Last week's announcement of UK Sport's funding for climbing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics has once again nudged our sport's involvement in The Greatest Show On Earth into the general consciousness. For many climbers, the prospect of the activity they love being given Olympic billing is greeted with unabashed glee, a bit like learning your favorite back-room-of-a-pub folk band is going to headline at Glastonbury. But perhaps the introduction of climbing in the Olympics is not necessarily the win-win scenario it's often made out to be. Aside from questions around the format of the composition itself—with the inclusion of the often ridiculed Speed Climbing event being central to this—the main concern remains how climbing will cope with increased exposure and participation. With greater interest and funding, climbing as a sport could raise its game and look after the top talent better than it already does. Higher funding could bring the application of sports science to training practices as seen in the likes of track cycling and athletics, ushering in a new level of professionalism that would undoubtedly push the boundaries of what is possible. However, unlike many other Olympic sports, climbing is one that fundamentally depends on a close relationship with the natural environment.
The sport's development must be matched with conservation for it to thrive and the for environments we love to survive. Climbing is already increasing in uptake and popularity; couple this with the added exposure the Olympics will bring and it is likely there will be a further boom in participation. Funding, driven by gold medals and exposure, will inevitably benefit those at the elite end of the sport, and standards at the top end may be pushed forward at an increased rate. But it does not necessarily mean there will be a tangible positive impact for those that don't operate at the top level. Trickle-down economics doesn't have an stellar record in society in general, never mind climbing, and this is uncharted territory for climbing. There is no doubt that parties with a financial interest in the climbing industry will be able to monetize a climbing boom successfully. Yet there is little indication that the parties who will be left "holding the baby"—representative bodies, access bodies, local climbers and activists—have much of a plan for dealing with increased numbers, or are even aware that a potential problem is on the horizon.
The Numbers Game
There are now more indoor gyms than ever, and no matter which city you live in, new ones are opening at a rate never seen before. When you visit the existing indoor gyms it's clear that these are not just sub-dividing up the existing pool of potential climbing customers, they're doing what any good business does: Stimulating demand. They are driving growth by getting new people into the sport and expanding the market. It's also clear that there is a substantial proportion of climbers who have never set foot outside and have no intention of ever doing so. They are in it for the fitness. However, in general, overspill from the indoor boom to the outdoors is inevitable. In the UK the problem of overspill is likely to be more visible than in countries such as Spain or the USA, where high quality extensive new crags and areas appear to be discovered every week.
In the UK, certain sedimentary rocktypes like the gritstone of the Pennines and the sandstone areas are especially vulnerable to increased traffic and poor practices, such as climbing when the rock isn't completely dry. Consider that 20 million people, one third of the total population of Great Britain, live within one hour’s journey of the Peak District. The most vulnerable gritstone is conveniently located around the periphery of the Park near the major population hubs. Similarly the Southern Sandstone area in south east England, already too fragile to withstand leader-placed protection, is pretty much the only venue within striking distance of London and its huge population of rock-starved city-dwelling climbers. Across the channel, Fontainebleau is similarly close to Paris, and although the area seems to have an uncanny knack of offering up seemingly unlimited numbers of new problems and undiscovered crags, it is far from immune to problems of overcrowding, erosion and poor climber behavior. It doesn't take much either; one climber enthusiastically trying to dry a wet gritstone or sandstone problem with chalk, pulling on a vulnerable hold, can ruin a classic line.
We can't build more crags, and we can't rebuild crags once they're ruined. What we've got is it, so we must look after them. Poor behavior endangers the rock directly, but also access to areas can be lost at the drop of a hat, especially those on private land. Just last week news emerged of a prized Yorkshire venue, the roof at Whitehouses, succumbing to deliberate hold destruction and vandalism. The damage here is almost certainly retribution for long-standing parking and access issues, and some climbers' recent behavior is likely to have been a contributory factor. A steep and fast drying crag with a concentration of hard problems and linkups, this is exactly the sort of crag that is, or rather was, bound to become increasingly popular. If we as a climbing community are unable to self-police and prevent these situations from metastasizing into crisis today, then how will we do it in the post-Olympic boom era?
In contrast to the "traditional" apprenticeship into rock climbing of decades past (through walking, mountaineering and scrambling) many introduced to the sport through the indoor boom may not be equipped properly to use crags in a responsible manner. We're already seeing this to an extent at the crags today. Certain crags are used simply as outdoor gyms: music, inconsiderate parking, quickdraws left in-situ, huge tickmarks and overuse of chalk. There's already a failure to properly educate new entrants to the sport, and that is something we, as a community need to get better at in the future. It is important that the parties benefiting from more bodies in the sport drive this. It is unfair to leave it just to keen volunteers or word-of-mouth at the crag. The competition bodies, retailers, manufacturers, and not least indoor gyms should be pulling their weight. It will take more than a few well-meaning posters pinned up at the gym.
This brings us on to the "elephant in the room" regarding the Olympics—namely that the narrative has largely been shaped by those with the most to gain; the governing bodies, sponsored athletes and their brands, coaches, athletes and climbing walls, all of whom have a vested interest in competition climbing and increased participation. Governing bodies such as the BMC, for example, may soon find themselves reliant on funding sources which require the promotion of competitions, even if a substantial proportion of their membership either objects to or is ambivalent to competition climbing (a recent survey of the BMC's members showed competition climbing in general was far from being universally supported by its members). Sponsored climbers stand to benefit from huge exposure and the sponsorship windfall that goes with it, as well as an improved training infrastructure. The brands that support them will benefit from increased sales of rock shoes and gear. Climbing gyms will benefit from increased participation and footfall. The pros and cons of the Olympics aside, there is a clear risk of a huge democratic deficit surrounding discussion of the issue, with many voices unrepresented and a one-sided agenda dominating.
Is it all bad news?
Other than elite funding, the other benefit to increased numbers in the sport would be a larger and stronger lobby when it comes to issues of access, management of crags or threats to national parks. However climbing already has enough active participants to make itself felt at a regional and national government level, but precious few climbers actually ever take any interest in issues such as access. It's all too easy to flick through your guidebook, pick a crag and turn up and climb. But access should never be taken for granted, especially in this day and age. It is highly unlikely that any large boost in numbers made up largely of indoor-only climbers will impact the pressing issues of access in outdoor areas. If anything the climbing community of the near future stands to be more fractured and tribal than at present.
It might seem selfish to bemoan the increase in popularity of climbing, that we would seek to deprive other people the joy we get from the sport. It is important that future generations are able to enjoy the natural outdoor spaces in the same way we have, and in largely the same state if not better. It seems that climbing is approaching a potential crunch period. Do we step forward into the mainstream with all that entails, and if we do, are we really ready for everything that comes with it?