After all the hope, and hype, the announcement on 29 May that climbing had failed to make the short list for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics was disappointing, although as Ed Douglas discovers, not wholly unexpected.
Mike Watson has been around competition climbing for so long he can’t actually remember when he got involved. “Ever since,” he says, “my son started as a lad. And he’s 28 now.”
A former chair of the Competitions Committee, Mike is currently a BMC vice-president and responsible for keeping an eye on how this occasionally contentious branch of the sport is getting on. In the aftermath of the decision last week not to shortlist climbing for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics, he’s been a little surprised at the reaction – or lack of it.
“It’s a bit strange,” he says. “There’s not been much reaction from members of the committee. I’m surprised there haven’t been more emails flying around. I get the impression that while it’s disappointing, it wasn’t unexpected.”
Watson was at the world championships in Bercy, Paris, where climbing seemed to have made a positive impression on representatives from the International Olympic Committee. They even suggested that instead of the lead-climbing event already proposed by the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), an event combining all three disciplines – speed, bouldering and lead – might be more appealing.
The change was made, but in retrospect, according to Watson, there were signs that climbing might not make the cut. “They were suggesting that climbing was suitable for Olympic status, but maybe not this time.”
There has been criticism that the IFSC’s bid didn’t compare well with that mounted by squash, which has been lobbying for Olympic inclusion for decades and narrowly missed out in both 2012 and 2016. Squash hired the immensely experienced – and hugely expensive – sports lobbyist Mike Lee to mastermind its pitch.
Lee was behind Rio’s successful bid to host the 2016 games, and knows precisely what the IOC want. At the bottom of squash’s application brochure were the following words: “Squash has listened and learnt.”
So does the IFSC have to listen and learn? “I think Marco Scolaris and his team did a good job,” Watson says. “I think they made a bit of a mistake changing the format in the middle of the bid but that largely came from the IOC itself. There was a feeling that if that’s what the IOC are saying, then we’d better do it that way.”
Many in the climbing community clearly feel it’s a good thing the sport has missed out. The sport-climbing website 8a.nu ran an online poll that showed over 60 per cent of 2,500 climbers believe the decision is good news. “Maybe people are worried about climbing becoming more commercial if it gets in, and that might impact outside,” Watson says.
Whether or not climbing will have another chance at inclusion in the Olympics depends on the IOC. The next opportunity comes in 2015, at which points, says Anne Fuynel of the IFSC, “after evaluation with the national federations, the IFSC will decide how to bid.”
The IFSC will be aided in that process following a debriefing with the IOC in Lausanne after the summer. Anne Fuynel adds that the IFSC president Marco Scolaris will ask for a meeting with the president of the IOC to assess how close climbing came to making it into the Olympics.
The BMC staged several Olympic bid events in support of the IFSC and garnered a lot of national coverage on television and in print. There was particular interest in women’s climbing, with Shauna Coxsey continuing to shine, and paraclimbing star Fran Brown impressing even the most hardened sports hacks.
The IFSC says that competitions have been part of the sport for a long time, and that whatever the IOC's decision, it will continue to grow. “There’s no question that the BMC remains committed to the competition scene,” Mike Watson says.