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