Bouldering Nationals: a Monday Morning Commentary

Whether bouldering comps go the way of parkour or pull-up contest on crimpers, the format has deeper biases that ought to be considered. Start thinking A.I. …

It was a big weekend for sports action, and I’m not talking about the Super Bowl, which was actually a pretty good game if you could just push all of the ethically questionable aspects of football out of sight and mind—something that, I admit, is becoming harder and harder to do now that we live under an authoritarian regime that caters to a billionaire economy. Moral relativism by way of a blind support for tradition is keeping the American machine running for now, even if no one is sure where we’re ultimately headed. No one cares, either, so eff’ it. I will say this: aside from the Lindsay Vonn / Olympics plug, which was awesome, most of the commercials were utter shit. They were so devoid of creativity, if just basic linear storytelling, that they were generic to the point of parody. Perhaps I’ve just grown to hate all of these irrelevant baby boomer brands—whether it’s Bud Light or Ram Trucks, they can all eat a bucket of Tide pods, as far as I’m concerned.

Well, now that I got that out of the way … good morning, friends!

The highlight of the weekend, at least in terms of vicarious athleticism, was the USA Climbing Bouldering Nationals, live-streamed on Saturday night from the former home of the Trade Show, the Salt Palace in SL,UT. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the event and was amazed by how far these live streams have come over the years. The production value was objectively professional, not just “professional for climbers,” as I, for one, have come to expect after more than a decade of witnessing competition climbing struggle to find a voice. Hats off to all involved!

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Also, congrats to the podium finishers! Alex Puccio won her 11th straight title, which is an absolutely incredible run especially considering all of her injuries over the years. Puccio is a real-world Terminator. Who can stop her?

Also congrats to Nathaniel Coleman, who dominated the men’s comp again for a third year in a row. He has also now apparently flashed every finals problem for the past three years, another kind of sick record. He made the problems look so easy that, I swear, on M2, he literally levitated to the finishing hold and placed both hands upon it as if to bestow a quiet blessing. He slowly descended to the mats, surrounded by a halo of serene omnipotence. Glory be unto Nathaniel Coleman!

USA Climbing also sported a new format using a multi-zone/hold point system. At least I think it’s new … to be honest, I have no idea. It’s hard to keep track of which format the comp organizers are testing now.

For organizers, I wonder if that is worrisome, considering that the Olympics are less than two years away. After more than two decades of this experiment in turning climbing into a made-for-TV sporting event, there are still no formal conventions regarding the very format of the game. To be fair, football also changes its rules every year, I suppose, though with comp climbing it really seems as if the changes from one bouldering comp to the next are as drastic as if the NFL decided that touchdowns are worth 8 points; no, never mind, they’re only 1 point each because that’s simpler to understand; no never mind, we’ve decided it’s in the audience’s interest if we award points not only for touchdowns but also for yards run and passes completed.

I just rely on the commentators to let me know who is winning

I’ve stopped trying to figure out the rules, and I just rely on the commentators to let me know who is winning. The true enjoyment of watching bouldering comps, in my opinion, isn’t doing hold-math but in seeing how each climber brings a slightly different style to the same problem; seeing which beta works and who can make it look easy or cool.

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In a surprisingly lucid #MomentOfJens, our friend at 8a.nu suggested in his own Monday Morning commentary that a potentially more interesting format would involve setting problems with multiple sets of beta. His example was to envision a problem in which the beta could involve running/parkour-style movements on volumes, or a techy traverse solution on underclings. I actually agree with this idea in theory. It would be really cool to see a problem that lends itself to beta diversity, though in practice, I’m not sure how you could set a problem like this.

Still, any setting that produces different beta solutions and highlights different styles would improve upon the very aspects of comp climbing that I already love to watch.

On social media, I made a comment about how some of the finals problems seemed to be closer cousins to the world of parkour and Ninja Warrior rather than traditional expressions of bouldering difficulty that we tend to find outdoors. Some people interpreted my observation as a critique, which it wasn’t. Parkour-style problem setting is far more interesting to watch, which is the whole point of comp climbing, right? It’s about putting on a good show for spectators, not necessarily about determining who is the “best” climber in the world. Obviously, I think not every problem should be a parkour test piece, but as a style of problem-setting, it certainly has a valid place in the comp climbers’ repertoire. And I think it adds a lot for the spectators.

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If I were to pick apart potential issues with the comp-climbing scene—and given the ever-changing format, this seems like a valid use of blog space—I would direct the conversation to the conundrum of “setting bias,” which is the degree to which setters must necessarily cater to the strengths and weakness of the field du jour.

There might not be a more difficult job in climbing than setting for a big bouldering comp.

The goal of route setters is to create problems so difficult that most can’t do them, but not so difficult that no one can do them. The idea is to set problems that only three or so climbers stand a chance of sending, with one of those climbers clearly making it to the top in the fewest tries so that there are no ties and there is a clear and decisive victor. Consider what an incredibly small, moving target this must be to hit! There might not be a more difficult job in climbing than setting for a big bouldering comp. And it’s only going to harder for setters to hit that target as gene pools expand as the sport’s participation rate grows; as training regimes become more standardized and sophisticated; and, subsequently, as with sprinting, the strength/skill difference between one climber and the next comes down to the proverbial tenths of a second.

