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Stewart Green

Climbing Possible for 2020 Olympics: Will It Make the Cut?

By July 8, 2011

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On July 6 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board, meeting at the 123rd IOC session in Durban, South Africa, announced that sport climbing was one of eight sports shortlisted for inclusion in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Three climbing disciplines--lead climbing, speed climbing, and bouldering--are proposed for the Olympics.

Only one of the sports--climbing, baseball, karate, roller sports, softball, squash, wakeboard, and wushu--will be included in the Games, so whether or not climbing makes the cut remains to be seen. The sports program for 2020 will be voted on at the 125th IOC meeting in Buenos Aires in 2013. Before that meeting, however, some of the eight sports could be chopped from the agenda.

While climbing probably won't be included in the Olympic Games in nine years, it's a big deal that competition climbing has finally received recognition from the IOC. The first step toward the Olympics was in 2007 when the International Federation of Sport Climbing was recognized as the world-governing body for climbing. Without that recognition, it was impossible for climbing to be placed on equal terms with popular sports like baseball, karate, and roller sports.

The battle for the single spot in the 2020 Olympic Games is going to be fierce and cutthroat. Both baseball and softball were Olympic sports but both were cut in 2008, partly because most of the world doesn't play those sports so the United States dominated them...call it an anti-American decision. Squash, karate, and roller sports were denied for the London and Rio de Janerio Olympic Games and were invited to try again. Sport climbing, wakeboard, and wushu are newcomers to the Olympic movement.

The early front-runners for the vacant Olympic spot appear to be baseball and softball, although the two international federations are considering a joint proposal to enhance their chances of being picked to dance. Just behind is squash, which vied with golf and rugby for the 2016 Games but lost out. Squash enthusiasts like Pakistani legend Jahangir Khan see squash as the logical candidate for 2020 inclusion.

Each sport will be intensively studied by the IOC Programme Commission, which will lead to a report in early 2013. After that some sports may be eliminated before the vote. There is also a wild card in the process. After the 2012 London Olympics, one of the 26 sports there will be cut but will, however, be eligible to compete on the new shortlist for the single 2020 spot.

The IOC will weigh a lot of factors when deciding which sport to include in the Olympic program, including global appeal; the inclusion of athletes of both sexes; the attractiveness of sports to various demographics, especially young audiences (the X-Games factor); the sport's appeal for television broadcasts; and, of course, money.

With NBC spending $4.38 billion to broadcast the next four Olympic Games, it seems logical that an all-American sport like baseball will fit the bill. Really, it's a duh question. Which sport is NBC going to want to promote and televise--climbing or baseball? It's a no-brainer.

Climbing, despite having wonderful athletes from across the world, won't make the Games this time around because of several factors. Climbing, as the new kid on the block with several other sports, will have a hard time competing against giants like baseball, softball, and squash. The climbing venue will be expensive to build. Climbing doesn't lend itself to broadcast television since its action is usually incremental. These last two factors led to the X-Games dropping sport climbing from its program.

Lastly, competition climbing isn't that popular in most countries. Climbing does well in Europe, of course, but anywhere else? Would Africans tune in to watch climbing? What about the billion-plus people in India and Pakistan? Wouldn't they rather watch squash on the telly? Or even the good old US of A. Would television audiences tune in to watch American heroes speed climbing against the Ukrainians or would they rather watch stale re-runs of Friends or Seinfeld?

For more perspective, read my 2009 blog post Competition Climbing Set for World Games in Taiwan.

Photographs above:  (Top) Chris Sharma, at the 1999 X-Games, will probably be too old to compete in the 2020 Olympics. (Bottom) The X-Games speed climbing podium in 2001...a precursor to climbing Olympic gold? Photographs © Stewart M. Green


July 8, 2011 at 8:27 pm
(1) Dennis says:

Sport climbing is already very popular in England. The National Bouldering Championships were recently held in Sheffield as part of an outdoor show for the public. I was very interested to see theclarge numbers of none climbing public who were drawn to watch events taking place. The action held their attention and was certainly more than a side show to provide momentary distraction. I believe that it is an exciting and invigorating sport to watch, suitable for television ( most people here are not “Climbing aware”but yet this event proved of huge interest) and would make a surefire success as an Olympic activity – maybe with suitable adaptation.
We certainly don’t need more ball sport or martial arts….yawn!

