A False Summit: The Pitfalls of Competition in Sport

When I was an elementary school kid, four feet tall with platinum blonde hair, I attended the Marcus Lewis Day Camp during my summers. I would board a yellow school bus and, an hour later, arrive in the vast land of Western Massachusetts to participate in classic American camp activities, such as arts and crafts, archery, fishing, and, my personal favorite, climbing.

The camp was situated near a military training ground where a large wooden structure stood 100-feet tall, covered in polyurethane hand holds, ready to be climbed. I found great joy in climbing at the Marcus Lewis Day Camp – I could transcend my small stature and use my light weight to my advantage.

Aside from the occasional indoor climbing birthday party, I did not climb until many years later. Fortunately, as a lover of the outdoors and outdoor recreation, I had the opportunity to attend a private high school that had a vast outdoor program which offered climbing as a seasonal sports credit.

I climbed three times a week both in the local climbing gyms and the nearby outdoor rock faces. The program head and some climbing-enthusiast teachers would often lead multi-pitch weekend trips in New Hampshire. Each year, the program offered a spring break climbing trip, where I scrambled around Joshua Tree and explored canyons in Zion.

I found outdoor climbing a marvelous world of infinite enchantment. Holding onto a naturally occurring handhold is a sensation no human could ever recreate. Reaching the top of a route leaves feelings of pure accomplishment and self-affirmation.

Outdoor climbing is about using the rock to defeat gravity and doing what seems impossible with the support and company of your friends. It provides the opportunity to exist and appreciate the natural world, an opportunity to push your limits and your bounds of ability.

The history of rock climbing tells many stories similar to mine. Since the 1400s, people have pursued their love for ascending rock faces, pushing themselves to new heights. Mountaineering to the tops of the largest mountains in the world, people accessed areas where no one had been before, spots that had once been abstractly viewed from down below.

Hundreds of years later, in 1985, a group of people organized a gathering of the best climbers in the world for an event called SportRoccia held at a natural crag in Valle Stretta, located in the Olympic town of Bardonecchia, Italy. Thousands of spectators watched as climbers competed against one another in the event. This would be known as the first official climbing competition.

Last August, the International Olympic Committee decided to add competitive climbing to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. Many viewed this announcement as a great honor and accomplishment in the world of rock climbing, yet it is far from it.

The Olympics’ composite format of speed climbing, bouldering, and sport climbing has sparked much conversation and controversy. For those unfamiliar, bouldering is climbing a relatively low wall without a rope and sport climbing is climbing a high wall with a rope; both can be done outside in nature, whereas speed climbing involves the climber racing to ascend a high wall with standardized holds.

Many of the best outdoor climbers are considering forgoing the Olympics due to its inclusion of speed climbing. Speed climbing has little to do with conventional rock climbing beyond the virtue of vertical ascension. Indeed, it’s exciting to watch, but it’s nonsensical to mandate that all climbers, most of whom do not speed climb, participate.

Climbing is being marketed to a mainstream audience as a sport that values speed and fierce competition. As sponsors and advertisers rush into the new realm, the once countercultural hobby will now become commercially exploited. The most skilled climbers in the world will vie for corporate endorsements, rather than ascending remote, unfinished outdoor routes.

Rock climbing is not a competitive platform. It is not about speed, and it is not about winning a gold medal. It is about refining your technique and strength to approach the wall with confidence.

The true victors are not the ones who finish first – or even the ones who finish at all – but those who feel a greater connection to the rock and themselves. And while that may not be an entertaining image for a wide audience, it should be the focus of every rock climber.

Instead of watching the new Olympic event, those who enjoy climbing should think about what rock climbing truly is: an opportunity to spend time with friends and connect with nature.

Malcolm McCann PZ '21 has not played a formal sport since the eighth grade and enjoys reading Modernist literature in his free time.