Saturday, August 4, 2012

Climbing and the Olympics: Bouldering is the Future

This week marks the happy coincidence of the 2012 Olympic Games in London and the Outdoor RetailerSummer  in Salt Lake City. Needless to say I am going to neither one but their chronological conjoining brought back in focus the expressed desire to "make climbing an Olympic sport." Now I have written on this topic before, but the question keeps reappearing so I will have one more go at it.

Will climbing become an Olympic sport? Well first which kind of climbing? Obviously outdoor climbing is out, as being unmeasurable and too obscure. Will it be onsight leading as in lead World Cups? I am guessing no as the drama and the telegenic aspects are really lacking. Lead climbing is a slow and laborious enterprise to watch with no clear way to understand what is going on in terms of scoring. How about speed climbing? Impossible. Nobody takes this category seriously and at some level, even synchronized swimming makes more sense. In my view the only category that has any chance will be bouldering, and that is only if there is a drift towards gymnastics. That is to say, there will be a pre-arranged set of skills that will be tested across a range of problems in both men's and women's divisions. The parallels with gymnastics are obvious and the visuals are similar, making for an easier introduction into the Olympic environment.

I also think this type of climbing being in the Olympics is least likely to affect the mainstream of climbing except possibly in a good way. The positive aspects of bouldering as an Olympic sport is it will finally force at least one group of climbers to think about training at a level that very few have had to before. I thought of this as I was watching Sean McColl's new video of his training regimen:

Now Sean McColl is a beast. He has climbed at a very high standard both in comps and outside, and in fact he is the best male comp climber from North America as far as I know. However, this video, which is well worth watching by the way, only hints at the work that will be needed to be a truly world class climber at a world-class level, in say 10 years, if climbing (or bouldering) actually entered the Olympics. I am not saying that Sean is a slacker by any means, but compared to the work required in other, more mature sports, climbing has a long way to go.

Andrew Bisharat, in his recent, and somewhat apropos, musings on the future of climbing points to Chris Sharma as a role model for climbers who will somehow be able to set a world standard by climbing only when they "feel psyched" (sic). He was thinking about the recent book Born to Run which studies the more "natural" running style of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico and its superiority to more structured modes of running as found in Europe or North America. He goes on to say that American success in distance running in the 79s and 80s was because "For these runners, with their feet clad in sneakers as primitive as their knowledge about training and diet, running wasn’t a grind. It was exalting." Bisharat's comparison with the contemporary running scene seemed to me naive and uninformed however. While it is true that American runners were very strong internationally in the 1970s and even into the 1980s, a more likely explanation for that success is some insane mileage put in by the likes of Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Steve Prefontaine, et. al. Only in the last 5 or so years are runners in the US beginning to try to train on that level again, having been endlessly schooled by runners from all sorts of places, not just Kenya or Ethiopia. Their secret? More likely than not, real financial support, structured disciplined routines and incredible amounts of hard work.

In other words, it's not all about inspiration or "primal joy" or feeling psyched. Those are crucial motivators but they are not enough to complete serious work in any discipline. Climbers, because they practice such an immature sport, have been able to leverage talent and style to a striking degree. However, if bouldering makes it into the Olympics and serious training routines evolve to maximize human strength potential, we will see truly incredible things, both inside and outside. Something will be lost of course, especially the sense of climbing as a truly useless, self-inspired game. But in my view, that state of mind will always be accessible outside the media and the arena. There is no doubt in my mind that the days of laidback "athletes" just doing what comes naturally are drawing to a close and a new era is underway.

Now whether this is a good thing in itself is a debatable question. Running Times ran an excellent editorial "The State of Running, 2012 - Have We Gone Off Course?" which asks some questions that are relevant to a discussion of climbing as well. They have to do with whether a sport is beneficial to the society, the culture and most importantly the individuals who practice it. But that is a topic for another day.

UPDATE: here are two recent posts on the topic


Arizona Teacher said...

While I don't take speed climbing very seriously, I could see it as a great contender for the Olympics. It's already in several international events.

Speed climbing is also very easy for people to understand, much easier than bouldering. The same route climbed by all climbers as fast as possible. It's a race that amazes people at the events I've attended. (Non climbers more than climbers for sure)

jwi said...

Ramon is reputed to train about 7 hours / day, and Sharafutdinov is training 6-7 hours /day, five days / week, how much more time do you think is possible to put in?

Peter Beal said...

Time is not the only measure of training intensity but in any event, I doubt the majority of climbers come anywhere close to Ramon's training quantity.He is always cited as the example of serious training but few others are that I know of, especially in bouldering.