Thursday, December 22, 2011

Climbing and the Olympics: Will Climbing Lose its Soul?

About a month ago, before I went on unplanned hiatus from writing this blog, I read a very interesting commentary at on the Olympics and climbing. There has been a consistent push in recent years for the inclusion of competition climbing in the Olympics, perhaps in part because the potential resulting higher profile could bring bigger sponsors on board for events such as the World Cup. Here are some thoughts translated from the French, originally authored by Jean Pierre Banville:

"Elle va y gagner la perte de son âme ! La perte des valeurs qui ont fait de l’escalade et de la montagne des sports totalement hors-normes. Je ne suis pas Luddite et certainement pas contre le profit, contre le juste retour de l’investissement. Mais l’escalade s’est toujours positionnée au-dessus des valeurs purement mercantiles. L’escalade est un sport de passion dont les valeurs et l’histoire sont ancrées beaucoup plus profondément dans le psyché humain que la lutte, le golf ou le rugby.

Il n’y a pas de héros dans la lutte ou le golf. De vrais héros. Des géants hors du commun, des êtres hors-normes. Et, non, Tiger Wood n’est pas un être hors-norme. Par contre Cassin et Preuss et Dulfer et Desmaison… ce n’est pas la lutte ou le ping-pong. Guido Lammer, ce n’est pas le curling! C’est l’antithèse du curling… franchement !
On va me traiter de vieux crouton, à ressortir ces figures oubliées. Vous en voulez de plus récentes? Berhault, Bonatti, Arnold… ouvrez les magazines d’ici et d’ailleurs et vous retrouverez ces personnages d’exception qui ont fait et font la montagne mythique !
C’est notre âme collective et c’est ce que nous avons à perdre.

What it will win is the loss of its soul. The loss of values which have made climbing and mountaineering sports completely out of the mainstream. I am not a Luddite and certainly not against profit, against a fair return on investment. But climbing has always placed itself  above purely mercantile values. Climbing is a sport of passion where the values at the history are anchored much more deeply in the human spirit than wrestling golf or rugby.

There are no heroes in wrestling or golf. No true heroes. No heroes beyond the everyday,no superhumans. And no, Tiger Woods is not superhuman. By contrast Cassin, Preuss, Dulfer, and Desmaison...this is not wrestling or ping-pong. Guido Lammer, this is not curling! It's the antithesis of curling...obviously!

You could call me out of touch, to refer to these forgotten figures. You want more recent examples? Berhault, Bonatti, the magazines here and elsewhere and you will find the exceptional people who have made mountaineering mythical.

It's our collective soul and it's this that we can lose.

In essence, I agree with the author of this piece, in the sense that climbing has always set itself aside from other sports in a number of ways. Initially, this was seen in the sport's location, the peaks and glaciers of the Alps which had been rejected as desolate  and frightening wasteland in Western culture for centuries. There was also the ever-present risk of death in this environment which made the game much more serious than most. Finally there was the deliberate search for difficulty, seen in the ever more closely refined definitions of desirable objectives, from unclimbed summits to unclimbed ridges to unclimbed walls and so on. To play this game in any serious sense meant a total commitment of mind and body.

This set of rules was more or less consistently understood until after the First World War when new technologies and an expanding leisure class began to transform the sport, turning it away from the heroic age. In the present era, adventure has had to be even more carefully defined, lending a certain paradoxical air to the enterprise. For example, Tommy Caldwell's epic efforts to free climb the Dawn Wall hinge upon microscopic flakes of rock, with his attempts broadcast to the world straight from the portaledge via Facebook and Twitter. There is no question this is a serious climb with an uncertain outcome. But does it pass the hero test when compared with the aura-laden landmark ascents of the past? Perhaps there is literally too much baggage these days for such a climb to exist.

Maybe a look at the antics (and tragedy) surrounding the first ascent of the North Face of the Eiger will illuminate the issues involved. Similarly high-profile, observable from the safety of a hotel balcony, the climb, which closed the book on the pioneering age of alpinism in Europe, became the object of mass media coverage and its ascensionists were feted by Adolf Hitler. Indeed prior to the 1936 games, Hitler had promised Olympic medals to the first party to climb the route. Ironically, the groundbreaking, even heroic, ascent of the Matterhorn North Face by Franz and Toni Schmid was rewarded with an Olympic medal in 1932. According to most histories of this "golden age" of modern alpinism, much was made of this heroic, even mythic, mode of climbing by fascist governments in Italy and Germany, a phenomenon that may have contributed to the IOC not awarding further medals in climbing.

All of which is to say that the issue of the relationship of climbing to organized sports, indeed organizations of all kinds, is an old one and the heart of the debate is still alive and beating. It seems unlikely that the face of climbing in the Olympics will be anything other than competition climbing as we already know it, in all its sanitized, athletic and commercialized senses. I am not sure that inclusion in the Olympics will change anything in climbing from what it is already, a multifaceted game with all kinds of players and places and ways to play. I am not saying that climbing being in the Olympics will be the huge benefit to the sport that some claim but I doubt it will be the downfall of climbing as we know it. The history of climbing seems to show otherwise.


Peter Stokes said...

Interesting bit of history... and I agree with your overall assessment. The pro Olympic folks are probably overly optimistic, and the anti Olympic voices overly concerned. Olympic kayaking has likely contributed to that sport's popularity, and increased the number of gate courses on waterways, but I can still easily find places to kayak or canoe in a different way. I also enjoy watching people run our local course at the mouth of Boulder Canyon on spring evenings- they often demonstrate technique that could help me if I'm inspired to learn. As I've stated in the comment section for one of your previous posts, Climbing can be experienced in a number of different ways, from an exercise/workout at a gym to a full scale adventure/epic in a remote place, from a social scene to a solitary spiritual practice (for some of us it's all of those things). We each get to choose what it is for ourselves- our sport is somewhat unique in this way.

Anonymous said...

it's sport-climbing that would be in the olympics, for gawd's sake. seriously. (btw, I hardly hold "alpinism" on a sacred platter; in many ways it seems sillier to me than either the sporto or bouldering method; like, risk your life for such silliness? please, risk your life for something that can better humanity or help your fellow man.)

stop taking yourselves (and this silly sport we engage in) so seriously! "oh my gawd, climbing in the olympics=end of climbing!"

of course, all this nonsense talk is nonsense, because there is really no way (unfortunately) that climbing will make its way into the olympics in this round (nor probably in my lifetime).

Brandon said...

I like the conversation.
Of course you know that Ice Climbing is in the 2014 Olympics as a Spectator Sport with hopes it will be a competitive sport by 2018.
This is not 1936 and competition climbing has evolved into its own sport, far from the mountains. Never will competitive climbing have anything to do with the mountains or alpine climbing or the freedom of the sport. However, competitive climbing itself will be int he Olympics. Seeing the momentum it has and the successes, we would be niave to assume anything less then the olympics.