The inclusion of climbing in the Olympics is new, but the topic itself has been around for decades. The first instance of climbing’s Olympic potential getting significant press occurred amid coverage of the 1989 Snowbird, Utah, competition, just a year after the inaugural 1988 Snowbird event made headlines for being the first invitation-style international climbing contest ever held in the United States. That year—only three years out from SportRoccia, the first-ever international rock-climbing competition, held on a limestone cliff above Bardonecchia, Italy—climbers converged to test their mettle on a 115-foot wall, with a capping roof and slab, on the side of the Cliff Lodge in Snowbird, Utah.
It made sense to discuss the idea of the Olympics at those early Snowbird contests because the competitions themselves were formulated very much in an Olympic-style: Athletes from around the world converged at the Snowbird resort and created an atmosphere not unlike that of an Olympic Village. Multiple languages were spoken, press conferences were held, and reporters from media outlets around the world clamored for snapshots of the eclectic gathering. The podiums were international as well. In 1988, French star Patrick Edlinger won the men’s division at Snowbird and his compatriot Catherine Destivelle won the women’s division. The following year at Snowbird, France again reigned supreme, with Didier Raboutou and Nannette Raybaud claiming victory. Other athletes taking part hailed from the United States, Italy, Australia, and elsewhere.
But it wasn’t just the international nature of the Snowbird competitions that was prompting Olympic dreams for climbers. The 1992 Winter Olympics were scheduled to be held in Albertville, France. As was customary, France—the host country—would be allowed to showcase a sport of its choosing at the games. Given mountaineering’s roots in France and the Alps at large, it seemed all but certain that climbing would make its grand Olympic debut at Albertville. An article in the August 1988 issue of Climbing explicitly stated (opens PDF, 22 MB), “The recently formed World Cup circuit features contests in the United States, Italy, France, Spain, Bulgaria, and Russia, and competition climbing will likely be included as a demonstration event in the next Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.” (No. 109, pp. 44–56).
However, as the Games drew nearer, climbing’s chances of inclusion grew slim for several reasons. First, given the newness of organized climbing contests, many countries had yet to create veritable national governing bodies that focused on competition climbing. Additionally, competition climbing at the international level did not have a standalone governing body either, but was instead overseen by a branch of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA). In other words, despite some buzz—and a successful climbing competition at an event labeled the Pre-Olympics held one week prior to the Albertville Olympics in the nearby town of Chambéry—competition climbing wasn’t quite ready for prime time.
As the 1990s progressed, Olympic hopes continued to flicker. National governing bodies appeared around the world, and those governing bodies that already existed solidified their competition-climbing focus. There was brief talk of the 2004 Summer Olympics possibly being held in New York City, and the New York City Sports Commission expressed an interest in climbing’s inclusion at those Games. But in the end, the new millennium arrived, the 2004 Games were held instead in Athens, Greece, and climbing remained an Olympic outlier.
Then, in 2006, bouldering and speed-climbing exhibitions were held in Bardonecchia as part of the Torino Winter Olympics. American climbers Emily Harrington and Vadim Vinokur were among the athletes asked to take part, although the UIAA’s representative made a point to stress that the events were not competitive. It wasn’t exactly a full-fledged Olympic debut for competition climbing; more like an evening sideshow that was coupled with a “climbing festival” for kids. But it signified progress.
