First Look: Olympic climbing in 2020

A couple of weeks ago, the International Olympic Committee officially approved the addition of five new youth-focused sports to the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games. Along with baseball/softball, karate, surfing, and skateboarding, climbing made the cut.

The Olympic Committee finally realized what organizations like the World Surf League, International Federation of Sport Climbing, and X Games have known for years: These sports have huge followings of passionate athletes and engaged fans. Although nearly everyone involved in the climbing world can agree that this is significant, reactions on how much impact it will have on the sport are mixed. Ryan Wichelns, EMS goEast Editor, asked various outdoor industry insiders at Outdoor Retailer earlier this month about their take on Olympic Climbing.

Cedar Wright, Courtesy of The North Face.

Some people like Cedar Wright, professional climber and filmmaker for The North Face, said that he sees this as a “big tipping point” for the sport and that it’s a sign “climbing is officially going mainstream.” Phil Powers, CEO of The American Alpine Club, had a different take, saying that “the advent of gyms and the proliferation of climbing” has already moved the sport into the mainstream. Although Phil does not think the Olympics will be groundbreaking for climbing, he is “glad the Olympics are catching up.” Yet others like Emily Harrington, another professional climber of The North Face, are rather indecisive and feel “a little bit uneasy” about the potential impact it could have on climbing culture and the community.

Most climbers, some even ecstatic to see the sport move up to the Olympic level, have been rather disappointed by the format chosen for competition. Climbing as a whole in the Olympics will be broken into sport, bouldering, and speed segments for male and female competitors. Instead of isolating these events as different independent skills within the sport, as is commonly done with skiing in the Winter Olympics, they are clumped together with a combined scoring system. Medals will be awarded to male and female climbers with the highest point tally of all three integrated categories. This is not a model of competition commonly used in any other climbing competitions. It oversimplifies different forms of climbing and ostracizes the athletes who work tirelessly to excel at a specific style. Cedar Wright told Ryan, “Hopefully they get their s__t together with the way they’re scoring it all. The whole combined-one-medal-thing is just b______t and it shows a lack of understanding of the sport.”

Sasha DiGiulian, female World Climbing Champion and someone we’ll probably see competing for the U.S. in Tokyo, shares a similar view to Cedar Wright on the issue. In an article published by Outside Online, Sasha says that “the way the sport is packaged for the Olympics is a fabricated, artificial version of competitive climbing.” Although she feels more than displeased about the format, she is still heavily considering competing.

At the end of the day, Olympic Climbing verifies the seriousness of a sport that has maintained a devoted following for decades. Although the overarching climbing community may not agree with the new Olympic format, fans must keep supporting athletes and the 2020 Olympic Games. After Tokyo, when the IOC sees how engaged our community really is, hopefully the competition structure for future games will be updated to reflect and include all of the best climbers.