Friday, February 11, 2011

Bouldering Competitions: Does Size Matter?

The big show in town this weekend is the ABS National Bouldering competition, being held at a dedicated location, not at any of the gyms in town. John Stack and a crew have been working very hard to get the new walls up, a glimpse of which is available at Jamie Emerson's site. It sounds like it will be a good time though I will most likely not be there. You can check out the comp live online at the UBC site.

I have already discussed the problem of getting the general public interested in climbing competitions and the press locally has been relatively small about this event. The event is being marketed mostly to local climbers as far as I can tell but the venue, a warehouse space not far from the Spot Gym, is not very big so everything should sell out and go OK. There is a tour of four events, the majority of which are in summer and early fall and again have the feeling of being sold to climbers at climbing venues, like Salt Lake City's Outdoor Retailer. Whether this kind of event can generate mainstream media attention is a very open question. I am thinking that it may take some more time.

I think the more interesting issue is what kind of sport is going to emerge from this kind of competition. Everyone knows that a certain type of problem is beginning to emerge from bouldering competitions, in the same way that routes began to get very similar in roped competition, even to the point that chipping routes on rock to "even out" difficulties became common in the 1990s. The classic comp problem involves big spans between big non-positive holds. The focus is on core strength, bigger arm muscles, and speed. I wonder if increasingly competitors are going to be sorted according to size moving forward, resulting in a relatively homogenous set of body types, reminiscent of trends in gymnastics but without the wide difference between women and men.

Because climbing is more often than not point-to-point specific in terms of its movements (a feature shared by no other sports I can think of), in any given case where the strength of the climbers are equal, the taller climber will usually have the advantage in moving between holds. This is due to increased leverage available by not being fully extended between holds. Some have argued in the past that being shorter has the advantage of being lighter and more easily able to use small holds. This argument is losing steam in the world of competition bouldering, and increasingly in outdoor bouldering as well. Reach and the ability to exert power, not just in terms of pulling on holds but in exerting pressure while moving between them, is key to comp success now. The holds in comps are often very large and sloping, requiring as much skin friction as possible to stay in contact. Smaller hands have less surface area and less leverage in the pinch position. While routesetters can compensate for this to a limited degree, fundamental truths about the physics of climbing movement are beginning to make themselves keenly felt.

In the future I think the top male competition climbers in bouldering will be between 5'10" and 6'2" on average, relatively athletic in build, neither heavy nor super lean. Women will tend to run in the same direction, albeit slightly smaller. Outside, you can pick the boulder problems that suit you at a given level of difficulty but the inside scene will exert a very real pressure on those outside the average. The problem with this over time is whether professionalization in climbing will require, for the first time in the sport, a much more specific body type than in the past, especially in regard to height.


gian said...

It would be interesting to investigate the relationship between the perceived "coolness" of a style and the aesthetic value of the body type that generally excels at it.

On the same issue, it would be nice to know comp routesetters' view on the issue, particularly relating to the promotion of the sport (eg should problems that favour the anorectic skinny type be avoided as much as possible because an anorectic champion would scare non-climbers and newcomers?)

Anonymous said...

Thoughtful post! Your argument is well articulated. If I understand correctly you are saying that the trend will be towards taller climbers in the comp scene. I am wondering how you account for the two dominant competitors over the last 10 years. Chris Sharma then Daniel Woods. Not the other way around.


Peter Beal said...

Thanks for the comments. I think that routesetters have this dilemma front and center when they set and I don't blame them for where I perceive things are going. There is a degree of biological determinism built in, albeit human-directed. Route-setters can't set problems that favor shorter people because they won't make a good show. Problems that advantage height make good spectating.

Daniel is a great climber, no question, and he fits in on the lower end of the spectrum, height-wise. However as comp climbing expands, the majority of competitors will be taller than him, just as NFL linemen have become bigger and NBA point guards have grown taller. The sport is still really young.

Justin said...

Daniel is what, 5'6" and not particularly large for his height either?

I think you are spot on with the style of the problems observation, but I don't know if it'll ever come to 6'2" climbers being the norm. A person of that height caries a lot of mass in their torso and legs (unless they are really skinny) and that starts to negatively impact their grip strength to weight ratio.

I'm 5'8" by the way.

Peter Beal said...

I think Daniel's taller than that but maybe I am off. I agree 6'2" is a bit tall, though. I would look at height distributions on the world cup scene as well.

A.M. said...

Comps in the past few years have changed dramatically from what they once were. Problems used to encompass climbers of all styles very well. If you look at Spot comps nowadays, it is big, gymnastic moves between holds. Is this a bad thing or a good thing? In my mind it is an elitist style of setting that is not necessary. Comps are attracting a larger audience than before so they are doing something right.
I think comps could balance out this style with the old very well if the time is put into it.

Anonymous said...

The two shortest competitors won the

Peter Beal said...

Absolutely right on that point. However I am wondering if that will be the case moving forward.

Anonymous said...

it seems results are too broadly distributed across the wide spectrum of body types to be able to generalize about where the sport is going. if there was any statistical support for your suggestion, i'd be inclined to agree, but i don't think it's there?

it does sound good in theory though.

btw, not sure your nba point guard height statement holds water either: chris paul, allen iverson (sometimes point), tony parker, fisher, etc etc. magic johnson never established a new norm, although most said he would; he was just a freak!

Peter Beal said...

I think only the future will tell. Many of the other male competitors were in the size range of 5'9" plus. Sean was by far the most experienced pro athlete in the finals which I think counted a lot. He nearly blew it on the second problem, where a longer reach would have made the last move easy.

No idea about the statistics in climbing but in other sports, the evidence does seem to be pointing in that direction. I shouldn't have used the position of point guard as example, power forward or center would have been more accurate.