Saturday, August 14, 2021

Post-Olympic Climbing: Where Next

 The post-Olympic climbing landscape is now officially with us. It's a topic I wrote about extensively in the past and maybe some posts aged better than others

This post was probably the one that aged best

In it I argued that comp climbing still has no idea what it stands for in terms of testing athletes. I wrote in 2013:

"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."

Nothing I saw in Tokyo indicated anything has changed. Indeed, the scoring controversies (too numerous to recount here) underlined the problem. Separating speed is a welcome move for Paris 2024 though I would argue that speed will ultimately disappear unless it's changed significantly and soon. But more importantly the fact that some very strong outdoor climbers didn't make finals despite a dedicated period of Olympic training indicates, among other things, that whatever comp climbing is becoming, it's so radically different that a climber who flashed 5.15a outside was out of contention for the podium.

I saw a number of attempts by announcers to convey how climbing difficulty works, attempts that had limited success and were rightly lampooned here in perhaps the best commentary I saw.

So where next? Good question! I imagine the current NBC equivalent of Jack Donaghy looking at speed climbing and saying "Nuh-uh" and the TV appeal of people sliding off boulders barely a foot off the ground has to be tenuous at best, once the novelty wears off. 

In my opinion, the future direction of comp climbing needs to focus on a more relatable athleticism in all the events with a trend towards standardization in what skills and strengths get tested. Bouldering in particular needs to get its act together to avoid looking like a lottery while speed has to get away from the race format and build a bigger better wall and route, focusing on time only.

The larger question is the degree to which climbing's appearance on an international stage will increase its popularity, especially in an already stressed and crowded outdoor environment. That's a hard one to forecast since gym climbing really is so different from outdoor climbing and the appetite for its peculiar problems of terrain protection etc may not carry over as easily as some may think. We will see.

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