports are assessed against five main themes; 1. the sport’s history, the number of affiliated national federations and the participation rates at world or continental championships; 2. financial status, governance, gender equity and strategic planning; 3. the sport’s image and whether it represents Olympic values; 4. popularity, spectators, sponsorship, media interest and whether the best athletes will compete, and; 5. business model, income generated and costs of staging.

As captain of the Australian Youth team, Campbell Harrison, would have to think himself perfectly placed for the 2020 Olympics. Photo Eddie Fowke

As captain of the Australian Youth team, Campbell Harrison, would have to think himself perfectly placed for the 2020 Olympics. Photo Eddie Fowke

Against some of these the case for climbing is poor. Its popularity might be spiking but its field of participants remains narrow. The format and convoluted scoring system will be baffling to a lay audience. Participation at championships is limited, governance structures are new and untested and sponsorship dollars are relatively small. The one perceived strength that IOC officials repeatedly bang on about is ‘youth appeal’.

A key tenet of the IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020 is to ‘Ensure the Olympic programme remains relevant to young people by ensuring innovation and adapting to modern taste and new trends, while respecting the history and tradition of the sports’. In confirmation of this, sport climbing was included as a demonstration sport at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China. Over to IOC president Thomas Bach, ‘We want to take sport to the youth. With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.’

The emphasis on youth is interesting, and though they are roped in together, the demographics and the practices of climbing, skateboarding and surfing are very different. Skateboarding comes from urban rebellion amongst disaffected youth, surfing was the once darling of the anti-establishment that has been shackled to institution and corporatisation like the hippie who sold out. Into this sits climbing, once the preserve of university nerds then punk dropouts and now ‘the next CrossFit’.

The Olympics is obviously scrambling to remain relevant. The introduction of climbing, along with skateboarding and surfing, is an attempt to corral a broad-based shift away from organised sports. An analysis of megatrends indicates over the past decade ‘individualised sport and fitness activities are on the rise’ as ‘participation rates for many organised sports have held constant or declined’.  In the modern world, people’s time is fragmented, their jobs are more sedentary, they are working more and playing less. The old institutions of political party and sporting club are fading. Participation in non-traditional sports is up as people self-direct leisure activities, and so the Olympics is hoovering up sports that reflect those shifts. And sports – both traditional and not – are clamouring for entry; squash, washu, American Football, bowls, bridge, roller sports, E-Sports (which is rebadged computer gaming), and, of course, rock climbing.

Marco Scolaris, the Italian president of the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) succinctly articulates climbing’s position within societal trends, ‘Climbers are part – or maybe the leading part – of a huge outdoor community that includes hikers, mountaineers, ramblers, etc,’ he continues, ‘So maybe from a marketing point of view this would be interesting for the IOC, which may also consider that recently, in the last couple of years, we have seen the interest of the wider sport industry moving into the outdoors.’

When the Olympics expands by drawing in new sports those new sports will be influenced by the Olympics. The IOC is a lumbering institution, an all-powerful supra-national body seemingly beholden to no one, and like any behemoth it is susceptible to vice. Dark clouds hover over the Olympic rings.

Perhaps only second to the Tour de France, doping is synonymous with the Olympics.

There can be little doubt climbers are already experimenting with performance enhancement. Even without proof, deduction suggests that someone somewhere is trying to obtain better living through science.

Setting at Boulder World Cups is increasingly about entertaining spectators; Shauna Coxsey climbs during the final of the IFSC Climbing World Cup in Kazo, Japan in 2016. Photo Heiko Wilhelm/Red Bull Content Pool

Setting at Boulder World Cups is increasingly about entertaining spectators; Shauna Coxsey climbs during the final of the IFSC Climbing World Cup in Kazo, Japan in 2016. Photo Heiko Wilhelm/Red Bull Content Pool

Stonemaster and climbing legend, John Long, has admitted to trying steroids. ‘I actually tried them for about six months after I was out of climbing. I was pretty cautious. My dad, who has passed away since, I went to him and go, “Hey, I live in Venice and Gold’s Gym is down the street and I’m in there all the time now and I got a bunch of friends who are doing this and I’m sort of curious, maybe I could try this.” He goes, “Yeah, okay.” So, he gave me a prescription and I tried it and bulked up.’ Long admitted when speaking with Mike Brooks and Dave McAllister on ClimbTalk in 2010. ‘But I’ll tell you one thing for sure, interesting, and that is, there’s a reason why those things are illegal. I discovered why, and it isn’t because they don’t work. I mean, you get strong as a freakin’ black bear on those things in no time.’

This anecdote is not intended to sour Long’s legacy, but it does show that the best climbers are curious about how their performance would be impacted by doping.

WADA figures state their accredited labs processed 186,073 blood and urine samples in 2014. From those slightly less than one percent returned an ‘adverse’ or ‘atypical’ finding, which means either a positive or suspicious result. The public is justifiably cynical about drugs in sport due to what we know about elite sport in general and the Olympics in particular. From East German industrial doping experimentation of the 1970s and ’80s to Ben Johnson, Flo Jo, Lance ‘the greatest cheat of all time’ Armstrong, Justin Charles, Stuart O’Grady, Maria Sharapova, Shane ‘my mum just wanted me to be slim to look good on TV’ Warne, Tyson Gay, the twice-banned Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones, Asafa Powell, Sun Yang, the sorry saga of the Essendon Football Club and the Cronulla Sharks. The list goes on and on.

WADA figures are further compromised by Russian state-sponsored doping and testing avoidance at Sochi 2014, the blanket ban on the Russian athletics and weightlifting teams at Rio 2016. Add to this, more and more athletes are getting caught after the fact, eluding testers at the time of competition but caught during subsequent testing. On 27 May 2016 WADA reported that ‘reanalysis of the ‘A’ samples from 23 athletes, in five sports and from six National Olympic Committees (NOCs) who competed at the Olympic Games in London 2012, has returned Adverse Analytical Findings (AAFs)’. The testing is fallible and the system is gameable so the stated numbers are not believable.

Apart from the obvious ‘no one has been caught’, some of the refutation of the existence of drugs in climbing has rested on climbing being a low-stakes pastime. We have seen that even lowly amateurs in similarly irrelevant competitions like cycling and rugby union are getting caught doping. Rock climber’s tougher cousins – mountaineers – use dexamethasone, or ‘summit days little helper’, which is rife amongst the elite as well as high-altitude tourists who get their hands held up the fixed ropes of Everest, amphetamines, steroids, acclimatization-aid acetazolamide, Diamox, Viagra and Cialis. The ‘stakes’ in mountaineering are low.

There is a growing trend in society of using steroids and other substances merely to look good or stay young, and this confluence of performance, longevity science and vanity is contributing to an atmosphere in which supplemen tation, doping or just looking after yourself is increasingly normalised. The ‘stakes’ argument misunderstands what drives people.

Look at the fervour with which climbers train and diet and sacrifice and tell me the stakes are low. It doesn’t matter that there is little money and only restricted glory. Then add the much-coveted gold. Climbers will dope, if they haven’t already. The Olympics will not be responsible for doping in climbing but it is will add pressure to do so and an environment where drugs are widely used. The temptation will be too great, exactly as it is for many athletes competing at the highest levels in just about any sport you can think of. We need to be prepared for it.

Read Part II here.

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