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Spectators Think Climbers Are Failures. IFSC President Hopes to Change That

The president opens up about the Olympics, that highly publicized lawsuit with Japan, some ongoing efforts to combat doping, and what’s in store after Tokyo

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Longtime head of the IFSC, Marco Scolaris, has been busy. In addition to winning a re-election campaign in April (and thus extending his presidential tenure to 14 years), he traveled to the United States for back-to-back World Cups in Salt Lake City in May. Under his watch, the IFSC also recently released its 2020 Annual Report and announced a partnership with the not-for-profit International Testing Agency with a campaign #KeepingClimbingReal. And the biggest headline of all, climbing’s highly anticipated debut at the Olympics, is just days away…meaning that Scolaris’ hectic schedule won’t ease up anytime soon. But that also means now is the perfect time to dive into it all with him—the past he is indelibly woven into, the present crunch of plans and initiatives, and the uncharted future of the sport and its most prominent organization. 

BURGMAN: Congratulations on your recent re-election. What are some of the biggest evolutions you’ve seen at the IFSC in your time with the organization? 

SCOLARIS: I made a presentation before the election, and for that, I really started remembering what happened in 2007, and exactly May 2007—just a few months after the foundation of the IFSC. I went to Tibet and—I was a photographer, so I was taking pictures—I was in the front of Cho Oyu and I was thinking, ‘Well, now we are really sailing in the unknown and we are on our own as well.’ I remember at the foundation meeting a vote on the Olympic Games. I actually asked our members—57 federations, ‘Do you want the IFSC to move in the direction of the Olympic Games?’ It was a unanimous vote—well, actually it was not really unanimous; everybody voted except one federation and the federation delegate left the room because he didn’t want to vote. And I don’t want to mention the federation, but—it was basically a unanimous vote. At that moment, I had clear in mind that we wanted to grow the sport and to move in the direction of the Olympic Games, but [I was] uncertain we were really ready. We were just out of our mother federation, we were on our own, we needed to start again the process of getting IOC recognition, etc. But, like a child who grows and then becomes an adult and leaves the parents’ home, there is some uncertainty, there is some fear, but you feel proud that you are on your own. And that was my feeling at that moment. 

Of course, it was also difficult to foresee how we could achieve the goals because our resources were limited; we had very little money, our annual budget was less than 200,000 euros. And then we started building relationships, and that moment we had to create a credible calendar, a credible sport, and then to present the sport to the media and to the external world. The biggest achievement—well, we went together with the boom of the sport itself. In those years, the number of climbing gyms was already important, but what happened afterwards was unbelievable. In those years, we also tried to understand why the sport was growing so fast, so we made some research and basically with the help of some experts, we realized that climbing is one of the five basic motor skills. It’s something that we have inside—in other words, we can say that climbing is an instinct. If you put an obstacle in front of a kid, then he or she tries to climb it. And then, especially among the young generation, the attraction [to climbing] was really strong, and some investors understood. From the moment that climbers realized they wanted to build climbing gyms to train, it became a sport like others—a physical activity. With the additional value of this instinctual approach, it became huge. 

That ‘boom of the sport,’ right around the time of the IFSC’s formal formation coincided with a whole new—young—generation of climbers becoming superstars. I think they helped grow the sport through their fame as well, right?  

Yeah, it was a transition time. The sport world was not really developed and there was a sort of division between what we might call historical climbing (on rock) and climbing on plastic. There was still a perception that ‘real’ climbing was on rock, and on plastic was just ‘training.’ Even now there are still people who say, ‘I cannot climb on plastic because the feeling that I get beneath my fingers is just different on rock.’ 

But the development was that sport climbing on plastic found its own dimension. It was not climbing on plastic for training—it was climbing on plastic for fun, pure pleasure. People started going to the gym for climbing and not just for training. It was completely new. And at the same time, doors opened to huge potential customers—people who didn’t know anything about climbing, didn’t know anything about rock climbing, and maybe were not really interested in climbing outdoors; they simply finished their lesson at the university or their working day and wanted to move their body. Rather than going spinning or doing other physical activities, they realized, ‘Climbing is not that bad.’ And also the social aspect—if you’re asocial, you go to a boulder gym and climb completely on your own, totally isolated. You don’t talk to anybody. You go home, and you don’t have to share anything with anybody. But if you want to socialize, you go there and you start talking with someone else and then you create a group. So, [climbing] covers all aspects of human beings. 

