Climbing Reaching New Heights With Olympic Spot
Shauna Coxsey, Tara Hayes, Matt Cousins and Nathan Phillips. Four names you’re probably not familiar with, but it might not be long before you are. All four are climbers and not just the best in Britain but some of the best in the world. With yesterday’s announcement from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that climbing is to be one of five new sports added to the Olympic programme, they could be set to take Tokyo 2020 by storm.
The progression of climbing from a sport regarded for eccentrics and adventurers to one on the fringes of mainstream consciousness has been swift. Yet the reasons behind its incredible growth are as diverse as the sport itself and the IOC’s decision could be another leap forward.

Entering the Mainstream

Arguably it was two climbers, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, who pushed climbing into the spotlight like never before, with their historic free climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan last year. Their epic 19 day ascent of the 3,000 metre Dawn Wall, drew media attention from around the world and made stars (if only reluctantly) of Caldwell and Jorgeson. Whilst the media’s gaze was only fleeting, it gave a unique look at a sport that has slowly been taking off around the world, particularly in the UK.According to the British Mountaineering Council the number of climbing walls in the UK has risen by over 100 in the last five years alone, with 350 public access walls listed in the BMC wall directory. The increase in walls is driven largely by an uptake of young people joining the sport, with the number of people taking part in the BMC Youth Climbing Series rising by 50% over the same period.

Technology, Technology, Technology

So the sport is a clearly a growing force but why and how has it become so, and more interestingly, how far can it go? The simple answer is technology. As with so many extreme sports new technology has allowed climbing to grow through improved equipment, providing a safer and more complete experience of a sport that inherently carries risk – without removing the thrill. Sport climbing is itself a descendant of the introduction of technology. Permanent anchors are secured to the rock face from which climbers can place protection to ensure survival from even the most eye watering falls.

The shift may appear to be a natural progression from the days of Royal Robbins placing steel pitons into the Yosemite cliffs, but the effect has been more wide-ranging. The improvements in rope, harnesses and other climbing gear has allowed the very best climbers to push the limits of what’s possible. The dynamic and occasionally terrifying nature of these new challenges has opened up the sport of climbing to a new thrill seeking audience, one that is looking to not only participate but create and consume as much content about the sport itself as possible.

Climbing Content

In 2006 film makers Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer created the first Reel Rock film tour, taking a collection of short climbing films to live audiences all around the world. Now in its 11th year the tour has been a huge success and attracts sponsors such as The North Face, National Geographic and Petzl, highlighting the growing appetite for climbing content. It appears the sport has become as much about capturing the ascent, as the ascent itself. After all, if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

It’s a question that a number of companies and brands are already looking to answer. Epic TV has been quick to provide a channel for the new band of climbers wishing to share their latest exploits, earning them not just an audience but an opportunity to create their own brand with which to attract sponsorship and turn professional. Climbers such as Alex Honnold and Sean McColl regularly share not just their climbing achievements, but their training regimes and other aspects of their lifestyle that hold as much interest to fans as the climbing.

So the sport is growing, with new stars, increasing brand presence and a highly engaged audience mostly made up of Generation Z and Millennials - surely then a place in the Olympics would be a positive next step for a sport on the rise? Yet there remain concerns, including those from professional climbers such as Adam Ondra, who feels the expected format of the competition may need to be amended to reward the more aesthetic aspects of the sport. It’s a concern that isn’t exclusive to climbing, with the much publicised trouble surrounding golf at this summer’s games proving that format is a difficult area to get right for even the biggest of mainstream sports.

Where Next?

Regardless of the concerns around format, it’s clear that climbing is entering another stage of its development and a place in the Olympics will act as validation to the thousands who compete in and watch the sport worldwide. It won’t be long before brands outside the outdoor and adventure space take notice and names such as Coxsey, Hayes, Cousins and Phillips move from the unknown to the everyday.