As rock climbing debuts at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, climbers in Spokane reflect on the evolution of the sport

When Spokane’s Chris Kopczynski pounced on some of the toughest peaks in the late 1960s and 1970s, he said he was “considered another madman” participating in fringe activity – at least. in America – known as climbing.

Fast forward almost 60 years and some aspect of this insane effort has reached the biggest stage in the sports world.

“It’s pretty refreshing to see him at the Olympics,” said Kopczynski. “It went from a pioneering activity to a real competition.

Men’s rock climbing made its debut at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday. The men’s final will take place on Thursday evening. The women’s qualifying round took place on Wednesday evening, with the finals on Friday.

Activity has changed over the decades since the people of Spokane, Kopczynski, John Roskelley, Kim Momb, Jim States and others established some of the world’s toughest high altitude climbs and pioneered the rock, ice and snow roads through Washington, Idaho and Canada.

Back then, rock climbing was largely about adventure and exploration (with a lot of competition) and was practiced by a handful. Today, it has become a real sport with multiple disciplines, practiced by millions of people.

This transformation is exemplified at this year’s Olympics.

This week, viewers saw climbers climb 49-foot walls on a predetermined route reminiscent of a 100-meter sprint (speed climbing), perform dynamic and acrobatic movements on a wall of nearly 15 feet without a rope all in 4 minutes (block) and test their endurance and technique on ropes by climbing to around 15 meters, all in less than 6 minutes (lead).

All in a secure and controlled environment.

Despite the differences between the birth of sport in unpredictable mountains, the bases of the three events are reminiscent of the early days of mountaineering. After all, athletes use their hands and feet to fight gravity.

Roskelley watched part of the speed climbing competition on Tuesday morning with his wife Joyce and enjoyed it, marveling at the physical and mental “memory” required to execute the movements. He never imagined rock climbing would become an Olympic sport.

“It’s interesting to see how it has evolved over the years,” he said. “Definitely a change in attitude. In the way they approach these climbs. How many falls they can do.

A long time to come

The effort to compete in the Olympics has been a long one, as shown in rock climbing journalist John Burgman’s book “High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing”.

The International Olympic Committee recognized for the first time mountaineering (then the only form of climbing) as a sport in 1894, although it did not award an Olympic Alpine Prize until 1924, when the IOC awarded a medal to 13 climbers for an unsuccessful attempt of Mount Everest.

Almost half of the climbers died in the summit attempt and were awarded the medal posthumously. In 1936, two German brothers received the prize for the first ascent of the north face of the Matterhorn in Europe. Another prize was awarded in 1936.

When the Olympics returned after World War II, the IOC dropped the award for mountaineering, in part because of the risk. The Olympic conversation resumed in the late 1980s as competitive climbing, fueled by the growth of climbing halls, gained in popularity. In 1992 rock climbing was included as a demonstration sport in the Winter Olympics, but eventually curling was chosen over rock climbing.

The effort was relaunched in 2016, when rock climbing was once again a demonstration sport at the Rio Olympics, ultimately leading to its inclusion in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 – albeit delayed by a year due to the pandemic. Olympic organizers hope the sport will attract a younger audience.

Climbing is joined by four other new sports this year: karate, surfing, 3v3 basketball and skateboarding.

The climbing format in Tokyo is not without its problems, according to some climbers. The main one being that the Olympics will award only one set of medals for both men’s and women’s climbing.

This led to the combined event. Climbers must compete in three distinct styles of climbing: lead climbing, bouldering and speed climbing. It’s like telling skiers that they have to compete in slalom, super-G and downhill just to have a chance at an Olympic medal.

“I don’t like the format and wish they hadn’t joined three disciplines in one medal,” said George Hughbanks, a Spokane-area climber and prolific climbing route developer. .

“It just doesn’t represent rock climbing very well, let alone the sport of competitive rock climbing.”

The format may inadvertently disadvantage young climbers in the Spokane area, said Ivy Pete, a senior at North Central High School.

“We don’t have the ability to train for speed unless we go to Seattle or Bozeman,” she said. “With the possible combination at regional, divisional or national level at the youth level in the future, it just means that fewer children are climbing to the elite level. “

The goal, according to information from the New York Times, is to separate speed climbing into its own category at the 2024 Paris Games while keeping bouldering and climbing in the lead in a combined event.

Growing popularity

Another area of ​​hope and concern for climbers in the Spokane area is the increased exposure the Olympics can bring to an already popular sport.

“Personally, I am PSYCHED to have climbed in the Olympics,” climbing coach Chelsea Murn said in a post. “I know there are some concerns that rock climbing is becoming ‘too popular’, but I think the more climbers we have, the better chance we have of taking care of the areas we love and continuing to improve their access.”

Zach Turner, the climbing gym director at Eastern Washington University, believes the Olympic floodlights will raise “the standards and opportunities for competitive climbers, which is great.”

His comment makes an important distinction.

The style of climbing highlighted at the Olympics – competitive climbing – takes place in a highly controlled and safe setting, a climbing hall.

Climbing rock, ice or snow outdoors is an entirely different endeavor, and some fear that the increased exposure will cause more people to climb outdoors without the proper training in security and etiquette.

“I consider indoor and outdoor climbing to be entirely different sports,” Levi Leab said in a post. “I think more people will eventually try outdoor rock climbing and the junk show will continue / expand.”

The growing popularity of rock climbing has led to overuse issues, with crowds descending into once lonely areas. To some extent, Spokane has been protected from overpopulation, but this is likely to change as the region grows.

Safety is also a concern.

Chris Celentano, a Coeur d’Alene climber and outdoor adventure photographer, said he has seen an increase in “really sketchy and incredibly dangerous” behavior from new climbers in climbing areas in Canada. outdoors this year.

“Maybe it is a sheer volume issue and there are just too many people entering the sport that there are no people willing to teach them,” he said.

For her part, Roskelley isn’t worried that the Olympics will bring more people to the mountains.

“It’s not going to bring hundreds of thousands of people into the mountains,” he said. “It can get them to the rock gym.”

In 2020, 44 new climbing gyms opened in the United States, while 18 closed due to the pandemic.

“You just stepped out 100 yards from the road and you’re away from people if you want to be,” Roskelley said.

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