Why Sport is Better Than Bouldering for the Olympics
Women's lead wall, World Champs, Paris. Photo: Angie Payne
Climbing in America seems to be exploding in so many ways, and it might be another five or 10 years before we have the perspective to really understand the degree to which it, right now, is on the brink of some huge breakthrough.
Gyms are opening all over the country. Take a step back and remember that in 1993, there were fewer than five commercial climbing gyms in the U.S. Twenty years later, there are around 1,000 of them!
Mainstream media has taken a surprising interest in our little fringe sport. From the Washington Post to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times to 60 Minutes, dozens of in-depth articles and stories about real climbers and core climbing—not the usual Seven Summits type of gimmicky bullshit—have appeared in the last two years.
Climbing is on the shortlist for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics. Whether or not this is “good” for climbing may still be a fun thing for the usual online amateurs to debate, but the question has actually become entirely irrelevant. Because it’s happening. One way or the other, now or later. Immovable old-school trad object: meet the unstoppable force that is the bone-crushing competition-bred grommet with Olympic dreams.
Over 16,000 people were in attendance to watch over 330 climbers from 56 countries duke it out at the World Championships in Palais de Bercy, Paris, France. No, those aren’t soccer or NASCAR numbers, but compared to the old days when a climbing competition meant playing add-on and grab-ass with your bros and sixer of Pabst, those numbers are huge.
Also in attendance was a team of observers for the International Olympic Committee that is currently deciding which one of seven sports shortlisted for inclusion will actually make it into the 2020 Games. The IOC will announce its decision in September 2013.
In a press conference at the end of the World Championships, the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) divulged that its bid for Olympic inclusion would only focus on lead climbing. Bouldering and speed climbing aren’t being considered. Marco Scolaris, IFSC president, said:
"Lead is the historical and traditional climbing discipline. It is the expression of climbing most commonly perceived by the public and a popular event among climbers and non-climbers. Lead events have also the most universal representation and is the discipline that a majority of our national federations indicated as their favorite. Lead brings athletes beyond vertical in a continuous gravity challenge, and TV experts pointed out they need the height challenge. The choice of one discipline only is the result of the existing limit in terms of athletes. However we do not exclude the fact that one day the three disciplines will be represented at the Olympic Games!"
So, what does this mean? Well, I think we can all be thankful that speed climbing won’t be world’s first, or only, introduction to our sport. Not that speed climbing isn’t valid or cool, but to me it has as close of a connection to climbing as Taco Bell does to Mexican food. Quick, cheap, and you don’t really respect yourself afterwards.
But what about sport over bouldering? This is a more interesting question, especially for Americans, who have primarily focused on bouldering comps in recent years. The big names that you associate with American climbing competition—Alex Puccio, Alex Johnson, Daniel Woods, Paul Robinson—are primarily boulderers. And if this past weekend's World Cup, in which not a single American climber made it to finals, is any indication, then we have our work cut out for us if we want to see American climbers do well in the Olympics.
Many people think bouldering is more fun to watch. But I think that choosing sport climbing over bouldering is a smart decision. Ideally, you’d have both. But if I had to choose one, it’d be sport. Here’s why:
First, sport is harder than bouldering. I recently interviewed Cristian Brenna of Italy, one of the most veteran competition climbers in the world with an amazing 13-year run on the World Cup circuit. Over those years, he focused exclusively on competing, and he placed highly in both bouldering and sport. He explained to me how much easier it is to train for bouldering comps because you only need to focus on increasing power—that’s all that really matters when you just have to jump around between slopers and pinches for 10 feet. Also, training power requires more rest, more down time, for muscular supercompensation.
Training for sport is more time consuming, because you need to train both power and power-endurance. The training schedule is more than twice as demanding, Brenna said.
Further, route-reading is more complex in sport. So the activity is more cerebral, more intuitive, more moments where one split-second decision could mean the difference between being champion and falling. And because it takes longer to climb a route than a boulder problem, the duration of concentration and intensity needed is greater. This is one reason I find lead competitions more compelling to watch: you get to really study the climbers, see their thought processes, and observe their styles. In bouldering, the experience is more "A.D.D." for the observer. Climbing technique is less prominent, often masked by a stage that has a "three-ring circus" feel to it, in which a bunch of climbers are all simultaneously bounding between holds and falling onto mats. When spectating a bouldering comp, I often don't know who or what to look at.
Second, sport is more fair than bouldering. I recently read an interesting “article” on the website 8a.nu, written by the ultra-ripped Norwegian boulderer Morten Gulliksen, who thought that “randomness” (an interesting word choice) played too big a factor in the Paris bouldering World Champs. Basically, his general point was that route setters need to be more careful about what types of holds they use and moves they set in order to provide an equal playing field. I agree with his sentiment in general, but he lost me when he tried to lay down ground rules such as no “very slopey slopers”—which seems to me to be as random as anything else.
Sport routes are longer than boulder problems, so, with proper route-setting, difficulty can be more fairly derived in that it can be spread out over many moves. The longer the wall, the less need there is to thrown in one big, heinous stopper move that could potentially discriminate against guys like Ramon Julian Puigblanque—which happened and was a huge route-setting gaff, if you ask me, at the lead World Cup in Boulder last year. (I realize I am contradicting my point by bringing up this moment, but I think this gaff was an exception compared to the setting you see at most lead comps in Europe).
In general, there is less opportunity for “randomness,” to use Gulliksen’s strange term, on a route than a boulder. The playing field is more likely to be “level”—though of course it will never be perfectly fair—simply because the field is four times longer and the difficulty can be more spread out.
This all relates to the grading issues we encounter everyday, where it seems easier for climbers to agree that such and such route is 5.14a, while some boulder problems could be, on any given day, anything from V7 to V11 depending on conditions, which beta/eliminates the climber chooses and of course, the climber’s body size.
In my interpretation of Gulliksen’s article, he believes that bouldering competitions ultimately should be tests of pure strength: Who can pull the hardest on the worst holds? (Just so long as those holds aren’t too slopey, because that’s not fair—or something). If that’s the case, then why not just have a pull-up contest?
To me, real-life climbing isn’t just about being strong; it’s about being good and having vision. Competition ought to mirror this and, to me, sport will better showcase what it takes to be a good climber than bouldering. That said, ideally we'd have both in there as both sport and bouldering are rad and unique for their own myriad reasons.
I'm optimistic about the IOC's decision next year, but right now it's all just wishful thinking. If the Olympics could foster a climbing culture that values not just being strong, but being good, then that will be great for our sport: both in the spirit of competition, and also for creating climbers who will go on to climb outside and raise standards. Because ultimately outdoor performances—and first ascents—are what matters. Don't believe me? Consider this:
No one remembers who won the World Cup in 1997, but everyone knows who did the first ascent of Action Direct.