Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Psicobloc the Future? Why I am not Drinking the Chlorine (yet)

Being off in the hinterlands of coastal Maine last week and without access to the Internet, I missed the big event in Park City that was hyped up across the Internet as the future of comp climbing. This was the Psicobloc comp, where organizers had set up a 50 foot wall over a pool normally used for freestyle skiing training, arranged so that competitors could climb side by side on identical routes. Scheduled to coincide with the OR tradeshow, the event was regarded by many as a great success and many commented that it could point to a future for climbing comps as mainstream entertainment, taking the sport to the "next level". I think this feeling was particularly strong given the disappointment of not being selected for Olympic inclusion in 2020.

Now anyone reading this blog knows that I have a contrarian disposition about a lot of things and those of you who need more "awesome" should know better than to read my posts anyway. And there's no doubt that within its own context and setting, the comp was a success. Chris Sharma put the weight of his reputation behind the event and a really good roster of talent showed up. But here's my take on the future of this format: it is probably not going to work as "the future of competition climbing"

Anyone still left reading? OK, then. I have no animus or axes to grind here, only a few basic points for athletes, organizers and spectators to consider. Some of them are the same problems with comp climbing in general, some are specific to DWS events.

1. Climbing is boring to watch. It turns out it is basically just as boring to watch it over a pool of water. In the highlight reel I saw, there was virtually no attention paid to the routes themselves and no wonder. Despite the world-class setter Dani Andrada and the A-list athletes, the fact remained that they were slowly climbing plastic blobs over a pool. Apparently the routes were fairly hard but the average spectator would not have a clue. From a TV standpoint this is a major hurdle to overcome.

2. Climbers falling into water is boring to watch. After the first few plunges, it seemed to me no more or less interesting than watching boulderers hit the mat or fall on a rope. There was no seriously engaging aspect of the falls that I could see anyone outside the sport taking a meaningful interest in. As opposed to competitive diving or cliff diving, DWS falls are extrinsic to the event, being random and uncontrolled by the athlete.

3. Format. The competition format made no sense since there was no real rationale for pairing off particular climbers against one another. The visuals were slightly more interesting but in terms of the actual competition, it really didn't matter. Apparently time was a tiebreaker in case both climbers topped out, which made no sense to me. Furthermore there was at least one close call involving a climber almost landing on top of another. Obviously this doesn't have to stay in place for the future but it is a problem regardless. How do we know who is winning?

4. Venue. How many locales are going to be able to handle a big wall over a sufficiently deep pool? There were questions as to whether the pool was actually deep enough and I heard that at least one climber hit the bottom. Regardless of safety concerns, psicobloc raises the bar on venue options, limiting the possible places for comps and increasing the expense overall since they will require installation of temporary walls.

5. Competitor safety. This was completely passed over in the lead up to the event but if we're talking "the future" then it needs to be discussed. Falling into water at 40 feet in a haphazard unplanned way is a potentially very dangerous activity with injuries like spinal compaction, concussion, etc a real possibility. The past practice in climbing competitions has been to minimize danger to the participants. DWS events cannot eliminate the possibility of life-threatening/altering injuries occurring to participants to the degree that traditional events can. Going forward, I can see climbers giving the event a pass for precisely this reason, setting aside the fact that for many the sensation of hitting the water hard from 40 feet up is simply not fun. Falling into water is part of deep-water soloing but not essential to the sport of climbing.

I appreciate that everyone got excited about the possibilities of this kind of event but from a mainstream sports standpoint, I don't see it going much farther. Maybe time will prove me wrong but I think the points raised above deserve serious consideration. Justin Roth in his thoughtful analysis of the comp, raised the specter of Snowbird, a marquee event that in 1988 represented for many the promise of a new era. Sadly the Snowbird competitions ultimately proved a financial disaster for their organizer Jeff Lowe and the story has remained much the same afterwards, at least for adult events.

I cannot predict the future of climbing competitions with any certainty but I do feel that until leaders in the sport come up with a coherent consistent vision of what achievement in the sport is and how to present it, we will be in a perpetual experimental mode, throwing stuff up on the wall to see what sticks, to coin a phrase. Part of that process has got to include media that is serious about reporting and analyzing all these developments, the way that mainstream sports reporting (at its best) does all the time. I wonder if climbing will become a mainstream sport only when its events and personalities get mainstream treatment. But that's a post for another day...