Just how competitive is climbing?
It’s in the Olympics so in terms of global professional sport, it doesn’t get much better than that. There is a professional circuit, with world cups and world championships amongst the various disciplines. Plenty of the best, most renowned climbers have competed or honed their skills at the very top level.
But there are plenty of incredibly strong climbers who have never competed. Or tried it once and rapidly backed away. There is very much a ‘you versus the rock’ belief that holds steady, especially amongst the old-school climbers who were around before gyms popped up left, right and centre.
At its core, climbing like any sport has a competitive element. Or else why would you bother projecting. It’s competing against a former version of yourself, pushing yourself to get better and stronger to finish the route. It might not seem that way, but every project is a mini-competition, albeit one against yourself.
There are of course positives and negatives to competitive climbing. One thing that cannot be argued is how far it has pushed the boundaries of the sport. Moves that would never be dreamed of a few years ago appear regularly on the competitive circuit. Pushing the concept of dynamism to new levels, parkour has certainly infiltrated the sport and brought with it a whole new range of movement and expression.
Some may think this is a negative – but it has had knock-on effects outdoors too. Big name climbers are able to pull out moves on impossible projects, the so-called impossible suddenly becoming much less so thanks to a completely different regard for what parameters of movement are possible.
There are other positives to the competition circuit too. Climbers regarding themselves as serious athletes and taking their nutrition and training plans to the same level as Olympians from other sports also have a trickledown effect in terms of knowledge garnered, that can be utilised and adapted in other areas of the sport. More data can only be a good thing – whether it is dietary in the age-old plant-based versus meat-based choice, the debate on the negativities flexibility has with regards to strength training, or even just the knowledge of the optimal rest period between efforts.
The more competitions, the bigger the crowds - the more money there is in the sport at the top level, and the more experts are employed to suss out the marginal gains for the pros.
One of the biggest positives to come from the competition scene is the fact that competing against each other doesn’t seem to have dampened the camaraderie between climbers. Renowned for being supportive and friendly, the climbing community is shown in a good light on the global stage as the athletes come out for the observation period together, comparing beta and discussing options. No one is secretive, no one hoards their knowledge. They share, joke and smile in what is often the polar opposite to the ruthless competitive spirit on show in other sports.
There are a lot of comparisons that can be made between competitive climbing and snowboarding, currently on show in the Winter Olympics. For the snowboarders, landing a new trick and having a blast is every bit as important as a medal. They are genuinely stoked when their colleague wins gold, often piling into a huge group hug, despite what you’d think is the crushing disappointment of their own four years’ worth of effort going unrewarded.
The Winter Games is often cited as the ‘fun’ Olympics, compared to its more serious counterpart. Climbing has a seat at the table in the Summer Games now, with two medals on offer in Paris 2024 compared to just the one combined in Tokyo (speed is a separate category, with lead and boulder still combined under the guise of ‘sport’ climbing).
Can climbing continue to bring the fun, the camaraderie, and continue to not take itself too seriously? That’s the key when considering competitions and for anyone starting out on the circuit. Can you compete with all the ups and downs, the high highs and the low lows, and not lose your love for the sport?
There seems to be no pushing this genie back into the bottle – climbing as a competitive sport is here to stay. But whether those positives continue to outweigh the negatives remains very much to be seen.