Why we will climb in 2050
"There is of course a wider debate, beyond not just whether the Olympics might syphon off the best to climb "faster, higher, stronger" – and that is which values our society wants to invest in" I write this piece in the afterglow of the extraordinary spectacle of sport, commerce and politics of the Rio 2016 Olympics. The next staging of the Games in 2020 will be held in Tokyo, Japan, and will include climbing as one of six new sports. What effect, if any, Olympic inclusion will have on grassroots climbers isn't yet clear. What is evident is that it is a huge financial opportunity for companies and organisations associated with climbing to make money. During the Rio Olympics, Rugby Sevens was included for the first time. Its success was measured not just by the story-writer's dream result with Fiji winning their first ever Olympic Gold, but the fact that the hashtag rugbysevens was used on social media 550 million times. In marketing terms, each of those is a potential sales opportunity. It's not just business that will be jockeying for climbing's Olympic windfall, but organising bodies. Like Russia and China, the British government put great stake in the prestige of the medal table. For each of the 67 medals won in Rio, UK Sport invested £4.1million since the last games in London. Going by current competition form, at least in the women's event, climbing could be a strong gold medal contender. Whilst direct links have been denied, the BMC's recent proposed name change to Climb Britain mirrors those of organisations UK Sport likes to do business with. Already, the international representative bodies have split into competing bodies, so by 2050 there's a strong chance British climbers will have a choice on who they want to represent them. It is worth pausing to consider the costs of this process, too. Climbing was chosen alongside sports such as surfing and skate boarding to broaden the market for lucrative advertising and media partners for the International Olympic Association. The IOC president, Thomas Bach, described the reasoning behind these new sports as "With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them." Despite being 'a non-profit organisation' the IOC is a huge business in its own right, earning $4billion in revenue from the Rio Games, and as a business partner it likes to throw its weight around. Typically, sports adopted by the Olympics have to adapt their game to something attractive to the Olympic committee. And, as in the case of climbing, traditions are of little interest. This means that in Tokyo 2020, climbers will compete in a triathlon of bouldering, lead and speed climbing; a bizarre combination that Chris Sharma has called 'a big shame', with Adam Ondra feeling strongly enough to suggest that he might boycott the event altogether. Such strong criticism from two of the world's strongest climbers does not bode well for the Olympic competition. There are many who feel much more positively, such as World Cup bouldering champ Shauna Coxsey, who is weighing up the extra training required for speed and lead. "If I do decide to compete in the Olympics" she said, "then it'll be challenging, but I like challenges. For the young generation coming through, the Olympics is going to help climbing reach a bigger audience and get more funding". In some ways the Olympics could play the same role in indoor climbing that Everest already does in the mountaineering world: envisaged by the general public as the pinnacle of the sport, but in reality a kind of surreal, highly financialised offshoot from mainstream alpinism. It's well known that to be the very best you have to start young: Adam Ondra was climbing 8a at the age of nine, and whilst he competed indoors from an early age, his legendary affinity with rock is largely down to the huge volume of
outdoor climbing he started as a youngster. For the new generation of young Olympic hopefuls this won't be an option. A top level boulderer like Shauna Coxsey already trains 40 hours a week; if you then add in the extra work load needed to excel at the other two disciplines, it becomes obvious that Olympic wannabes just won't have time to climb outdoors. There is of course a wider debate about whether climbing's inclusion in the Olympics might, in future, syphon off the best climbers in the world to climb purely indoors. The funding behind the Rio Golds was highly targeted at the upper handful of performers, with non-medal athletes often cut out of programmes. Whilst there may be some trickle down effect for the grassroots of improved training facilities and coaching knowledge, there is a ruthless focus in these programmes on the elite. The funding behind the UK's 67 Rio medals is slightly more than the annual total given by the UK government to all 15 of our National Parks, with their estimated 175 million annual visits: this is an interesting reflection of what we value most as a society. Obesity levels have trebled in the UK over the last 30 years, and the prediction is that by 2050 over half the UK population could be obese. By 2050 the UK's health epidemic must surely force our government to re-look at its priorities; especially as the value of the outdoors in maintaining good physical and mental health is so widely known and documented. In some ways, the neglect of the outdoor experience by wider society could see the values that have been at the core of climbing for centuries – free play and adventure, enhanced by their increasing scarcity. The extraordinary rise of overprotective measures from health and safety directives in recent decades, through to the 'safe space' movement on University campuses across the West, reflects a world increasingly ruled by fear of the unknown. In the future, there will be further attempts to regulate, commodify, and digitally track or 'enhance' what we do as climbers. Yet at the same time the traditional capacity of climbing to act as an antidote to the pressures of society could perhaps be even more potent by 2050. The rocks and mountains where we play are extremely difficult to manage and constrain, and much of their essentially wild character will remain well beyond the 21st century. And as opportunities for risk, rule free play and commerce-free challenge become rarer, the value of outdoor experience in 2050 could be considerably greater than it is today. The counter-culture nature of climbing also offers perhaps the most exciting possibilities for future breakthroughs. These will come, as they always have, through moments of brilliance enacted by exceptional individuals. These could be mavericks unconstrained by the norms of our sport, such as Johnny Dawes, whose visionary routes transformed trad climbing standards in the 80s and whose experiments with dynamic sequences predated many of the changes in modern climbing. Or perhaps such breakthroughs could come from exceptional athletes or artists who come to climbing from outside it, and whose unfettered thinking allows them to take a fresh look at the challenges climbing could offer. The mountain runner Kilian Journet, who has been attempted to set a speed record on the north face of Everest, is equipped with Olympic level fitness, an insatiable thirst for exploration, and new technology in the form of a running shoe that zips into different outer layers as he gains height on the mountain. For people such as Journet, the questions of where, how and why we climb await answers free of any constraints imposed by preconceptions of what climbing should be. Without the current limitations of what might be possible, these 'black swan thinkers' will reshape climbing in ways beyond not only Fawcett and Littlejohn's imaginations back in the 70s, but far beyond our own current understanding.