However, complicating matters in the early-aughts was the fact that multiple governing bodies—rather than just one—were overseeing competition climbing in the United States: A route-setter and hold shaper named Scott Rennak—today the publisher at Climbing Business Journal—started the American Bouldering Series (ABS), but there was also a thriving organization known as the Professional Climbers Association (PCA) that held its own competitions. At the same time, USA Climbing, today the United States’ only governing body for climbing competitions, was just getting off the ground, itself an end product of a separate organization that had sanctioned youth competitions. “Thus, there are essentially two directions that competition climbing can go in America. Either complete anarchy, wherein each group competes for media and sponsorship; or the various groups, while maintaining some autonomy, recognize a common goal,” wrote Gail Rothschild in the 2004 Climbing article (opens PDF, 13 MB) “Reaching for the Rings: Can the United States Overcome Itself and Help Climbing Into the Olympics?” (No. 230, pp. 52–59)
In the end, the potential anarchy that Rothschild mentioned did not come to fruition. Beginning in late 2003 and continuing into 2004, most of the American organizations funneled into a singular entity, USA Climbing. This corresponded with the rise of the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) three years later. The IFSC had been born from the offshoot competition branch of the UIAA, but the organization quickly became its own independent federation and served as the chief global governing body for worldwide climbing competitions, which it has done since. The IFSC explicitly stated that Olympics inclusion was the goal, and discussions began once again in earnest with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) around 2008. An inclusion of ice climbing—again as a demonstration sport—at the Sochi Winter Olympics (to be held in 2014) indicated that climbing, in some form or another, was fully back in the Olympics conversation. However, a decision in 2013 denied sport climbing’s inclusion in the forthcoming 2020 Olympics, instead giving the nod to squash, wrestling, and baseball. Then, on August 3, 2016, it was announced that additional sports would be included at the 2020 Games, including climbing, skateboarding, and surfing. The IOC said it was was a strategic move to gain younger viewers: “With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us,” IOC President Thomas Bach was quoted as saying at the time. “We have to go to them.”
Once the initial excitement subsided, climbing’s Olympic inclusion was met with some criticism and bafflement within the competition community, mostly for the format of the event itself. Climbing at the 2020 Games would include every competitive discipline (speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing) grouped into a single, all-encompassing event. An early—albeit, vague—explanation for the combined format from the IFSC’s marketing and communications director, Anne Fuynel, was that “the spectacle and the complementarity of the three disciplines were evident...” In actuality, the IOC only designated a single set of climbing medals per gender for the 2020 Games, so combining all three disciplines was an attempt to satisfy specialists and fans of every type of climbing. Despite such good intentions, the merger was an awkward one given the different energy systems required for elite performance in each respective discipline—and it marked a departure from the IFSC World Cup events and other championships on both national and international levels, in which the three disciplines were contested separately.
Many top-level climbers were vocal about their disdain for the Olympics combined format, but a general reverence for Olympics inclusion—in any way, shape, or form—eventually took precedence over any lingering consternation.
Then, last summer, memes and social media posts of climbers posing with their fingers formed triangularly to represent the Eiffel Tower hit the Internet. The images were a crowdsourced way for climbers to show support for a vote on climbing’s inclusion in the 2024 Olympic Games (to be held in Paris). The IOC eventually voted unanimously to include climbing at those Games, and indicated that the medal allotment would be expanded: bouldering and lead climbing would be combined for a medal in 2024, and speed climbing would be contested for a separate medal. The number of Olympians would also be expanded in 2024, according to the IOC, from 40 to 72. “The community has spoken, the IOC has responded,” IFSC photographer Eddie Fowke wrote on Instagram with an image of a massive crowd displaying the Eiffel Tower hand signal at a World Cup competition in Vail.
As a result of the provisional ruling for the 2024 Olympic Games, this year’s format at Tokyo—with 40 total competitors (20 men and 20 women) all vying for a single set of medals per gender in a combined, three-discipline event—may be the only time climbing is contested this way on the Olympic stage. It remains to be seen whether the IFSC and USA Climbing will retire the three-discipline combined format altogether after the Olympics, but the hosting of a second annual Combined Invitational by USA Climbing just a few weeks ago hints that the Olympics format might be here to stay.
Climbing’s Olympic journey has been a long and winding road. Even now, the sport’s inclusion at 2024 is only provisional and will likely be informed largely by how well it is received in the upcoming 2020 Games. But we’ve come a long way, and the kickoff of the Tokyo Games will be an accomplishment that was three decades in the making.
John Burgman is the author of High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing, which chronicles the history of American competition climbing.