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Olympics: Climbing hits the mainstream

One of four new sports set to debut at Tokyo 2020, sport climbing was added for its youth appeal. Kath Hudson reports on this exciting sport, which is hitting the mainstream

by Kath Hudson | Published in Sports Management 2018 issue 2
Speed climbing is a race to the top which can take less than six seconds / © IFSC/Eddie Fowke
Speed climbing is a race to the top which can take less than six seconds/ © IFSC/Eddie Fowke

Climbing is unique, there is nothing else like it in the Olympic Games,” says president of the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) president, Marco Scolaris. “No athlete today is pushing the limits in the vertical dimension like competitive climbers. We’re not using tools to climb, the equipment is for safety only. Strength, speed and endurance at height, climbing has it all!”

A sport that tests mind and body control, athleticism and strength, climbing has been added to the Olympic programme because of its youth appeal, IOC president, Thomas Bach has explained. “We want to take sport to the youth.” He continued. “With the many options young people have, we can no longer expect they will automatically come to us – we have to go to them.”

Athletes will all climb in three different formats. Speed, where they go head to head up a 15m wall in a knockout format. Bouldering, which involves creative gymnastic climbs without ropes, a short distance from the ground. And lead climbing, where they climb to extreme heights on a man-made structure. The winner in lead climbing is either the first to the top, or the one who gets to the highest point before falling. All formats will take place indoors on purpose-built walls.

Olympic inclusion
This format has received some criticism, because climbers usually specialise in only one of the disciplines. It has been likened to asking Usain Bolt to run a marathon. Czech climber, Adam Ondra – the only man in history to win both lead and bouldering World Cups in the same year – has threatened to boycott the Games, as he believes speed events are artificial. However, the UK’s top female climber, Shauna Coxsey, a double bouldering World Cup champion, has got behind the decision, saying it will make her a better athlete.

Other critics have railed against this anti-establishment sport being taken mainstream, saying it will destroy the art of each discipline and that rules will overregulate a sport that thrives on freedom of expression. However, the majority of the climbing community has welcomed the extra profile the Olympics will give climbing and say the proposed format will make for an exciting competition, which will engage young people, be telegenic and boost participation.

Ben Levey, head of membership services at the Association of British Climbing Walls (ABC), says the Olympics will be a great shop window: “The format has caused a conversation, but, for viewers, it will make climbing watchable and relatable.”

Scolaris believes the Olympics will boost an already fast-growing sport: “Along with inclusion in the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will allow the sport to continue to leap forward. This rapid development and growth, now also starting to register in many developing countries, proves climbing can be proposed as an alternative, spectacular activity to people of all ages, everywhere.”

Accessible sport
Although indoor climbing began as a winter alternative to outdoor climbing, it has been considered a sport in its own right for around a decade. “Think of it like swimming, where one could swim in natural waters outdoors, or in swimming pools inside,” says Scolaris. “The swimmers perform the same activity but express themselves in very different environments. The same is true for climbing, which is why we don’t use the term ‘artificial climbing walls’ anymore.”

Assuming the Olympics do spark widespread interest in climbing, how easy will it be for interested people to take up the sport? Levey says the sport is very accessible, with an estimated 200-250 climbing walls in the UK alone, while the IFSC estimates people have access to climbing walls in more than 150 countries.

“It’s a massively accessible sport, but the challenge will be to make sure that those who are inspired to try climbing will get a quality experience, and have time with an instructor,” says Levey. “Centres like Clip n Climb are great for entry level and make climbing look exciting, but it would be great if they could build links with the local climbing community, so people who are keen to do so can access clubs and other centres.”

Growth potential
Levey says a decent climbing centre can be created in a space the size of a tennis court. There are two main types of climbing area: tall ropes, up a wall, which need a height of around 10m, and bouldering, which only requires a four metre height and doesn’t use ropes. He advises using a climbing technical advisor to design a facility so it offers enough versatility and throughput, as well as signing up to ABC’s code of practise. “Safety is the most important thing,” he says. “You can make climbing safe, so it’s rare to have an accident or get an injury.”

