Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Rich Simpson Controversy

Recently I have been steering away from current events in climbing, mostly because it really has been more of the same, and also because I have been too busy with other things, especially in terms of writing. However a special case has emerged that says some very interesting things about climbing and its meaning, and particularly its intersection with commerce. If you have been using the Internets, you were probably alerted to the situation by a remarkable article at UKC which in essence declared that owing to a lack confirmation by the climber, "UKC has now removed all news items and article references from our website regarding Rich Simpson's climbing achievements. These have not been deleted however, and we would be happy to republish these news articles if proof of these ascents comes to light." (Full Disclosure: I have had a couple of reviews published by UKC, albeit with no compensation)

The article/editorial also noted that Simpson's primary sponsors Wild Country and Scarpa have apparently dropped him though with a bit of searching, he is still on their websites. According to statements published by UKC, Simpson, when asked to verify his accomplishments, declined to do so and submitted resignations with both companies. He is still listed at Moon Cimbing.

A number of topics on message boards in the UK discussed the topic, sometimes at agonizing length, but with little resolution to the central questions, questions that will persist well after this instance has faded from the headlines.

What is the best response to the appearance of doubts about a climber's achievements? It seems to me that this case is a difficult one and in part because Simpson appears to have the strength and ability to have made good on his claims. However also peculiar is the absolute media silence about the bigger picture, that is the process of vetting and confirmation of news and sponsorship agreements. In a properly professionalized sport, such as world track and field, it seems that this situation would have been handled very differently. Indeed it appears that claims by Simpson about running almost certainly brought to light questions about his climbing record.

Running is by nature a more verifiable and quantifiable sport, even at the amateur level. Chip timing and the internet have made verification of race times a matter of a quick web search. Climbing is much more murky, and bouldering even more so, relying on one climber's word or a previous record of achievements. In the world of alpinism, especially solo alpinism, controversy and debated ascents are surprisingly common.

Is it really a problem that there will be individuals who take advantage of a relatively loose scoring and monitoring system? Perhaps, but given the lack of openness about sponsorship contracts and criteria for them, it is hardly surprising that these things can happen. Maybe the loosely enforced and mostly honor-system-enforced historical record of climbing is just an intrinsic part of the experience that athletes and sponsors must deal with as best they can. In this regard, the silence surrounding this particular episode, at least in terms of real news and not just secondary commentary, is telling. We may never know the real story behind this turn of events but we may see a change in how the climbing industry does the business of reporting news and checking climbing CVs moving forward.

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