The Olympics: faster, higher, stronger?

Posted by Ed Douglas on 26/06/2009
Arco Rockmaster, Italy. A glimpse of the Olympics?

Could competition climbing ever be an Olympic sport? That’s a goal of the International Federation of Sport Climbing. Ed Douglas takes a look behind the scenes.

Where in the world is Kaohsiung? Any ideas? I was stumped too, but on 16th July, Kaohsiung plays host to the World Games, home to all those niche sports you’ve also not heard of that didn’t quite make it into the Olympics. Fingers crossed the meeting puts Kaohsiung on the map, but to be honest I hadn’t heard of the World Games either.

Staged under the aegis of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the World Games seems to be a kind of athletic purgatory. Here sports must suffer while the gods of Olympus decide whether they have reached whatever arcane standard these things are judged on to break through to the big time.

Bear in mind that while you too may never have heard of the World Games, it takes just as much commitment on the part of athletes to get there as it does to qualify for the Olympics. Only there’s no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow. The World Games is a junction, not a destination. And no one wants to stay there for long.

There will be more than 30 disciplines competing at Kaohsiung, a smorgasbord of minor sports, the new guys, the bitter old hands and the downright weird. There is fistball, which is not as grim as it sounds, and something called korfball, which is a lot like netball. There’s also something called flying disc, which you’ll know better as Frisbee.

And the bitter? That would be squash, a hugely popular sport that screams out to be in the real Olympics but which, for reasons unknown, languishes at Kaohsiung . If you want to see a sport already lobbying hard to be included in the 2016 Games, then visit www.worldsquash.org. Given that the world’s top three men are all Egyptians, and the IOC loves to see African medals, I’d put money on squash getting in.

Climbing is there too, of course, as it was at the previous World Games held at Duisberg, Germany, in 2005. If you want to get a glimpse of what climbing might look if it ever made the Olympics, click here. At Kaohsiung there will be lead and speed climbing events, but no bouldering.

Like squash’s parent body the World Squash Federation, the International Federation of Sport Climbing is campaigning to get competition climbing upgraded to the Olympics. In fact, it’s one of the establishing articles of the IFSC – born in 2007 from the wreckage of a sour divorce of what was the International Council for Competition Climbing from the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA) – to keep up the pressure to have climbing included.

Of course, the ultimate decision about whether or not climbing will be part of the Olympics rests with the IOC. Does it have a real chance of getting in? There are certainly factors in climbing’s favour. The IOC is known to be intrigued by the success of the X-Games and has favoured other less conventional sports, particularly skiing and snowboarding disciplines in the Winter Games.

Then there are powerful new revenue streams for the IOC to exploit. There isn’t a huge industry built around korfball, but there are some powerful brands associated with climbing, like North Face, which must be aching to get a stronger association with the Olympics. And outdoor sports can boast a high participation factor, certainly higher than many current Olympic disciplines.

That debate, however, is for the future and will happen elsewhere. The crossroads we have reached now is much closer to home. When the IFSC voted on its statutes and articles last summer, the BMC was forced to abstain because it had not yet made up its mind whether or not to support the idea of climbing becoming part of the Olympics. The decision we now face in England and Wales is whether or not the BMC should back the IFSC in its bid. It can’t be put off any longer. The BMC has said it will reach a decision at this September’s National Council meeting.

 

The BMC has a little catching up to do. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has already made its decision. In its current strategic plan, the MCofS states: ‘Our competition goal is for a Scottish athlete to achieve medal success in the Olympic Games’ first ever sport climbing competition in 2020.’ Mountaineering Ireland is not quite so bold, but has said it will ‘develop a long-term strategy towards Irish sport climbers competing in the 2020 Olympics.’

Of course, the BMC already hosts international and national competitions. This year over 500 young climbers have competed in the BMC Youth Climbing Series, with over 300 seniors taking part in the BMC Leading Ladder Series. The number of competitors at national events – like the British Bouldering Championships and the British Lead Climbing Championships – regularly exceeds a hundred.

International events are held less regularly and are hugely expensive, but have undoubtedly proved popular with spectators. They’ve boosted the public profile of climbing in the UK and despite the cost and regulations, there are currently two UK cities – Edinburgh and Sheffield – hoping to host the 2013 World Championships.

To qualify for that, they need to have hosted a World Cup in each of the three competition disciplines, speed, difficulty and bouldering, in the previous three years. That’s a big commitment. Both cities are looking for reassurance from the BMC because they know their bids would be compromised if the organisation turned its back on the Olympics.

Those who support the BMC backing the IFSC’s bid for Olympic participation argue that if the BMC said no to the Olympics British climbing would lose out – and so would the BMC. Competitions officer Rob Adie says: ‘I don't think the IFSC would ever demand us to resign, but I don’t think they would be too happy if we say: “We don't support Sport Climbing becoming an Olympic sport, but oh, by the way, can we host the World Championships in 2013 please?”’

Adie says the main argument for voting yes is to remain involved in the decision-making process leading up to Olympic participation. ‘The IFSC are pursuing this without our support, so it is not a question of whether we agree with it, it is whether we want to be involved, and in the meantime allow us to host international events in the UK.’

