Olympic debut for sport climbing leads to increased participation

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Although controversy surrounded sport climbing’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games, it also brought more attention to the sport, and clubs, including at Arizona State, are popping up everywhere. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

TEMPE — Andrew Westerhoff didn’t know what he was getting into when his sister took him to a climbing gym for the first time. The Arizona State junior started as an outdoor climber in high school, taking classes and spending a few weeks climbing in the Rocky Mountains.

Now, after falling in love with sport climbing, there isn’t a day that Westerhoff isn’t in the gym.

When it comes to the Olympics, traditional sports such as gymnastics, swimming and athletics come to mind. However, one sport has gained enough popularity and made its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020: sport climbing.

With the growing popularity of rock climbing in recent years, more and more competitive teams are popping up across the country, including at ASU.

Sun Devil Climbing was founded in 2018 by a group of dedicated climbers. The club aims to promote the sport locally and provide a community of climbers regardless of experience.

With interest from all levels, the club is divided into two sections: a recreational club and a competitive team. Recreational club workouts are held once a month at Phoenix Rock Gym in Tempe while the competitive team workouts once a week at Black Rock Bouldering Gym in Phoenix. Outdoor bouldering takes place at South Mountain or on day trips to one of the many recreational sites in the valley.

“Once I got to college, I realized ASU didn’t have a competitive team,” Westerhoff said. “I kind of talked to a few people who were interested in it, and we decided to start one here.”

Westerhoff, who is now the coach of competitive team Sun Devil Climbing, hopes he can help others who are just getting started in the sport as he continues to develop.

“My main role is to coach the competitive team and try to help new climbers just to make sure they follow proper training programs and just don’t hurt themselves on the way. towards escalation,” he said.

Sun Devil Climbing participates through USA Climbing, which offers students the opportunity to compete. The competitive team is part of the Rocky Mountain Division of USA Climbing, one of the organization’s seven college-level divisions.

The club has climbers who have competed on the youth circuit and competed in national championships. With a strong squad, Westerhoff hopes to have the Sun Devils compete at the highest level.

“I think it would be great if we could bring a few people to nationals,” he said. “I know we have a strong group of people in this team. I think we can definitely get a few people to nationals. If someone makes it to the final, I would be more than happy.

The climbing walls offer different levels of difficulty. A variety of gyms are accessible around the valley. (Photo by Ian Garcia/Cronkite News)

While it’s clear the sport is gaining momentum, there have been a few bumps in the road recently.

The sport climbing competition format at the Tokyo Games has caused some controversy within the climbing community.

Olympic competition was divided into three climbing disciplines: bouldering, lead and speed.

Bouldering consists of a problem-solving aspect where climbers must solve and scale walls without safety ropes within a limited time, earning points by reaching the top or accessing certain areas.

Lead climbing involves athletes traversing as high as they can on a wall in a specific amount of time.

Where the controversy begins is the inclusion of speed climbing, an event that pits climbers in a one-on-one race to the top of a wall.

Speed ​​climbers must rely on explosive power rather than the more technical aspects of bouldering and sinking, and the International Olympic Committee wanted an element of fast running, as seen in other events, for the Olympic debut of the sport.

“The growth of the sport is great, but some of the formats for the Olympics, as well as other competitions, are newer to the sport and haven’t been fully thought out yet,” Westerhoff said. “There’s a bit of controversy about how the competition should be organized because a lot of climbing tends to be very powerful but static moves where you’re not doing massive jumps all the time.

“In competitive climbing you get a lot of those super dynamic gymnastic moves.”

Another format issue with sport climbing at the Tokyo Games came when the IOC awarded only two gold medals, one for men and one for women, with the winner determined by the combined scores of each. climber in each discipline.

“I think it’s controversial because it combines three different disciplines that require three different workouts,” said ASU senior Richie Winter, who manages the club’s social media. “What you get is the jack-of-all-trades instead of a master of a sport or a discipline of the sport.”

The trend and inclusion of speed in the Tokyo Games has baffled many in the community as it forces climbers to train for a discipline they are not as good at or have never even tried before. .

“Over time, the climbing competition routes have become more and more impressive to the public, said ASU freshman Ethan Weiss. “You watch a climbing competition 20 years ago, it looks like outdoor climbing or climbing you see in (climbing gyms). If you look at a modern climb, there’s a lot more nervous movement and parkour stuff. Personally, I’m just bad at it, so I don’t like it.

Fortunately for many in the climbing community, their concerns have been heard.

The IOC has announced that there will be four medal events in total at Paris 2024, separating sprint into its own event while combining bouldering and heading for men and women.

Despite the controversy, the inclusion of rock climbing in the Olympics is exciting for the community.

Focus Climbing Center staff member Matt Kamin believes that all publicity for the sport is good publicity. As a skateboarder, a sport that also made its Olympic debut in Tokyo, Kamin was intrigued to see both events on the biggest stage in the world and what that means for the future.

“I think that’s a really cool thing,” he said. “Obviously it’s going to expose a lot more people to the sport, maybe develop the sport. Adding these more subjective and creative sports to the Olympics is a really exciting thing to see, and I think that’s a very good exposure for these sports.

With more eyes on climbing, there could be increased investment in the sport that would help those who want to one day reach Olympic heights.

“I hope – given that it is an Olympic sport – that we could have a lot more money in this sport,” Kamin said. “A lot more money to support people when they want to take up this sport professionally. I know there have been issues in the past with USA Climbing not necessarily having the funding to help their athletes get to the top. ‘stranger, going to all these expensive competitions, paying for hotel rooms and stuff like that. I think that would be awesome.

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With the sport’s inclusion in the Olympics, many have begun to wonder if rock climbing will ever become an emerging NCAA sport and even achieve full NCAA status.

“I think that could happen in the future,” Westerhoff said. “At the moment, it’s still a little too new as a sport to fully reach this level. We can sort of see it already with the progression of collegiate climbing. It started as a club and (it) slowly grows into what competitive youth climbing has become where it has slowly progressed into a very competitive sport.

“Now that we’re getting all this attention with the Olympics, it’s going to go from just a club sport to a bit more of a competitive sport, and hopefully we can see a bit more sponsorship in sport. and stuff like that.”

Whether rock climbing sees a big financial boost or becomes an NCAA sport remains to be seen, but its growing popularity is evident.

Since its inception as a competitive sport in 1985, participation has grown to 25 million climbers in approximately 150 countries around the world.

Winter cites the inclusion of rock climbing in the Olympics as well as recent documentaries “Free Solo” and “The Dawn Wall” as key reasons for the increased interest in the sport, a boost that could bode well for the sport. ‘to come up.

It all starts at the youth and college level. With 39% of climbers under the age of 18, Sun Devil Climbing hopes to play a part in encouraging more people to join the climbing community.

It may not be the most conventional sport, and it may take a while before it’s considered an Olympic staple, but rock climbing allows people to reach impressive heights no matter what. their level.

“If you’re not into it, give it a try and see if you like it,” Weiss said. “I think it’s fun because it’s one of those things you can always improve on. There’s no hard limit that if you’re as good as you can be, it’s as good as you can get. There’s always a tougher climb there, so I think that makes it interesting.

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