The inevitable news that climbing is getting its long-awaited turn in the spotlight of the reality show that is the Olympics has finally come to pass, and I, for one, could not be more indifferent. As the meme-generating pundit behind the “Rawk Tawk” Instagram account sarcastically put it, this time to a picture of Bill Murray’s phlegmatic countenance, “So excited climbing is in the Olympics. Now we can watch climbers who can’t smoke weed tell the world speed climbing is cool.”
Weed is cool (at least in Colorado) and speed-climbing is definitely not—but those are hardly the two best reasons to get excited or bummed about the news that climbing is going to shine, shine, SHINE! for those 20 minutes of non-prime-time coverage that NBC allots to it during the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Upon deeper introspection, I’ve realized that my underwhelming apathy toward the situation stems from a place of internal conflict over not really knowing how to feel.
On the one hand, competition climbing is now a full-fledged discipline within our sport. Even if you’re an old bearded alpinist picking out the crud between what’s left of your amputated toes, you’re still a part of the same tribe as the Sasha DiGiulians of the world. So let’s all get on board and celebrate our diminutive, featherweight brothers and sisters on the comp circuit for getting the opportunity to be in the limelight.
I truly believe that it would be self-defeating, if not downright cruel, to root against our nomadic lifestyle sport expanding and growing to become, in part, a standardized Olympic sport. So what if that means that there will be more helicopter parents forcing pre-school campus training and whey protein supplements down their kids’ little fucking throats? All the common fears I hear about how climbing’s artistic soul will be trampled by the Olympics juggernaut seem unfounded. Climbing being in the Olympics won’t prevent you from going out every weekend as per usual, and having profoundly spiritual personal journeys unclusterfucking your anchor on that 5.9 multi-pitch, so don’t worry about that.
Besides, it’s the Olympics! Gold medals and Wheaties boxes galore! Here we come!
On the other hand, what, if anything, do climbers really stand to gain by seeing their sport become an Olympic sport?
That’s a ground-zero question that seems to have been wholly glossed over as everyone celebrates the news.
It’s the Olympics! Of course we can gain from it! the reaction goes …
After all, climbing in the Olympics has been the apotheosis to the work of many smart, determined folks, whose overt decades-long mission has been to “grow the sport,” a catch phrase that I’ve been hearing about for the last 15 years, at least.
But we all know that “growing the sport” is really just industry-insider code for: We’re finally gonna get rich and/or famous! And part of me thinks that at least 50 percent of the celebration that climbing is in the Olympics stems from this unspoken sentiment that insiders are going to get more rich and famous because of it.
I have nothing against a little bit of that mentality, per se. … But I also don’t believe that the Olympics are going to be the marketing salvation that I already see many companies wringing their hands over. Even worse, the Olympics won’t be a vehicle for driving forward performance standards in our sport.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, everyone, but the Olympics probably aren’t going to change anything about climbing. In fact, we only stand to lose by participating in them, and here are a few reasons why.
The Olympics Needs Us More than We Need Them
Viewership for the Rio Games is already down well over 20 percent from 2012. Part of that huge drop can be attributed to the fact that many millennials are “cutting the cord,” meaning they’re no longer willfully subjecting themselves to the uncomfortable ramrodding that is soliciting Comcast for its cable-television services. But part of it is also that no one really cares about sports that they only ever hear about or think about once every four years.
The main reason the International Olympic Committee has offered to include climbing—along with fellow lifestyle/soul sports surfing and skateboarding—in its platform has to do with the fact that the IOC sees these sports as a way to bring millennials back into the fold. In turn, they can now approach global obesity-inducing sponsors like Coke and McDonald’s and show them that they’ve got that young demo(graphic) back in their pockets.
“We want to take sport to the youth. With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us,” IOC president Thomas Bach said.
I have to wonder, then, why climbers are being forced to participate in such a horrible format? I’m referring, of course, to the fact that climbing is only going to get one medal, for a combined score in three entirely disparate disciplines: bouldering, lead, and speed. I don’t even need to explain why this format sucks, but just imagine the outrage among runners if they were forced to compete for one medal by combining their scores in the 50-meter sprint, the 800, and the mile. At that point, you may as well add in bowling as the tiebreaker.
The first rule of negotiation is that the party most willing to walk away from the deal wins. I think that the climbing community is right to be upset at the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) for securing such a craptastic deal with the IOC. The IFSC was so dazzled by the prospect of Olympic gold that it sold out the sport and did a major disservice to the athletes by agreeing to an unprecedented format that most climbers hate.
The IFSC didn’t realize how badly the IOC needed us, and how little we needed them—which is why one of the greatest climbers of our lifetime, Adam Ondra, is seriously considering boycotting the event. Good. He should.