Right now, setters study the field during semi-finals and make adjustments to the finals problems in response to the climbers’ performances. They adjust their finals problems to become either harder or easier based on what they’ve witnessed in semis. How is this not a major red flag for potential bias?

To be perfectly clear, I am in no way accusing this weekend’s setters of favoring one competitor over another. But the potential certainly exists.

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The stakes in comp climbing are going up every year. Purses are getting bigger, and now climbing is in the Olympics. As the stakes are raised, will we begin to see more prevalence of setter bias?

The reason this is a potential conundrum is its catch-22 nature: Setters need to cater to the current field’s strengths/weaknesses in order to create a good, fun-to-watch competition. In other words, they can’t set “blind.” But because they can’t set blind, this opens them up to bias.

For example, if it’s known that a competitor has especially large hands, you could imagine a situation in which a setter might be able to provide that competitor a slight advantage by setting, say, only cruxes with wide-grip pinches.

Or perhaps there’s a situation in which a setter notices that one of the top competitors, during semis, is massaging her wrist, as if it’s injured, and subsequently changes a finals problem to include even slopier slopers, which ostensibly would be all the more difficult for the unfortunate fool with a bad wrist.

This is one of the reasons I’m not hopeful that climbing will have a long lifespan in the Olympics, where objective measures of performance are emphasized. Climbing difficulty by itself is just too subjective—and when you add in the fact that a human being with human emotions is designing these subjective challenges not only for competitors, but with exact competitors in mind, how does that not undermine our faith in the very promise of fair competition?

There’s only one solution. We must build robots with the artificial intelligence capable of setting boulder problems of certain grades of difficulty. Consider the idea of a setting robot designed to essentially play a game of “bingo” in which the robot selects from a random assortment of approved holds—never before seen or used by any competitor in the world—and pairs that hold to a random T-nut coordinate in a wall’s grid. I really wonder if this is necessarily the future of competition setting.

It sounds ridiculous … but is it really?

  • mike

    I think you see the same concern in ski racing, which is an Olympic mainstay. Still seems more objective that judged sports.

  • Matt H

    I’ve been thinking about the ‘setting for your competitors’ issue a lot recently, and I think the more obvious, pressing conundrum is the reverse of your suggestion: not so much setting to single out a particular climber but rather setting to avoid singling out a particular climber. For example, suppose height bore an inherent advantage in comp climbing because it allowed one to do bigger dynamic moves. Setters, knowing that they are setting for a diverse range of heights, will avoid height-discriminatory setting even if it means that natural advantages are ignored.

    To be honest, I think that comp style bouldering will eventually favor the shortest climbers because we’re so afraid of setting ‘tall people’ problems (as it looks bad to the audience if everyone but the tallest fails to do a slam dunk move) and so we set dynamic moves that even short people can do, while moves that advantage shorter climbers (finger strength on small holds, undercling strength, crouch moves, etc) are less easy to recognize and therefore less likely to be avoided by the setters.

    I think the best solution to this problem is self-set competition, as in the Moonboard Masters and Sisu Masters where the winner must perform the best on others’ chosen style. For a truly out-there but unbiased comp idea, one could consider randomly generating 10,000 Moonboard problems and having the winner be the person who did the greatest number (a sort of global redpoint comp).

  • Tonde Katiyo

    As a setter myself i struggle with this idea myself : the one of fairness and bias. Interestingly i think that what makes the sport of climbing so modern, and why it is meaningful that it be in the
    Olympics is precisely that it offers a subjective and ever changing challenge.
    I see my job as a constant search to ask the competitors new questions, and the history of bouldering competitions shows that many of the new and trending moves in climbing gyms (and on Instagram) have their origin in competitions. Setters from the generation befoer mine taught me for example that the triple jump was “invented” and “developed” by a French and Austrian route setter on the World Cup circuit, and were successful in making it an acceptable challenge (meaning they actually got 2 tops within the 5 minutes of the onsight comp time) in 2007.
    The Olympics family of sports try to measure human achievements by boiling them down to measurable criteria weight, speed, distance (and i will not dive into the rabbit hole of judge attributed point systems). These have structured and influenced our concepts of “winning” and “fairness” maybe even our ethics. but are they though…? body typing in all the Olympic disciplines? Rule and format changing “for the audience”? cycling scandals anyone? FIFA scandals anyone?
    I think the mistake is to try and fit the fantastically imaginative sport of climbing into an old definition of “fair”. Does it not in mysterious way erode gender differences? I think climbing is a modern sport, a sport of our complex era that factors in the complexity of who we are and that challenges suit us all in different ways. We know this, because we are at the pinnacle of thousands of years of evolution. We should act like it and embrace and celebrate and explore the complexity of our sport.
    I hope the decisions we take in our still relatively small sport will also be a gateway to the some of the ethics of the future…