The Olympics & the Battle for Climbing – Part II

This is part II of this article, you can find the first part hereThe piece originally appeared in VL #18, download the entire magazine here.

Supranational sporting bodies are corrupt and the IOC is no exception.

‘The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.’ The lofty aspirational ideals of the Olympic Charter are compromised by the corruption and cronyism that beset the institution.

For decades this angle – the classic trad bum shot – represented climbing. Gerry Narkowicz collection

For decades this angle – the classic trad bum shot – represented climbing. Gerry Narkowicz collection

Bidding to host the Games is corrupt, contracts to build the stadia are corrupt and ticket scandals are rife. Bidding irregularities range from the relatively benign – before the vote to host the 1996 Olympics, the Melbourne bid arranged for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to hold a special concert so the daughter of a South Korean IOC member could play piano with them –  to the outright malignant – the shadowy payments scandals that stain the awarding of Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 are now under investigation by French prosecutors. Financial corruption (running from cronyism in awarding contracts to over market payments for works done) was rampant in the most expensive Olympics of all time – the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

This shot – Miho Nonaka at the 2016 Innsbruk World Cup – might better represent future decades. Elias Holzknecht/Red Bull Content Pool

This shot – Miho Nonaka at the 2016 Innsbruk World Cup – might better represent future decades. Elias Holzknecht/Red Bull Content Pool

Brazil is in the middle of an economic and political crisis. The economy has been in recession since the start of 2015, inflation is running to 10% and the police budget has been slashed by a third, unemployment is 11% and unemployment is 24%. Despite the turmoil, the mayor of Rio declared the economic crisis engulfing Brazil ‘in no way delays the delivery of Olympic projects and the promises assumed by the city of Rio.’ Shortly thereafter Rio’s state governor declared a state of financial emergency with the city facing ‘a total collapse in public security, health, education, transport and environmental management’. Contrast the absolute confidence Rio’s politicians have that they would deliver the Games against their complete lack of confidence in providing basic services to citizens. Detractors hold Rio up as evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the Olympics. The Rio Olympics cost USD$4.6 billion, 51% more than the projected cost at the time of bidding. Governments have limited resources and when they choose to use what little they do have to fund circuses over bread, what does that say about the government? Equally, what does that say about the circus?

This is the institution Climbing is getting into bed with and we need to be cognisant of it.

Our welcome in that bed is not permanent. The Modern Olympic Gods are as capricious as their ancient forebears. Being in is not forever and climbing could very well be dropped from the Olympic program. And anyway, this is not the first time climbing has been in the Olympics.

Alpinism has a long, if unconventional, Olympic history. It was introduced during the 1894 Olympic Congress, the year the IOC was founded, and in 1924 the first Alpinism medal was awarded to the members of General Bruce’s 1922 Everest expedition (including posthumous medals for seven Sherpas who died in an avalanche), despite the team not reaching the summit. At Los Angeles in 1932 the German brothers Franz and Tony Schmid received the Olympic Alpine Prize for their first ascent of the North Face of the Matterhorn. In 1946, the Alpinism Prize was dropped, but at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch tried to give the Olympic Order in Silver to Reinhold Messner and Jerzy Kukuczka for climbing all 14 8000-metre peaks. The disparate reactions of the two have resonance for today’s arguments; Messner refused it, declaring the Game’s rampant commercialisation an anathema to the spirit of alpinism. Kukuczka, however, accepted, and in so doing put competition at the heart of his achievement for ‘If not for that, maybe I would never have climbed’.

This Olympic history, though, is of the big and bold written on distant, snowy mountains. These awards were for feats deemed the equal of Olympic achievement, akin to getting an honorary doctorate. Today we are talking about a dedicated Olympic event for sport climbing, sort of.

It is true that climbing is in the Olympics, but it is equally true that not all climbing is created equal.

The currently proposed format would see a single gold medal awarded across three combined disciplines; Speed, Lead and Boulder. This has copped a fair whack of criticism, even from those in favour of Olympic Climbing. ‘The proposed format is something that I certainly have quarrels with,’ says Campbell Harrison. The current Don of the Oz team, James Kassay, agrees, ‘If they continue with the proposed format (which I think is crazy) then there will be plenty of training to be done.’ This criticism is legitimate. The three disciplines are vastly different in preparation, execution and popularity. Speed climbing is very unpopular and in Australia there is no sanctioned Speed wall. Obviously Speed’s benefit is to the spectator to whom it is immediately comprehendible – person vs person, whoever crosses the line (aka gets to the top) first, wins. Easy as.

If big numbers don’t lie, then Tom O’Halloran is Australia’s strongest man, he admits as a boy he dreamed of being in the Olympics, it didn’t matter in which sport. But on the format he nails it; ‘The format is bollocks! What a crock! To me it seems like climbing is coming off as the desperate kid at school that will do anything to get in the cool group. “Pull your pants down and do three laps around the oval. Eat this rotten banana. Call Ms Hoffman, Mum.” Climbing is a great sport and doesn’t need to bend over backwards and cop it from the IOC so it can be accepted in. Climbing is climbing. It’s not what the IOC tell us what it is!’

