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It seems like there are two camps right now about climbing being in the 2020 Olympics: People who are over-the-moon psyched and people grumbling that it’s going to make the cliffs even more crowded and ruin the sport. Which do you feel is the case and what will happen to climbing?
In 2011, I watched the Unified Bouldering Championships in New York City’s Central Park. During finals, one of the women struggled to move through a set of blobby slopers. After some failed attempts, she broke the beta, monoing in the bolt holes. This blew my gumby climber mind. After the event concluded, I pawed the start holds, unable to even pull off the ground. I left the event impressed by the athletes.
Competition climbing didn’t come back onto my radar until I started working at Climbing Magazine, where I started covering climbing comps. As I watched the events for work, I learned the players, and I followed their stories throughout the season. After the hours, days, and weeks of research, I’ve become a fan.
I’ve never understood the negative opinions. If you don’t like it, ignore it, I say. But the fear that the 2020 Games will lead to more-crowded crags is misguided.
The Olympics have not lead to a surge in popularity for pole vaulting or water polo, and you most certainly won’t find a line at your local luge track. Most Olympic sports’ popularity resides in the hopeful hearts of high schoolers, college athletes and folks training for their specific sport in the Games. Sure, a fraction of people might see Janja Garnbret latch an incredible dyno in Tokyo and then check out their local gym, and a fraction of those people might then head outdoors. Overall, the Olympics’ impact doesn’t concern me.
Our sport is experiencing growing pains with overcrowded crags impacting the environment. But blaming competition climbing means turning a blind eye to other, larger contributors.
Take the booming gym industry, for example. According to John Burgman’s Climbing Business Journal Gyms and Trends 2018 Report, “Statistically, the commercial climbing gym industry saw the most successful year ever and grew at a rate of 11.87 percent in 2018, with 50 commercial climbing gyms opening in the United States throughout the year.”
More than anything else in the last 10 years, climbing gyms have put our sport in the spotlight, inspiring people to try the sport. That was my story. I didn't know anything about climbing when Brooklyn Boulders opened their first location in 2009, but I thought the gym looked fun. Now I’m an editor at a rock climbing magazine. (That’s how they getcha.) For people interested in trying our sport, their proximity to a climbing gym will be one of the deciding factors.
And if we’re going to worry Olympic coverage exposing our sport, it would be hypocritical to ignore the Dawn Wall ascent and Freerider free solo and their respective documentaries—especially Free Solo. Both climbs received coverage from mainstream media. The Dawn Wall documentary generated $2M in global box office sales, and Free Solo earned $28.6M. Free Solo’s Best Documentary win at the 2019 Academy Awards brought the film even more attention, and Deadline reports that 1.45 million people tuned in for its television debut. Now Dawn Wall and Free Solo are available on Hulu and Netflix, respectively. Both films glorify outdoor climbing, but I have not seen anyone blame Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson, Alex Honnold, or Jimmy Chin for growing numbers at our crags.
But let’s take a step back for a second: Are increasing numbers a bad thing?
More climbers means we have a louder voice. When political issues arise, groups like the Access Fund have a greater ability to affect policy, and purchase and protect climbing areas. “We have quite a bit of pull, and I think the reason for that is people acknowledge that climbing participation is on the rise and that we represent a vocal and passionate constituency,” said former Access Fund executive director Brady Robinson in a 2016 interview for Climbing, “We’re people that know the land well, for the most part we’re good users and stewards of the land, and there’s a significant economic activity that’s associated with our sport.”
Beyond additional community power helping to secure access, more climbers also means more money for gear research and design, an increase in the development of new climbing routes, better information on how to climb harder and how to recover from climbing related injuries, and additional climbing partners. Plus, more people connecting with our public lands mean more environmental advocates at a time when we really need it. It’s not all bad news.
Certainly I’m biased. as an employee of Climbing Magazine, which benefits from our sport’s growth. But who would I be to say that it was OK for me to start climbing nine years ago and then close the door behind me?
To return to the original question: I’m excited about the Olympics, and I’m not worried about the effects the Games could have on our crags. I think that fear stems from a bias against competitions that some climbers have. If we’re concerned about crowds, we need to take a more holistic view and consider all of the contributing factors. Competition climbing is already an established sport, independent of the Olympics. Athletes are putting an incredible amount of time and dedication into reaching the peak of their ability. They should be given the opportunity to compete at the highest levels and receive all of the respect and recognition that goes along with it. They’ve already earned the spotlight, now let’s shine it on them.
Kevin Corrigan is the digital editor for Climbing.com. He enjoys every kind of climbing, indoors and outdoors, and he's not afraid to spray when he sends his gym project.