Saturday, June 1, 2013

Climbing and the Olympics: Agon and Areté

Last week it was decided that climbing would not be on the list for sports considered for the 2020 Olympics. Despite concerted efforts by the IFSC et. al., what made the list were wrestling, squash and baseball/softball, all traditional activities, especially wrestling which has been part of athletics competition since the dawn of history. Setting aside any speculation as to the transparency of the process, it seems to me ultimately unsurprising that the IOC opted out but what is more interesting is the degree to which climber apathy manifested itself on virtually every climbing-related forum that I visited in the days following the announcement.

In fact, for the majority of commenters, the tone was one of satisfaction, if not celebration. The sense that climbing areas are already too crowded with people, overt commercialism is getting out of hand, and a feeling that public competition is not a real part of the sport; these were the most prominent of reactions. Not all of these comments were from crusty old climbers. Plenty seemed to come from younger climbers from all disciplines. And in fact the number of posts was relatively small indicating an overall apathy from the climbing community.

My personal feelings are mixed at best. I think bouldering especially has real possibilities for a great display of athleticism and sportsmanship, though some recent setting in the World Cup comps has me wondering. But I also agree with those concerned about a split between "real" climbing  and competition climbing growing ever wider. The continued persistence of speed climbing as an event lingers mostly as an embarrassment for both camps, if comments are to be believed. I will say that the bigger issue for mainstreaming competition indoor climbing is sorting out what the sport actually stands for. The Olympic motto is "Citius, Altius, Fortius" meaning higher faster stronger and while faster could be dropped for climbing, the other two are very apropos for the world of climbing.

For the uninformed spectator, and in fact even for the informed one, it is not very clear how these states are actually achieved. To begin with, every serious climber knows that a route or problem overall is not the issue; that instead the shape, texture and angle of a total surface area of a few centimeters can decide the outcome. This is completely different from any other sport in the history of athletics. Track and field athletes do not have to worry about the consistency of their surface nor do gymnasts. Claims that the problems are the same for everyone do not satisfactorily resolve the problem. Nobody should earn gold because their hands are stickier or they are taller or some other micro-factor and it's hard to avoid the feeling that there is something like that going on on some routes and/or problems. These finicky variables which are hard enough for a knowledgeable spectator to discern, are impossible for anyone unfamiliar with the sport to understand in terms of their affect on the outcome.

Yet transforming climbing to an easy set course (like speed climbing) or setting five standard problems of very high difficulty with judges evaluating form and overall routine quality (like gymnastics) doesn't seem satisfactory either and would completely remove climbing from its roots in a way that no other sport in the Olympics has had to do. Plus there is the evaluation problem. Faster seems a very weak way to evaluate climbing skill and speed climbing has never been held in high esteem in the indoor realm. Difficulty is a term that has so many dimensions in climbing that a major challenge in comp setting is avoiding too narrow a set of criteria for the climbers. Plus there is the problem of feasibility being very marginal for many kinds of moves with the result that a climber falls and the game is done or worse, many climbers fall in the same place and separation is made difficult or impossible.

I am not saying that the IOC took these factors into account but I think one of the issues at the heart of making competition climbing succeed is showing where the agon is, the Greek concept of contest that was at the heart of the original Greek games. Comp climbing can feel more like a Rubik cube contest, a very trivial type of areté, what the Greeks understood as excellence and what was revealed in the course of agon. For climbing competition to survive and even thrive, it needs to clearly define both ideas and make them understandable and compelling to a larger audience. While I don't think it's impossible to do this, some clarification is in order in the coming years if the IOC or anyone else (major TV, etc.) is going to get on board.


Jordan Shipman said...

Glad you started discussion about this, Peter. I saw one error in your first paragraph--the IFSC was bidding for climbing to be in the olympics for the 2020 games. Not 2016. Just FYI :)

Peter Beal said...

Good catch Jordan!

bmj said...

Difficulty is subjective, but it would be up to competitive climbers (and organizations) to better define difficulty in a generally subjective way. Look at gymnastics--to a casual observer , there is a high degree of subjectivity in the judging. At the same time, though, a casual observer will know that, say, Natalie Comaneci was a darn good gymnast. But, as you point out, unlike gymnastics, the medium changes, and that has its own set of problems (too tall, too short, too reachy, too crimpy, etc, etc).

I think, however, there is some precedent in road cycling. The course is always different (unlike a velodrome), and certain parcours favor certain riders, and every seems to be okay with that. The races are still exciting, and these days, a true all-around rider doesn't really exist, so it's rare to see repeat winners. And, much like coursesetters, race directors can plan bad courses (typically too difficult, or perhaps not difficult enough) which affect the overall result.

jwi said...

“To begin with, every serious climber knows that a route or problem overall is not the issue; that instead the shape, texture and angle of a total surface area of a few centimeters can decide the outcome. This is completely different from any other sport in the history of athletics. ”

I am not totally convinced this is a valid argument. In the alpine skiing events the way the course is set (most often by the coach of one of the top competitors!) and the general steepness (or lack thereof) make a big difference for the outcome; everyone knows that the difference among the top-skiers are huge on certain types of courses.