The Coverage Will Be Embarrassingly Bad
You only have to look at what a fucking crappy job NBC does of parlaying to mainstream America the nuance, technique, preparation, and insane difficulty that goes into every one of the world-class achievements that takes place during the Olympics to imagine what a fucking even crappier job they’re going to do explaining what a crimper or a V12 is, or how a 5.14d is also a 9a, or why the knee-bar beta doesn’t automatically result in a 10th of a point deduction (side note: why doesn’t it?), or how none of these people have any aspiration of ever climbing Everest.
Women’s gymnastics—by many measures, the most popular Olympic sport—is consistently diminished by NBC’s coverage to a reality show in which spritely young women in glittery outfits overcome these contrived emotional storylines whipped up by television producers. Then, without any real discussion about what is happening, why it’s difficult, and why it matters, these rendered beauty-pageant queens with muscles take the stage and do a bunch of pretty dancing, flipping, and kicky things to the approval of their staunch white middle-aged male coaches, who take at least 50 percent of the credit.
And this is the most popular event!
Ninety-nine percent of the country doesn’t know the names of any gymnastics maneuvers, or why they’re even difficult. There’s virtually no profound acknowledgment of the fact that these gymnasts are athletically more impressive than any Crossfitter by miles, and that they are doing far more dangerous things than any mixed martial artist, or that they’re only able to survive these maneuvers because their skill levels are so high due to the fact that they’ve been training their entire lives (literally).
As the NBC chief marketing officer for the Olympics, John Miller, revealed, viewers are “less interested in the result and more interested in the journey. It’s sort of like the ultimate reality show and miniseries wrapped into one.”
In other words, the Olympics coverage has nothing to do with conveying the nuanced story of what makes a sport unique and difficult, or celebrating what makes these athletes fantastic and incredible. Instead, it’s all about producing a reality TV show.
If climbers believe that the Olympics are going to best showcase what makes our sport so incredible, prepare to be disappointed.
No One Will Get Rich or Famous from the Olympics
Upon hearing the news of the Olympics’ inclusion of these new sports, badass pro skier Cody Townsend tweeted, “Congrats surfing, skating and climbing, you’re in the Olympics! [sidenote: nothing good will happen to your sport because of it.]”
Curious, I reached out to Townsend to explain what he meant by that. He told me that the root of his warning stems from the fallout he witnessed in the ski industry when ski slopestyle and halfpipe events were integrated into the Winter Olympics platform in Sochi in 2014.
“Naturally, a lot of freeskiing stars and companies within freeskiing were incredibly excited by the potential of the Olympics,” he explained. “The stars dreamed of fame and fortune, the companies of awareness and profit. But for the most part neither came. Despite a lot of warranted caution voiced from within, I witnessed companies divert massive chunks of their marketing budgets towards their Olympic athletes and marketing initiatives. Since 2014, the market research has shown zero attributable bump because of these initiatives. Skier days haven’t spiked up, products aren’t being sold any faster and, hell, a few of those top-tier athletes lost their top-tier sponsors within a couple of years of competing on the world’s biggest stage.”
He went on …
“In fact, Snow Industry Association accounts that nearly 75 percent of market behavior is dictated by weather, which makes it seem like investing in climate-change initiatives will be far more profitable than Olympic initiatives. … I mean, Valley Uprising probably did more for climbing than the Olympics would ever do. Hell, my mom, who’s never climbed a day in her life, watched Valley Uprising and was suddenly enthralled by the entire sport. I don’t think a few nationally uniformed spidermen/women on colored plastic will inspire nearly the drama and attention that a great film can.”
“All in all, I’d just say the athletes and companies within climbing should have fun, enjoy the Olympics, enjoy the stage, but do not invest a single extra cent or kilojoule of effort and expect a return from it.”
We’ve Already Landed a Wheaties Box
To springboard off of Townsend, I worry that the climbing industry and climbers themselves will become so transfixed by the gold medal that we will abandon our core values. Based on what’s already happened, and what I foresee continuing to happen over the next four years leading up to Tokyo, I worry that, in our haste to “make the sport grow,” we’ll lose sight of what actually makes climbing great.
We don’t need to reduce our athletes to playing the part of uniformed monkeys swinging around on plastic holds. We don’t need to turn our sport into a reality show or a popularity contest to make it interesting. And we don’t need the validation that climbing is the greatest sport on earth because we already know that.
In other words, we don’t need the Olympics.
Jerry Moffatt once said that he’d trade any one of his comp victories for a first ascent. I hope that, over the next four years, Ashima Shiraishi doesn’t spend too much time training for speed climbing. In fact, I hope she doesn’t spend any time training for speed climbing. I hope she goes out into nature, uses her creativity, vision, skill, and talent to put the world’s first 5.16.
It’s worth noting that Tommy Caldwell has already appeared on a Wheaties Box, and not for winning an Olympic Gold. How did he get there? For establishing one of the hardest, most visionary big-wall first ascents of our lifetime.
Let’s focus on growing the sport this way instead.