Everyone has a moment when the coronavirus appeared on their radar. For me, this was the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s 2020 Pan-American Championship, held at Sender One in Los Angeles from February 27 through March 1. The competition awarded two Olympic berths—to American Colin Duffy and Canadian Alannah Yip—and was the first (and so far, only) Olympic climbing qualification event on American soil. With highlights such as Yip’s tears of joy as she was lowered from the lead wall, a new American speed record of 8.052 seconds set by Emma Hunt, and an enthusiastic crowd, the spectacle was a booming success. But as I jotted notes for a Climbing.com recap from atop the media mezzanine, I felt like something was up.
At a press conference, a reporter asked Nathaniel Coleman if he was concerned that the virus might impact the Olympics, for which he’d qualified in Toulouse, France, in November/December 2019. Ever-astute, Coleman said that he would continue to train, and if the Olympics were to be impacted, that would be bigger than sports. A few hours later, I was talking with other members of the press and some officials, and the virus came up again. Not to worry, we all figured. The 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea had seen a norovirus outbreak; the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil had been coupled with the Zika virus; the 2020 Olympics might have a few coronavirus cases—so what? Then, on the gym floor, a friend nudged me. He showed me a shocking text message about his apparel-company employer cancelling all nonessential travel due to the virus.
In the weeks that followed, the coronavirus became the dominant storyline as public life was put on hold and events—including the Olympics—were postponed or cancelled. First, the International Olympic Committee threw around the phrase “scenario planning,” then executive Dick Pound said a delay was inevitable. On March 24, the Games were formally postponed, and shortly thereafter new dates were announced—July 23–August 24, 2021. All qualifying athletes would keep their berths. (For more, visit climbing.com/compchannel.)
The Olympic climbers took to social media to support the postponement. “I’m happy to have this part of the equation settled so that we can as a human race focus on the Covid-19 epidemic … ,” Canada’s Sean McColl wrote on Instagram. Some national federations—including Canada’s—had previously stated that they would not take part should the Games happen in summer 2020. As quarantining became the new normal, the Olympians trained at home—on hangboards, on home walls, on stone tile. McColl encouraged Instagram followers to try daily challenges that included solving a Rubik’s Cube while planking. American Kyra Condie posted photos of her home wall and invited people to make up problems. The Czech Republic’s Adam Ondra, who has been vocal about his struggles with speed climbing, said the postponement allowed him one more year to “improve both mentally and physically.” Granted, nobody was training on an ideal setup, but nothing about the world was ideal.
Yet the fact that plans for the Olympics—and the rest of the world—became topsy-turvy so quickly has brought us together. At a time when Olympians are supposed to be demonstrating otherworldly skill, we find them humanized. Like all of us, they’ve been cooped up. Yet ultimately, all this strangeness will make the Olympians’ eventual glory even more compelling. Plus, we now get a whole new year of Olympic hype—bonus time during which Olympians can enjoy more exposure. And, as Brooke Raboutou told Climbing, “[The Games are] just a year later, which gives me more time to train.”
Some climber-Olympians have already used the situation to become community leaders or improve morale. Switzerland’s Petra Klingler gave away jewelry and gift cards to fans. Colin Duffy took over USA Climbing’s Instagram account to post his home workout. Japan’s Akiyo Noguchi released a series of short training videos on Instagram so that her fans could join in. These are all instances of Olympians connecting with fans in new ways amidst the crisis. And, as we finally leave our homes, we can all collectively rediscover climbing, too. That will be bigger than sports.
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.