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Stewart Green

Do Climbers Get Doped Up to Rope Up?

By January 18, 2013

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With Lance Armstrong's true confessions to Oprah last night, a few people have asked me about the use of steroids, doping, and performance-enhancing drugs in climbing. As many as 10% of Olympic athletes supposedly use banned substances and most have, of course, been caught like sprinter Marion Jones who had to return her medals from 2000 as well as Lance and lots of other bicyclists.

But are elite climbers and climbing competitions immune from performance-enhancing drug use? It appears that climbing hasn't been tainted by such pervasive performance drug use as many other sports. That said, there are climbers who will do anything for an advantage to send a hard route or to get their photograph in one of the climbing mags.

I know two climbers who told me years ago that they used steroids to boost muscle mass and fiber size. Both said it was amazing how fast they got stronger, but both agreed that it didn't help as much on the rocks as they hoped it would. Others use creatine, take amino acids, get juiced up on coffee and Red Bull, and even nurture eating disorders to gain that elusive edge to do a V15 boulder problem or the newest 5.15 route.

Climbing, if it is accepted as an Olympic sport in 2020, will undoubtedly see more illegal doping and drug use in competition, especially since money and fame go hand in hand with a gold medal. Organizations like the UIAA as well as national governing bodies like USA Climbing will have to look at how climber's get juiced and come up with tests to ferret out the cheaters. It's certainly important that any competitive events have a level playing field and that our champions are drug clean.

The deal with climbing, however, is that it is an individual sport that takes place outside, on real rock and far away from the spotlight, for most of its participants. So really, anyone can bulk up on steroids or use any other drug and it will never be detected. It does make you wonder if any elite climbers today that are receiving money from sponsors and press in the rock rags are getting pumped up artificially.

Climbing has always been a sport of truth. If you say you did an ascent in a certain style and of a certain grade, then, unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary that you made it up or conveniently forgot your belayer's name , the rest of us climbers believe you.

Basic honesty about our ascents is at the heart of climbing style and ethics. Sure there are going to be cheaters out there using drugs, lies, and any other means to get fame and money but we have to believe that most climbers are honest about their ascents. Is there any other way than to hold that honesty between climbers as a sacred trust?

Photograph above: Climbing relies on trust and honesty to report valid ascents, not steroids, doping, and cheating. Photograph Stewart M. Green.


January 21, 2013 at 11:36 am
(1) Steve Cas says:

Interesting article

I’m sure there are plenty of climbers out there who will look at performance enhancement especially if climbing becomes mainstream by inclusion in the Olympics. Of course, there are ways to enhance performance which are perfectly ok. You mention taking creatine and amino acids and to the best of my knowledge neither of those are banned substances, in fact, they are the very substances we need for healthy muscle growth I believe.

The other factor to take into account is that unlike say road cycling where drug use is or at least has been so prevalent, climbing requires not only strength/endurance but also a certain creativity allied to skill (I’m not suggesting that the cyclists are unskilled but they don’t have to choose their route while hanging by fingertips)!
There are many climbers out there who are at least as strong as the leading lights in the “sport” but don’t get the first ascents because they don’t have the imagination to conquer where others have not already been!

January 22, 2013 at 4:28 am
(2) David says:

Great article. Hopefully the sport is not tainted by doping like so many others. Should climbing make the 2020 Olympics, doping may be more difficult to detect than in other sports because as Steve suggests, the creativity and imagination required to climb at the very highest levels may mean the dopers still don’t make it onto the podium.

March 2, 2013 at 7:05 am
(3) Dmitri Tcherbadji says:

There is an application to performance enhancement drugs that you guys haven’t mentioned yet. It is in the essence of being a climber: reaching the top. Do we have to compete to be a climber? No. Do we have to desire money and fame to be a climber? No. This is when those drugs might really help an athlete to feel accomplished and she can choose to never compete as well.

Do you think this might be kind of lying to yourself though?

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