Climber Sean Bailey leads climbs at IFSC Toulouse 2019 Men Lead Qualifications
Sean Bailey competes in the Men’s Lead Qualifications at IFSC Toulouse in 2019. Photo: IFSC/Eddie Fowke

You mentioned ‘building relationships’ being one of the earliest things the IFSC did. Can you explain what you mean and what types of relationships were sought? 

The relationship goal was to make the Olympic family understand more about the sport—because many people, if not most, still believed that [climbing] meant climbing a mountain, a dangerous environment, etc. So, I remember the first time we approached some IOC members, they completely had a different perception of what we were doing. So, with the help of some pictures and inviting them to attend some events, we changed their perspective. Really, it was like we used to do with our parents when we were young. [We’d say,] ’Mom, I’m going climbing,’ and our parents would say, ‘Be careful.’ But we eventually invited our parents to come with us—and, in particular, we took falls so our parents could see it was safe if it was done in the proper way. 

So, it was a long process, because the sports world—and especially the Olympic family—were really an exclusive world. Maybe now the situation is different, but they weren’t really as open to new things, so we had to establish relationships. But, those in the Olympic family who had the vision and were visionary, they understood the strength of this sport and the possibility to bring new values and fresh air into the Olympic movement. So, we immediately got some friends. 

You’re illustrating a battle that climbing has long had—whether against more mainstream media, or non-endemic outlets, or sports entities like the IOC. There has been this attempt to change perceptions and convince others that climbing does not really belong in the category of ‘extreme sports.’ There are risks in climbing, of course, but when done correctly, climbing is very methodical, very controlled, and it can be just as much a sport as anything else in the Olympics.  

This is a good point because in those years we didn’t want to be associated with extreme sports—because, as you implied, ‘extreme’ immediately means ‘dangerous.’ And I remember we refused some offers from some companies. We didn’t want to sell what we were doing as crazy, etc. What prevailed was the social aspect. 

After that ‘long process,’ climbing was finally announced as an Olympic sport in 2016—scheduled for the 2020 Games. The IOC said that part of the goal with climbing’s inclusion (as well as surfing and skateboarding) was to capture a young demographic. Was that an aspect that you pitched to the IOC, or did they figure that out themselves? 

Well, the partnership with the IOC has always been very productive. We really move hand-in-hand. So, I cannot say it was ’our’ idea or ‘their’ idea; it was really ‘our’ [collective] idea, in the sense of both organizations. From the beginning, we knew that we were bringing the kids with us, and they saw it. So, it was a common understanding and it was a win-win. 

To me, that kind of mirrors the United States’ climbing history—with the JCCA emerging as an organization aimed at kids in the 1990s. This was pre-USA Climbing; there was a realization that getting kids interested in climbing meant that you were also likely introducing their parents to climbing, and perhaps the kids’ siblings as well, not to mention friends and friends-of-friends. The kids ended up being the key to really growing the sport.   

Yes—because that way you build the future through the sport. I think what happened in the U.S. was great; they turned this youth or kids-oriented organization—where the parents were running it financially and logistically—into a different organization. It was not easy, I think. To change the status quo is always difficult, and the transition period is most of the time painful. 

Has anything surprised you since that announcement of climbing’s Olympic inclusion? 

This is the beauty of life—we are surprised each and every day. There is always something new, and sometimes you’re not surprised for the better; maybe you have expectations in some development, in some countries, in some individuals, and things don’t go the way you thought. You need to be prepared to fail. Boulder is a good example for our society. I received some comments from the IOC about [bouldering]—which is clearly the most difficult discipline to televise, to be accepted by the common public, etc. The comment was, ‘Do the athletes really like to fall so many times?’ Clearly the number of failed attempts is higher than the number of tops. I said, ‘That’s an interesting observation,’ but then I thought maybe it was something that should be explored—the culture of the failure. In today’s world, you must win, right? You must get rich, right? But boulder [exemplifies] a different approach—maybe it’s something we want to explore for the future. That doesn’t mean that you don’t get to the top, but you need to find the right way, you need to train, and the majority is failure. 

IFSC President Marco Scolaris
IFSC president Marco Scolaris at the recent IFSC General Assembly meeting in Torino, Italy. Photo: IFSC

Speaking of the different disciplines, let’s talk about the Olympics Combined format. When it was first announced, there was a lot of confusion and displeasure with it. But I think many people failed to realize that all of you at the IFSC were a little confused by it as well, meaning it was new for you too. 