Adie’s predecessor Graeme Alderson, now a director at the Climbing Works, is a longstanding advocate for Olympic status. He believes the BMC would be in an intolerable position if it chooses not to back Olympic participation. ‘The BMC is a member of two international organisations, the IFSC and the UIAA, whose stated objectives include getting climbing into the Olympics. So if the BMC said no to the Olympics then they would be in violation of their obligations as members. They would have to allow a new body to take care of competitions.’

If that happened, Alderson says, no one has any idea of the kind of organisation that would emerge to manage competitions. Would it have the same values as the BMC? Would the new organisation take members and government funding away from the BMC? And if climbing did achieve Olympic status, would the BMC be turning its back on a lot of new money that could help all its work – including access?

Most sports require formal competition to function, but some, like climbing, don’t. We’re not alone in that. Others like it include yachting, horse riding, mountain biking and canoeing, all of which have Olympic status but which are mostly valued as recreation. These are sports our increasingly chubby nation actually participates in, rather than just watching them on television. What’s more, the fact they are informal and with few rules make them accessible.

Could the focus on competitions that Olympic status would bring undermine climbing’s recreational appeal? That’s arguable. Lots of us enjoy mountain biking but few of us could name more than a couple of Britain’s top bikers. The fact that some mountain bikers are heading for the Olympics has little impact on our recreation. Mountain biking, like climbing, is obviously bigger than the narrow strand of competition that a tiny percentage enjoy.

So would it really make any difference to most of us if climbing were an Olympic sport? And since it won’t be the BMC that decides that anyway, is it sensible for the BMC to turn its back on the Olympics now and jeopardise its current position? The BMC has fought hard to keep all aspects of climbing under its umbrella. There would have to be fairly compelling arguments against seeking Olympic status for the whole juggernaut to come to a shuddering halt right now. What is the case against?

It’s hard to argue that Olympic status won’t change climbers’ attitude to competitions. When the BMC organised the first World Cup event in 1989 at Leeds, it attracted top names from the sport from across Europe. Very few of the biggest stars now take part in climbing competitions. For all kinds of reasons, climbing outside still draws most of the talent and gets most of the media attention, certainly in Britain. But I’m willing to bet that if there were an Olympic gold medal up for grabs, many top climbers would reconsider – and the climbing public would be riveted.

How would that impact on British climbing generally? That can only remain speculation, but it will happen with or without the co-operation of the BMC. The IFSC is going to seek Olympic status with or without the BMC’s support. The Olympics is a colossal shop-front but would only show one aspect of climbing. What impact might that have? Then again, Himalayan mountaineering is already fixed in the public eye, and only a minority of climbers practise that too.

 

There’s also a valid argument that the Olympic ideal is the logical conclusion for a process that began with the construction of climbing walls. With so many climbers being introduced to the sport indoors, and some of them rarely if ever venturing outside, indoor competitions aren’t controversial at all, so why should Olympic status be any different?

The more pertinent question is how that status would change the BMC. Olympic sports attract the kind of public funding the BMC can only dream about. Gordon Brown committed £500m to the UK’s Olympic effort in 2012, with a further £100m pledged from other sources. Water polo, for example, was initially given £3m – a sum £1m greater than the BMC’s total income just for water polo’s Olympic effort – although that was later slashed in half as the economy tanked.

One Sports Council manager I spoke to with knowledge of the BMC thought climbing couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get Olympic status but warned of the impact the influx of cash can have on a small organisation. Currently, the BMC only gets ten percent of its income from the Sports Council. Only 12 percent of its specialist programme budget is absorbed by competitions. The Olympics would change all that.

That flood of money would inevitably be spent on a very small number of climbers, coaches and administrators. Ordinary members might wonder what’s in it for them, especially, as the official warned, other grants might become vulnerable. Losing an access officer while taking on coaching staff would alienate ordinary members like nothing else. The character of the BMC might change for good.

Other sports have been down this road before. Log on to the British Canoe Union’s website and the first impression you get is that canoeing is all about competing and little else. There is no mention of access and conservation work at all, despite both being burning issues for ordinary canoeists.

For recreational paddlers, that’s frustrating. One stalwart from the canoeing scene told me that the BCU’s relationship with competitions has become ‘a case of the tail wagging the dog. It’s the debate of the day in many clubs and is creating a lot of discontent.’ Canoeists traditionally entered the sport through clubs and then specialised, for example as slalom canoeists or sea kayakers. Young paddlers are now more likely to be switched on by competitive kayaking. That is having an impact on how the sport develops.

Yet there is nothing inevitable about competitive climbing elbowing other aspects of the BMC’s work aside. In contrast to the BCU, the Royal Yachting Association gives a more balanced impression between competition coverage and information for recreational users. The implication is clear. Competition climbing will only dominate the BMC if it’s allowed to do so.

Dave Turnbull believes that most climbers are content to let the BMC press ahead. ‘In my view it is a valid and perfectly natural thing for competition climbers to aspire to and I suspect that the majority of climbers in the UK today would not have a problem if the BMC were to put some effort into pursuing Olympic status.’

Agree or disagree, if you want to support the BMC in pushing for Olympic status or oppose it, now is the time to speak up.

What’s your view?
Now is the time to speak up if you’ve got a strong opinion on whether climbing should be in the Olympics. Come along to your next area meeting to make your vote known.
 



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