A brief history of competition climbing

Posted by Toby Dunne on 17/08/2021
The Arco Rockmaster 2011. Photo: Alex Messenger

It’s easy to forget how young competition climbing is in comparison with many other sports. Toby Dunne traces the origins of this unique sport.

It’s happened. Shauna Coxsey has competed in the Tokyo Olympics. It's the latest development in the so-far-relatively-brief history of competition in sport climbing, although some aspects of the sport have a more ancient heritage.

Perhaps the first recorded climbing competition was a speed-climbing event. It was held in what is now Uzbekistan, in 327 or 328 BC. No less than Alexander the Great donated the prize fund, he, “proclaimed that he would give a prize of twelve talents to the first man up, [to the fortress of Sogdian Rock] and of eleven to the second, and ten to the third, and so on to the twelfth, who would receive 300 gold darics.” History does not record the relative value of 300 gold darics compared to an Olympic gold medal.

In December 1987, in the now long departed High magazine, Chris Gore wrote an article about competition climbing, teasingly entitled “Olympics 1996?” which expressed a degree of amazement that climbing might one day be considered an Olympic sport. He wrote, “Like it or loathe it, competition climbing is likely to become a reality in Britain”. Competition climbing had barely existed as a formal event in Europe for more than a year or two, and there was still considerable controversy about its existence at all, as well as what form it should take.

Many of the competitions were held on rock outside, leading to considerable problems if it happened to rain. The early outdoor competition routes were artificially chiselled, timings of competitors were controversial if some of them had to climb in the sun, and accusations of local heroes being allowed extensive pre-practise of the routes were rife.

Speed climbing was already popular in Russia, where they had held some competitions since the 1940s. This is perhaps the oldest type of formal competition in the sport.

It is a different world, now that competition climbing is a normal part of mainstream climbing, and there is a professional structure to it with annual world cup circuits and inclusion in the Olympics.

Although the first formal competition took place in Italy in 1985, two years later the BMC still vetoed the concept of the 1989 World Championships, as it was proposed to be held on outdoor rock.

WATCH: Jerry Moffat winning in Leeds in 1989

Brit Simon Nadin went on to win the Lead Climbing World Cup in Lyon in 1989, and Jerry Moffatt won the Grand Prix, held at a climbing wall in Leeds. It was only in 1990 that the UIAA decided that all future competitions should take place on indoor artificial walls.

Since the 1990s, competition climbing as we know it today has gone from strength to strength, with international competitions now run by the International Federation for Sport Climbing (IFSC) developing alongside vibrant national competitions.

The development of competition climbing

1985

SportRoccia, the first European competition in Italy

1986

Competition climbing series in Europe, mainly on outdoor rock.

1988

BMC first sets up a competition climbing committee

1989

Simon Nadin wins Lead World Cup and Jerry Moffatt wins Grand Prix

1998

Bouldering first introduced to competition alongside lead and speed

2011

International Olympic Committee Executive Board included sport climbing on the shortlist as a possible new event for the 2020 Olympic Games. However, in this round it proved to be unsuccessful.

2016

IOC approves climbing for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games

2016 & 2017

Shauna Coxsey is the overall IFSC Boulder World Champion 2016 & 2017

2020

BMC sets up GB Climbing as a separate department

2021

Shauna Coxsey competes in the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics

WATCH: Highlights of SportRoccia from the 80s

I’m writing this the week that climbing kicked off at the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic games, with Shauna Coxsey climbing for Team GB. To many climbers today, it’s easy to forget how young competition climbing is in comparison with many of the other sports on offer.

It was great to see Shauna representing GB Climbing and the country on a truly international stage. It’s bound to spark new interest in the sport, and I’m sure she will inspire the champions of tomorrow.

Here’s looking forward to Paris 2024 and the latest evolution of our sport.


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GB Climbing is supported by the BMC, Mountaineering Scotland and Secur-it. The GB Ice Climbing Team is supported by Montane. Many UK walls also support the GB Climbing through free or subsidised entry.


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