The point is—I knew, because I was one of the actors, but many others didn’t because they were not part of the action and the decision process. So, our fault—our big fault—was not to understand that people didn’t understand what we were doing. And we were not able to communicate the background and the reason behind why we decided to move in that direction—including the fact that we had to do a compromise because the IOC (from the beginning) said, ‘If you want to enter the Games, please don’t expect to get more than one medal.’ Again, the mistake was on us. Also, the reason why we decided to accept that compromise was because it takes time: one medal [now], then maybe three medals [later]. So, I think a lot of people saw when we moved to [the Paris Olympics] from one medal to two medals, they said, ‘Ah, OK.’ 

Actually, we had a choice [for the Tokyo Olympics]. The IOC said, ‘One medal—you decide what to do.’ We could propose one [discipline], two combined, or the three disciplines combined together. Clearly the IOC wanted to have speed. Why? Because if they accept a new sport, they want to make sure that people understand and love it. So, there was a hidden precondition that speed should be in it. So, we could have said, ‘OK, let’s go with speed.’ That would have been the easiest way. But then we said, ‘No, we cannot do that,’ because if the goal is a long-term goal, we don’t want to leave any disciplines behind. Because of the experience we had, we knew if we left any disciplines behind at the international level, those disciplines would be dead. 

“Dead” because the interest would follow whatever single discipline was included in the Olympics?

Not only the interest, but also the money—because the national Olympic committees, which support the different national federations, would have invested money in training for speed only…or whichever disciplines were in the Olympic Games. So, by doing this compromise, all three disciplines in the Olympics Games—with the Combined—would be given equal opportunity. This was something that was obvious for us, but not for the rest of the world. Again, the key factor is that we were not able to explain the process, to present the process. 

What is your personal opinion of the Combined discipline? 

I think it went much better than expected, honestly [laughs]. That’s what I was saying, we are surprised every day by circumstances. What is even more surprising is that today many climbers are using speed to improve boulder, for example. And you see a guy like Tomoa [Narasaki], the times that he is achieving… The climbers realized that what they consider as a non-climbing discipline is also climbing. It’s a different way of climbing, but it’s climbing. 

So, I don’t know what the future is of this [Combined] discipline. There is a discussion in progress. I think some of us think it should be kept somewhere, somehow. It could be useful to still have Combined events, especially for the younger generations, and then they specialize like in other sports. The real issue, the real problem is it is difficult to organize these types of events because to combine the three disciplines—there are very few facilities around the world that can host a Combined event. 

Personally I hope the Combined discipline stays around because it creates an entirely different cohort of winners and top stars. But I’ve never thought about it being logistically hard to organize. That’s an interesting point.  

I hear more and more voices supporting the Combined discipline—and personally I have nothing against it. The issue I see is where do people practice it? Where do we run our Combined events? 

Along the line of event organization, according to the 2020 Annual Report, the IFSC made 2.4 million in revenue, which was about 30 percent less than 2019. 

Of course we cannot report everything in the Annual Report, but what is interesting to say is that our sponsor—we have a contract with one of the biggest marketing agencies in the world. And with the help of the IOC, which gave a donation to us, I think we were able to maintain—even increase our reserves—and protect our employees. We were lucky that most of our employees work in Italy, so we could provide them with part of their salary through some funds of the government for three months…and then we compensated the rest with our money. But because of the confirmation of the sponsorship contract, we didn’t have to fire anyone—and with a full salary for all of the year, which was not guaranteed, if you’ll see, many other federations that suffered much more than us. 

Yes, I believe 2020 actually saw the IFSC’s second-most revenue ever, which is pretty remarkable considering the pandemic. 

I think it’s important to note the donation that we received from the IOC because it proves we are entering now a new system. In theory, we are not sharing the TV rights after Tokyo because climbing is an additional sport. While all the other Olympic federations received a loan by the IOC, the five additional sports in Tokyo received a donation—so they don’t have to return the money. Clearly we enter into a different system, and we hope after Tokyo—this is part of the future—to become an Olympic program sport—because then we go into the circle of sharing the TV rights. And this will completely change our scenario, not depending on private money. Still a big part of our income is generated by fees—competition fees, annual fees, etc.—which are relatively high. But if you really want to be inclusive and welcome new federations from poorer countries or developing countries, you have to reduce these fees. But if you cannot count on other revenues, how can you do it?