July 9, 2011 at 7:25 am
(2) Dan says:

Seems odd to say climbing probably won’t make the games because it doesn’t televise well.. compared to some Olympic sports it is positively exiting to watch. I mean most athletic field events are slow paced and incremental and others like ice skating and fencing are not found interesting to watch by a large majority of people.

July 9, 2011 at 8:42 am
(3) Ian Green says:

It’s good to hear that climbing is finally receiving international recognition from the Olympic committee. I certainly believe that climbing has a good chance of being a successful Olympic sport, as it has a definitive sense of excitement that I think the public can relate to. Even if people don’t know that much about climbing, it is certainly built into our genes since the beginning of man. Humans have no doubt been climbing for thousands of years! Humans have absolutely not been competing in any of the other Olympic sports that long, with the exception of Track and Field. One reason some climbing competitions are boring is certainly the course-setting and the ability level of the field of competitors. On an Olympic level, with a state of the art wall, great route-setting, and the world’s best climbers battling dynamic moves head to head, I absolutely believe the sport would draw intense interest from the public. Although snowboarding is also a fairly new sport, it has already proved itself as one of the top winter events indeed. I think climbing would draw similar interest, especially with all the great athletes out there in the sport these days. If climbing was accepted to the Olympics, the public would finally recognize it as a more viable sport and take much more interest. Climbing definitively would make a more unique and interesting viewing experience than baseball, martial arts, or squash(I don’t even really know what squash is, and it sounds as boring as curling). I believe climbing will continue to grow and reach Olympic status soon, if not 2020 games, probably the ones after that! Go climbing!!!!!

July 9, 2011 at 9:15 am
(4) Michael Cook says:

Hurray! This is great news. If the ever increasing popularity of climbing is any indication, it’s only a matter of time before long overdue inclusion. I remember an Alex Lowe slideshow where he talked about an alpine competition in Russia, so it doesn’t necessarily have to end with sport climbing, though that specialty does lend itself best to competition. No one was killed in the comp that Alex did, though that was a definite possibility, and it was timed and they had locks and keys to verify that they had reached points on the route. I do believe that Alex won the comp. I would really like to see climb appear in the Olympics while Chris Sharma is still young enough to give it a go, and I think that this may be our time, finally, and, if so, that Chris will have played a part. Are there things that climbers can do to help make it happen? Do they take public input? Where do we write to? As a former Outward Bound and NOLS instructor, and facilitator of adjudicated youth wilderness therapy programs, I’m always glad to see anything that might get people out and into nature. It’s a healing and centering influence that’s sorely needed. The overcrowding at crags is a bummer, but nothing a lot of new route development won’t help :-)
Martial Arts are awesome also and the disciplines of climbing and martial arts share a lot in common.

July 29, 2011 at 3:52 am
(5) steven says:

The olimpic leaders want baseball to allow pro players and MLB doesnt want pro players tested at random by international doping agency. MLB prefers to test their own players so that they test negative for steriods. Unless the Olimpics caves in to MLB demands baseball will not be allowed back in. MLB needs to get back so that baseball can grow beyond the 10 or 12 countries that somewhat still play the sport.

June 25, 2012 at 10:21 am
(6) alice says:

hurray!! may climbing win the bid!!

who says climbing will be boring to watch?? i recently took part in a climbing competition held in a shopping centre and practically the whole mall had their eyes glued on the open man finals. it was like watching a soccer match. the crowd was hooing and haaing and whenever someone fell or topped the route you could feel the atmosphere wow….

seriously? boring? if its the olympics, its even more drastic than open man. it would be the national climbers, top climbers, CHRIS SHARMA. no it seriously won’t be boring, watching the top of the top battle it out.

climbing is a wondeerful sport and it SHOULD be included. which sport combines the mind of a chessplayer, the grace of a ballerina and the strength of a sportsman (to quote my coach) all in one?

and the world needs more exposure to climbing! so go climbing! ;DDDD

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