Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Olympic Dreams

It's climbing but not as we know it! Photo- Eddie Fowkes.

Citius, Altius, Fortius’

To represent a country at the Olympics is the ultimate dream of a games player and a participant in the athletic events. I am still in awe of the Czech athlete, Zatopek who won the 5000m, 10000m, and the Marathon at the Games in Helsinki in 1952. I was privileged to meet him when young and this feat stands as likely to be unrepeated. I am a supporter of the Games, but I believe the inclusion of ‘Sports Climbing’ at the recent Tokyo Olympics begs questions at least with the old timers like me.

The modern Olympics were brought about by the initiative of the French nobleman, Baron de Coubertin, and the first of these was held in Athens in 1896. Mountaineering was one of the physical activities that he envisaged should be recognised as an Olympic discipline and the members of the 1922 Everest Expedition were awarded a gold medal at the 1924 Winter Games held in Chamonix. Awards continued until the Dyhrenfurth’s in 1936 for their Himalayan explorations but were then discontinued. It is interesting to report how climbing was seen by commentators and artists to almost modern times, let us be dog in a manger about this and Ernest Hemingway could opinion there are only three sports; ‘bull fighting, flying and mountaineering......the rest are merely games’. I guess what brought him to such a view was that the sports he nominated were undertaken for keeps. The obituary section in the Alpine Journal at this time would illustrate where he was coming from?

In my own times I have to ponder on the many who so felt ‘the romance of mountaineering’ that they pushed the boat out, were caught out by a run of bad luck and they paid the ultimate price. But we survivors paid our respects and kept alive their feats and memories. One of the salient facts being there was little or no money in it, recognition such as it was, mainly was by one’s own peers. I still think of how we all, in our milieu greeted the news that Brown had climbed the Boulder on Cloggy; and he had run out 270 feet of rope in a single lead, on sight because none of his companions could follow him because of the conditions. So how come that such a committing activity can be cut down to racing up an artificial wall, on plastic holds, safe because such ‘climbing’ is done on top ropes.

At the 1972 Olympics held in Munich was the first time that ‘speed climbing’ was a demonstration sport. This by a group of climbers from Soviet Russia, wearing on their feet what appeared as galoshes to us western climbers who witnessed this, on a limestone crag outside the city. It transpired that the climbers had spent some days practising the route/s and their ascents were at speed on top ropes. All who witnessed this (including many different nationalities) thought this style of climbing was rather pointless and preferred to climb the excellent traditional routes that were on offer at this cliff. One can understand a group of climbers, moving fast up routes in a friendly, rivalry, but to make this an Olympic sport/discipline is surely bringing such an activity down to a questionable level? And yet some of the-none climbing commentators thought this was like the wacky races, and conferred on some of the participants instant recognition, and liking. 

Shauna Coxsey in competition mode.Photo- BMC

I suppose it will go well when those involved are collared by agents and sponsors. And that is a problem for those so involved, are they to declare that this really has nothing to do with ‘real’ climbing or do they milk this surprising turn of events. For the first time real amounts of money is involved, when one is apprised by UK Sport that one of the Olympic programmes of the National sports bodies was under-written by £27 millions. And any of those who might win a medal, their day to day living is being under-written, as are their coaches, medics and dieticians. It is being estimated that each gold medal is costing around £1 million and the athletes involved can if they wish it become full time professionals. Such designation leads on to sponsorships, deals with equipment firms, and large amounts of money changing hands.

A worry is how this came about without the traditional defenders of the British way of climbing not really taking an interest. Their attitude being if a group within the mountain world wish to do this, ‘let ‘em get on with it’. Without at least discussing how in the long run it might affect the activity, which as recent as the 1980’s was a new kid on the international climbing scene. We came to accepting organised competitions after months of argument and discussions at the BMC in 1988, but we were only willing to accept them as long as they were held on artificial walls and not on the natural outcrops and crags. This decision was influenced by what was happening on the natural cliffs; Ron Fawcett was despatched to competitions held in Russia and reported back that many of the routes involved in these, were chipped and manufactured and visiting CzechSlovak climbers who had taken part that year in competitions held in Arco reported that the final route of that event was similarly prepared specially for that competition.

Despite the above what finally swung the then British climbing fraternity behind supporting competitions but only on artificial walls was the attempt to hold a major competition at Malham. Those involved were leading climbers of that era, the BBC were interested in covering the event and this was in opposition to the wishes of the locals, the RSPB and the National Park. The view we came to at the BMC was this could damage climbing in the future and I was tasked to contact all concerned and use what argument we could against such an ill thought initiative? Pointing out that if it rained and conditions changed the whole competition could become unfair and farcical; to say nothing of the safety of the inevitable spectators roaming around an area like the Cove. We had to go almost to the head of the BBC to head off the interest in covering the event. Fortunately our arguments were soundly based and eventually all came round that competitions should be held in the UK only on artificial walls. Since when the growth of competition climbing and climbing walls has being impressive with over 400 noted in the last complete survey. Many run bouldering competitions in the winter, and the Leeds Wall did that when I was the Chair of its Board.

However we never expected, but it is now a fact, that some of the attendees at climbing walls never climb outside, and for their own personal reasons have no wish to do so. If I was still an active climber, selfishly I would declare ‘good on ‘em! ’ for that would mean less traffic on popular crags but frankly they do not know what they are missing, a special activity that as the web master on this site has opined is life enhancing going to the hills to refresh ones soul. Easily dismissed as romantic gibberish but it is true as those who experience such feelings bear witness.

International Competition Climbing became a fact in Leeds in 1989, this organised by the BMC and DMM the equipment firm on behalf of the then recognised body, the UIAA for such an international event. It was in Leeds because that is where I live and friends interceded for us and we managed to obtain the Queen’s Hall, which previously had staged massive rock concerts and the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the Who had strutted, their stuff on its stage. The women’s event was won by the American, Robyn Erbesfield and the men’s by Jerry Moffat. It was very much a learning event for such a competition, and it made me think that whilst the finals were electrifying the events leading up to them were so boring that I could never believe it a spectator sport. In fact one of the sports journalists collared me after some of the preliminary rounds to declare ‘he was departing......this was like watching paint dry’. I could understand this as the majority of the participants did not get very far up the routes. It is a mystery to me that climbers can sit and watch such a competition whilst close by, for instance at Arco is excellent climbing on natural rock. But as Cyndi Lauper warned us ‘money changes everything’ and I suppose there is a vicarious pleasure in watching the winner and losers. 

Malham Cove. Venue for a proposed speed climbing competition that thankfully never got off the ground.

Finally my reaction to the Olympic climbing is ditch, the speed competition, it is a cuckoo and not only has no place in such, and in the long run it may damage the sport? None climbers will think that is how we proceed on the natural crags and outcrops and the land managers may react in ways that no one has yet experienced. The walls should be designed like crags to be more realistic, I have been lucky to climb at such in dozens of countries and have never found features as those that were a part of the Olympic bouldering competition. Dali would have been exercised by their design. I am very aware that by expressing such views that I will be the subject of criticism and gales of laughter, the wish to compete is part of the psyche in a lot of humans, and we must accept that climbing is changing and a part of mainstream sport, no longer the preserve of a band of clubbable types. But we have to point out what is worth preserving, and that the rock faces and mountains of this world we expect will always be there posing a challenge and enjoyment to those who answer their call.

Dennis Gray : 2021