He adds that climbing has good synergy with activities like yoga and swimming, so the crossover benefits could be promoted. Additionally, climbing is a fundamental movement, which means practising it could benefit children as they develop their physical literacy.

As a new sport, however, climbing still struggles with funding. Levey says it has the same number of participants as sailing, but while sailing receives £363 per head in funding, climbing shares just £18 a head with ski mountaineering, hill walking and mountaineering. He concedes the sport needs to pull together to start lobbying for funding and better promote itself.

Despite this, there’s plenty to be optimistic about. Those involved say it’s an addictive sport, with good retention. ABC estimates there’s a 50/50 gender split among children in the UK, and that one million people currently climb in the UK, with 70 per cent only climbing indoors and some even climbing five days a week. As 2020 nears, it will be interesting to watch progress.

Three ways to climb

Competitions are held indoors on three types of wall: lead, speed, and bouldering. Usually athletes specialise in one, but at the 2020 Olympics they will have to compete in all three.

Lead climbing requires endurance and strategy. Athletes secured by a rope climb up an overhanging wall with a 6-minute time limit; the one who gets the highest wins.

Speed climbing is usually done on vertical walls up to 15 metres high, with two climbers climbing next to each other in a race to the top, which is usually reached in under 6 seconds!

Bouldering requires power and technique, with athletes performing explosive, spectacular movements up to a height of four metres. If they fall they land on safety mats. The winner is the athlete who climbs the hardest route in the fewest attempts.

 / © shutterstock/Syda Productions

Climbing in popularity

25m people climb regularly, around the world

In the US it’s estimated that 1,000-1,500 new people try the sport every day

The number of young people taking part in the British Mountaineering Council’s Youth Climbing Series has risen by 50% in the last five years

In the last 10 years, the number of IFSC member federations has increased by 25%

In Austria, members of climbing clubs increased from 23,000 in 2008 to 64,000 in 2016

38% of new climbers are under 18

38% of participants are female

• Statistics according to global research from IFSC.

There are around 200-250 climbing walls in the UK
There are around 200-250 climbing walls in the UK

Case study - Westway Leisure Centre

Operated by Everyone Active, the Westway Sports and Fitness Centre boasts the largest lead climbing facility in the south of England. Originally opened in 1994, improvements have recently been made, with the addition of a bouldering facility

The layout of Westway lends itself to climbing because at 13.5m, it’s very high,” says Jez Tapping, Everyone Active’s regional climbing manager. “It’s a great revenue generator for the facility: the climbing centre covers the area of a couple of football pitches, but it has 10 times the throughput of football.”

Tapping says climbing appeals to a wider demographic than some other sports and is appealing to women, with a 50/50 gender split. “We have climbers of all ages, but it’s most popular with 25- to 35-year-olds,” he says.

The climbing centre is always busy. Westway welcomes 500 school children a week through its nationally-recognised coaching programme, and also runs introductory courses for adults. Once people have completed a course they can pay to climb casually. There are also club nights, technical workshops and an exercise class, Bouldercise. Tapping says climbing fits in well with the club’s offering, as the climbers also use the gym and yoga and pilates classes to support their sport.

“Climbing has been a fairly anti-establishment sport, until the last 10 years, but indoor climbing walls have created a new audience for the sport,” says Tapping. “Some people who learn to climb with us progress to take part in competitions or outdoor climbing, but high numbers stay indoors and use it as a good way of keeping fit.

“There’s been a massive growth in bouldering in the last few years. All the climbing centres I’ve seen open in London in the last couple of years, and all those slated to open, have been based around bouldering – they’re easier to open and manage, only requiring a height of around 5m.”

Tapping welcomes the inclusion of climbing in the Olympics, saying it will give great coverage to an already popular and fast growing sport, and predicts it will continue to go from strength to strength.

Read more: Sports Management November/December 2017, p44.

Jez Tapping, Everyone Active’s regional climbing manger at Westway, London
Jez Tapping, Everyone Active’s regional climbing manger at Westway, London
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