Monday, November 7, 2011

Is Climbing a Unique Sport?

At, Jens proposed a topic for discussion "The uniqueness of climbing" based on the following premises:

"Climbing is in comparison to other physical sports totally unique on the following parameters.
Gender: Some female almost at male top level
Age span: World class between 9-50 years
Specialization: Some equally good at 1 move boulders - 40m onsight - 500m Multi Pitches
Training: Most just climb without a programme
Comeback: 20 sessions after 1 year break makes you often equally good"

While much of the discussion degenerated into name-calling and back-and-forth examples, the question is an interesting one, not least because it assumes that there is a sport called climbing in the first place.

I think this is an important question to consider, that there is something called climbing, constant enough such that we can actually compare performances between individuals or across time. One of the critical steps towards commodifying the sport has been establishing grades, categories of climbing, even markers of quality. Currently it seems to me climbing sits in an ambiguous relation to other sports, with a relatively tenuous relationship to quantifiability (e.g. grading scales) or any widespread public understanding of what might make it difficult or not. The efforts of commercial interests (media and/or gear manufacturers) to endorse and broadcast markers of excellence such as higher grades of difficulty or times on a route seem to me only to diminish the multiple textures of the sport.

Currently climbing does seem to have at least some vestiges of the depth and complexities of its past, complexities that at least in part explain the phenomena that Jens pointed to. However, the professionalization of the activity at the elite level offers the prospect of an ironically flattened view of climbing, reducible to "objectively" assessed performances and rankings, even in the outdoors. That this should become the norm seems both unavoidable and irreconcilable with the origins of the sport, which seems to have been situated in an aesthetic and moral realm rather than an athletic one.

Curiosity, respect for the risks of climbing, a sense of discovery both of the self and of nature and a respect for the past, and the ways in which these emotions and ideas were conveyed formed the core of the climbing experience for many well into the 1990s. A new norm is emerging forming itself around socialization, corporate sponsorship, increasingly rapid and sophisticated media dissemination and quantification. While rewards of a kind are promised to those who excel in this environment, it is unclear to me how either the climber, and more importantly, the natural environment can benefit from this in the long term.

Which brings me to a final "uniqueness" of the sport, that it is able to co-exist, more or less, with its natural environs. I anticipate in the next few years a radical critique of climbing's effects on the environment. The effects of the sport's popularity and accompanying human presence on fragile niche ecosystems, going well beyond marquee species such as birds of prey, will be on some researcher's agenda in the coming decade with sobering results.

It seems to me that the ongoing emphasis on consumable phenomena such as news founded on gradable achievement, media broadcasting said news, and gear sold with the aid of both activities will encounter increased limits and even pushback from environmental groups and land managers Climbers who seek to make a living from this system should be encouraged to emphasize not just the metrics of achievement but also those subjective factors that make the sport unique.

1 comment:

Neal said...

Very valid points about the environmental impact, I think there could be some serious questions for a multitude of outdoor sports as they continue to expand in active participants.
But not sure about wider consequences although it is a good topic for discussion.
I'm Euro-based so will compare with football/soccer. Just because there's massive publicity/media/celebrities in this sport of soccer, it hasn't really affected the grassroots part as such - kids still kick a ball on the street, people still meet up for kick-arounds and small fun events (just like people/groups going climbing). They might be aware of the top-names stars but only potentially inspires?
Like it not, everything is benchmarked these days so it' only expected that 'grades' (in any type of climbing) will be obsessed over with ever-increasing support from the media.

Having said that, you have got me thinking that potentially more time should be spent by coaches and peers in climbing in motivating people to go and 'explore' - not just follow the path of improvement. It's a definite part of climbing, seeing something new, trying something untried, etc.

Nice post.