However, Tom’s cry denies the power in the relationship. The format may be complete balls, but if you want to be in the Olympics – and the IFSC does – you need to kowtow to IOC demands. So the Olympics will force climbers who would otherwise specialise to compete across three distinct disciplines.

Lisa Soennichsen, comms officer for the IFSC, states‘ the IFSC was in a position to either propose one discipline or a combination of disciplines. The former would mean excluding some of our athletes, which we did not want.’ But this attempt to be inclusionary may be the exact opposite.

Adam Ondra, the only person to have ever won both the Lead and Boulder World Cups in the same year, zeroed in on Speed climbing, stating that if it were part of the Olympics, he ‘will have to think a lot about participating or boycotting it.’ The Czech superstar went on to say, ‘speed climbing is kind of an artificial discipline.’ Anyone who has watched Ondra climbing Move (9b+) in Flatanger, Norway, will believe that were he to care he would probably take out the Speed category as well.

Whilst Ondra’s claim to artifice misses the point – all of climbing’s disciplines are artificial – there is no doubt that few climbers rate Speed climbing and even fewer train for and compete in it. Most climbers are not super psyched on the format and if, as a result, the best in the world don’t go, that is bad for the competition.

You’d have to think that despite reactions to the format ranging from disquiet to hostility, most, if not all, of the best comp climbers will go because money drives participation and, though it is stating the obvious, comp climbers already compete so competing at the Olympics will be a fait accompli. The best comp climbers will be there and winning a gold medal will be meaningful. Contrast this with golf, which was welcomed back for Rio. Many of the best golfers did not compete, men, in greater numbers than women, pulled out, and both used the Zika virus as a crutch for staying away. The Olympics is just not important to golf but it could be to competition climbing.

On top of the lure of glory, going to the Olympics is awesome fun. It is thrilling, emboldening and meaning-making, athletes feel invincible, climbers will walk amongst their sporting heroes in the sex-crazed village, the opportunity to simply go to the Games is coded as success let alone emerging victorious. Representing one’s country is exhilarating and gratifying. Long has the myth of the ‘climbing all-rounder’ been held up as the ultimate, now we may see the ultimate comp climbing all-rounder. Boulderers have four years to work endurance, route climbers have four years to max their power and everyone has four years to train to go fast. It is a small price to pay for a chance at the podium.

It is possible to argue that the practice of certain sports is incompatible with the Olympics. See here the difference between the five inclusions for Tokyo – baseball/softball and karate are more traditionally organised around games and tournaments such as the Olympics embodies, whilst climbing, skateboarding and surfing have been more focussed on individual expression. Furthermore, there are purists who claim that Olympic expansion to include not only climbing and surfing but basketball, tennis, golf or synchronised swimming is a pollution of what the Games should be. That the Games should only include athletics, gymnastics, weightlifting, wrestling and maybe swimming. All else is a dilution of its value.

One counter argument goes that climbing is a fundamental human locomotion –  the equal of running forwards and jumping up and as natural as throwing things and lifting heavy objects. It is this essentialism that warrants climbing’s inclusion in the Olympics.

Whilst it is true that climbing is natural, Climbing is not.

IFSC Boulder World Cup 2016 Munich, Germany – Shauna Coxsey competing. Photo Elias Holzknecht / ASP / Red Bull Content Pool

IFSC Boulder World Cup 2016 Munich, Germany – Shauna Coxsey competing. Photo Elias Holzknecht / ASP / Red Bull Content Pool

The sport of Climbing is not natural, but that doesn’t really matter. Essentialism may fail to acknowledge the contrivances used to manufacture a contest; rules, regulations, polyurethane’s imperfect replication of rock, setter’s attempts to force movement, the logic underpinning scoring, and even the notion of winning are fabrications, but all sports are manufactured and on that basis climbing’s brand of movement makes as valid an Olympic pursuit as any other kind.

Furthermore, the Olympic event roster has always been changeable and many would argue the Games are at their best when any sport’s greatest athletes are competing against their peers in optimal conditions. It’s likely the best comp climbers will be in Tokyo and that as a result the gold medal will be meaningful.

Even the broad notion of a search for the ‘best’ upsets some. Climbing is a many-headed hydra – every route is unique for its rock type and climbing style, some require thoughtful protection and judgement to keep oneself safe, others intricate sequences or perfect conditions, some are insanely hard, some are bafflingly technical, and this variability has fuelled millions of campfire discussions about what the ‘best’ means. Is it Honnold for his control? Ueli for his speed? Anker for his audacity? Ondra for his FAs? Ashima for her promise? Or is it Shauna Coxsey and Sean McColl? But those who rail against the futility of finding the ‘best’ climber are misguided. The Olympic format – indeed any comp climbing format – finds the best climber within a restricted set of parameters. It’s easy to see who the best 1500m freestyle swimmer is. Cross the line first and it’s you. Rock climbing is not easily reducible in the same way as the 100m dash is. Or the high jump. Sport climbing though, constrained and contained, can be.

Part III will soon be posted. 

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