IFSC buttons
Photo: IFSC

In terms of other federations, one of the biggest stories in our world related to these Olympics was the saga between Japan’s national federation and the Olympic pathway, the eventual lawsuit, etc. I’m curious what the relationship is like currently between the IFSC and Japan’s national federation? 

The relationship is good; the problem is—there is an old song that says, ‘I don’t need to fight to prove I’m right.’ Unfortunately, in today’s world, it seems the opposite. It seems that…we don’t trust each other. 

I apologized [to JMSCA]. And we spent a huge amount of money, energy, time, and so on to go to CAS [Court of Arbitration for Sport] for what? For nothing. 

You said earlier that we get surprised each and every day. I suppose this situation was one of the surprises that came with Olympic inclusion. 

It’s interesting because when I was thinking, ‘Now I go to CAS,’ the people in the Olympic family—they didn’t care. They go to CAS—I cannot say every day, but…

But it’s not uncommon? 

It’s not uncommon. It’s not uncommon. 

It’s still a big process, I’m sure. 

The real bad thing is the fact that you have to prepare your defense. And you cannot make procedural mistakes. So, I had to go to Bern [Switzerland], with the lawyers for meetings, and then I had to go to court. And then—we had the hearings on the 22nd of August, and the award came the 15th of December. Even if the lawyers said, ‘We’re safe,’ you never know when you go to court. 

Let’s talk about the Paris Olympics set for 2024. Do you plan to implement the same qualification pathway for those Olympics—with World Championships, then with an Olympic qualifier, then with various Continental Championships?

No, we’ll change. We will start with the World Championships in Switzerland in August 2023, then we’ll have qualification through the continental councils. I can tell you we already made an agreement with the Pan-American Games and we will give one slot to those [competitors] who win. But, then the qualification will go through four or five qualifying events. So, what we did in Toulouse once [in 2019] we will extend to more. We are also talking with the IOC and other sports to maybe create a series, but this is really up in the air. 

One big challenge as these plans become greater and the IFSC grows bigger is to avoid corruption, right? 

Yes, and not only corruption itself, but also the perception that corruption can exist within us. This is important. Image is important. If you want to be a model—and the IOC is using us as a model—you need to be perfect. So, even if there is no corruption, you don’t want to give the impression that it could happen. 

You’ve talked about avoiding the perception of corruption, Olympic inclusion, growing the sport, and so on. One aspect that is related to all that—which is particularly interesting to me, as someone who follows many other sports—is doping and performance-enhancing drugs. Since you are a fan of other sports as well, does this cross your mind in regard to climbing?

If you are talking about doping, I’m sure there must be climbers who take something prohibitive—it’s mathematics, they statistically must have. The approach to corruption and this kind of thing for the IFSC is, rather than being a sanction-based approach, is a value-based approach. This is the only way to find a solution.

I think the real issue is the money. Doping—without financial resources—it doesn’t work. 

It takes an infrastructure. 

Right—studies. I think we are relatively clean because nobody invested in doping for climbing. Maybe you can have a theory about what can be useful for climbing, but probably there is no real study showing that using the product will help you. You risk damaging your health. If you achieve a goal—not by giving the best of you, but by giving the best of you by some artificial aid, is it worth it? No. That’s the same as corruption. At the end of the day, you’re in front of the mirror and it’s just you. Or, in climbing, you have the wall and the holds in front of you. You can do it or you cannot do it—you know…the wall is a mirror. Of course we want to prevent [doping], but make people aware that it’s stupid, it’s basically stupid because it’s not in our spirit, it’s not in our culture; it’s against yourself. You can win, but you lose yourself. 

You can win, but you lose yourself. 

I’ve heard you speak a few times previously about ‘new horizons.’ You even use that phrase in the 2020 Annual Report. When you say ‘new horizons,’ what comes to mind?

It goes together with this plan for the qualification for the Paris Olympics—because in the beginning we were thinking of special events where we could maybe run together with other sports…basketball, etc. But then we moved on the idea to have the qualifying events. But if it works, why not have this series every year. At the same time, we are reviewing our World Cup system and—maybe we’ll reduce the number of climbers in the World Cups in order to give the possibilities to develop the continents in a better way. 

The new horizon means also that we need to review the structure of the IFSC. When we created the structure that exists today—it was created in 2008 and then effective in 2009. It’s old. It’s old because it was created in a completely different scenario without the Olympics and maybe too optimistic regarding the growth of the continents. So, we will review it this year, hopefully for next year. We need to have a structure that can face the challenges of today.