Scaling the Heights: Climbing and Olympics
Anthony King
Anthony King • Jul 15

Scaling the Heights: Climbing and Olympics

by Anthony King

In the delayed Tokyo Olympic Games of 2021, rock climbing will feature for the first time. The competition will involve three ‘disciplines’; lead-climbing (up long steep artificial routes with a rope), bouldering (short, challenging problems), and speed-climbing (racing head-to-head up a standard route against the clock). The winner will be the competitor with the highest aggregate score from the triad.

Climbing competitions are not new. The first indoor climbing world championship took place in 1989, over thirty years ago, and it has been a regular feature of rock climbing since that time. However, for the past twenty years, national federations, equipment manufacturers, and climbing walls have been trying to get the sport into the Olympics. Tokyo is, then, a triumph for them and it seems inevitable that, although climbing has become increasingly popular in the last two decades, an explosion in interest will follow. Certainly, indoor climbing walls are hoping so. 

Traditionalists are sceptical about the introduction of climbing into the Olympics. Olympic recognition does not seem to have done much for other sports. 

Traditionalists are sceptical about the introduction of climbing into the Olympics. Olympic recognition does not seem to have done much for other sports. On the contrary, corruption, drugs, bullying, and over-crowding often follow Olympic status, as money and status infect the sport. It is feared that the same will happen to rock climbing: a sport formerly defined by its anarchic and bohemian culture.

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It is difficult to predict the ultimate impact of the Olympics on climbing. Perhaps, the jeremiads will be proved wrong. A more pertinent question might not be what the Olympics will do to climbing but rather, how the sport of climbing has already changed in the last two decades for it to become an Olympic sport at all?  

For someone like me, who has climbed since the early 1980s, its transformation has been dramatic. One of the most striking differences is the way new climbers now begin to climb. In the 1960s and 1980s, neophyte climbers all took their own paths into the sport. Yet, the general trajectory was clear. Climbers were drawn from a clear demography: teenage boys from the working and professional classes. These young males were attracted to the sport because they were either hopeless at organised school sports like football or cricket or found the rules of field sports constricting. 

They began their climbing careers walking, climbing trees, fishing - or stealing birds’ eggs. One of the most famous climbers of the post-War period, Don Whillans, famously said that he began climbing because as a boy he liked scrambling up trees; but people would have thought him mad if he’d kept doing that as an adult. Whillans was a famous wit. Whillans’ interest in climbing was a natural extension of the massive walks he had undertaken alone on the moors above Manchester – themselves accessible only because of the Kinder trespass of 1932. 

From then to the turn of the century, boys were typically introduced to climbing by teachers or friends - very rarely by their parents. Climbing was for escaping from parents. Indeed, many outstanding climbers came from difficult families with overbearing, aggressive or just negligent fathers. One did not need to be a Freudian to work out what was going on. The first experiences of these new climbers were always outside on the crags with their friends; often in terrible weather. Consequently, although there were specialist rock-climbers, most climbers were also interested in mountaineering much more generally. They embraced the rawness of it all.

Climbing was wild. Drinking, drug-taking, carousing, petty crime, vandalism and fighting were standard features of the sport, sometimes matching the contemporaneous behaviour of football fans on the terraces.

By the 1970s, the famous climbing clubs, like the Rock and Ice Club or the Clachaig Mountaineering Club, which had provided the framework of the sport in the mid-twentieth century, were in decline. Gangs of young men, liberated by car ownership and increasing affluence, now dominated the scene. Young climbers were inducted into the sport by these groups, independently of much senior mentorship. The results were notable – sometimes shocking. Climbing was wild. Drinking, drug-taking, carousing, petty crime, vandalism and fighting were standard features of the sport, sometimes matching the contemporaneous behaviour of football fans on the terraces. British climbers descended each summer on Chamonix or the Verdon like feral packs to the exasperation of the locals – and the police; in Yosemite, Camp 4 became a satellite of the San Franciscan counter-culture. Yet, the bold and brilliant routes which these young punks put up were undeniable. 

It was often interesting to be part of this lifeworld. Yet, it was plain that it was not conducive to the ordered performance required of the Olympics. During the 1980s, things changed. Climbing began to attract sponsorship. Training became more professional; walls improved; sport (safe, bolted) climbing proliferated. It was here that Olympic climbing was born. 

By the first decade of this century, climbing was different. In the 1980s, climbers began climbing in their teens. Now, because walls are numerous and extremely realistic, children start climbing when they are still under ten years old. The best climber in the world, Adam Ondra, started climbing at six; by eight he was doing routes good adults would find difficult. Forty years ago, climbing was a way of evading parental authority. Today, parents take their children climbing at the wall, monitoring their progress and often belaying them, while they are too old or unfit to climb themselves; they have become chauffeurs and attendants. The climbing dad and mum have emerged. Indeed, it is all but impossible to excel without parental investment – both financial and administrative. 

It is not just that climbing walls are more numerous and elaborate with the development of fibre-glass technology, but the walls themselves have actively mentored young climbers to promote themselves. Every climbing wall has its own sponsored youth team, selected from their best and most committed climbers (and parents). These teams receive advanced performance training in technique, strength, flexibility, nutrition, and sports psychology so that they can compete in regional and national competitions. The most successful young climbers from them are then selected for national teams and, ultimately, the Olympics. The UK’s most famous competition climber and 2021 Olympian, Shauna Coxsey, established herself in this way.

There are considerable benefits to the commercialisation of rock climbing. The sport is far more inclusive than in the 1970s and 1980s; it is not so dangerous. Indoor facilities are universally excellent; equipment is superb. Climbing is much more popular; far more girls and women now participate in it. It has diversified so that traditional climbing is now joined by bouldering, sport climbing, and deep-water soloing. Whole new areas have been opened up. The levels of performance, especially among the very young, have risen sharply and, in many cases, are extraordinary. Climbing has become mainstream. It is fitting it will appear in the Olympics, then.

Yet, for all that progress, Olympic climbing has come at a price. A mountain activity that had its roots in Romanticism and non-conformism, and was heavily influenced by the anarchism of the ‘60s is now just another commercialised sport. Significantly, the competitors at the Olympics no longer describe themselves as rock-climbers; they are ‘athletes’. 

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Anthony King
Anthony King

Professor Anthony King is Chair and Professor of War Studies at the University of Warwick, specialising in the study of war, the armed forces, and small unit cohesion. His studies and his advisory work have taken him around the globe, and he is a trusted voice in matters ranging from combat cohesion to the evolving nature of command.

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