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Photo by Dean Fidelman
Part II in a series of conversations with John Long
In part one of my series of free-ranging conversations with adventurer extraordinaire John Long, we discussed free soloing—the amazing form of climbing that doesn’t involve ropes, and that Largo (as Long is also known) himself helped to popularize as a teenager climbing in California in the early 1970s. Now, with the Games of the XXX Olympiad well-underway in London, I thought I’d take up for our second chat the question: Should climbing be an Olympic sport?
Three years ago, the International Olympic Committee granted the International Federation of Sport Climbing provisional recognition. In February 2010, the IOC formally recognized the IFSC, which means that climbing is now eligible to compete with other sports to be included in the Olympics. We will know climbing’s chances of scaling Mount Olympus next year, when the sports for the 2020 games will be decided. Some believe that Olympic inclusion would be a great shot in the arm for climbing, while others maintain it would cost the sport its soul. I wanted to know what Largo thought, so I asked him.
What do you think about climbing becoming an Olympic sport?
I don’t. Outdoor climbing would never work in the Olympics. It would be too fabricated and you could never modulate it. It would be stupid. The same with speed climbing, which would just be a vertical version of a foot race, only you couldn’t tell what anyone was doing.
What about bouldering?
Yeah, that’s what it should be. Bouldering, the gym stuff, that would be really cool in the Olympics. Those competitions are amazing—like 20-foot boulder problems with complicated routes and guys taking big rippers onto the mats. It’s like watching someone on a high bar, right? You could create a whole event around that. And the women climbers are hot! They’ve got tights on, and the whole shizzat, and the guys are good looking, too, these skinny spider-men climbing up walls. People would definitely watch it.
How would adding climbing to the Olympics change the perception of the sport?
First, people would understand it better. Look what happened with badminton when it became an Olympic sport in the early 90s. Before that, everybody thought badminton was just something people did standing around in their backyards during a barbecue. As it turns out, badminton is the most badass eye-hand-coordination racquet game in the world, and when they put that in the Olympics nobody could turn it off because what those guys and women do is amazing. They’re unbelievably athletic, and the bird comes off the racquet at 160 miles an hour, okay? So, yeah, I think the Olympics would change the perception of climbing a lot.
Do you think the sport itself would change much?
Wilderness climbing? No. It comes down to a myth that exists in all these adventure sports. You know, like, you shouldn’t free solo because you will lead unwitting people to go try it themselves and wind up dead. Or big-wave surfing—don’t show it on TV because foolhardy people will venture into enormous waves and drown. The fact is, that never happens. And the reason is that those activities are self-limiting. As soon as somebody gets out there they realize they can’t even start to do that stuff without scaring the living sh*t out of themselves. And no amount of cajoling or media coverage is going to talk anybody into doing something that all their internal signals are telling them not to do.
The other thing is that adventure climbing is too difficult. You can’t just watch an NBA basketball game and decide you’re going to go play like those guys. That assumes you could play like them. Well, you can’t. So there’s no reason to think that seeing a climber pounding on plastic in a gym is going to influence the crowd to go scale a wall in Yosemite. People just know qualitatively that we’re talking about two things that are not even remotely the same.
What positive changes might happen to climbing if it joins the Olympics?
It would certainly bring more money into the sport. But is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know. Climbing would become more commercial, not that it would trickle into the wilderness, which is the only place that really matters. But it would be good for the gym business, that’s for sure.
Just look what the Olympics did for gymnastics once the American women’s team started doing well 30 years ago. Now just about every college and university in the country has a high-level gymnastics program, and it’s amazing how good those athletes are. So the proliferation of climbing within the four walls of the gym would be considerable, and you’d start to see things like a refinement in the equipment.
Even if more people didn’t take up outdoor climbing as a result of having, say, bouldering in the Olympics, wouldn’t the games raise the general awareness of adventure climbing by extension?
Well, I do think there would be some trickle effect from the gym to the wilderness, because roughly 5 to 10 percent of all people introduced to gym climbing wind up going outdoors. And by the “outdoors” I mean out into the wilds to climb, not just to some established outdoor climbing area. But we’ll never have to worry about the adventure climbing world becoming overrun with people.
Even without the Olympics, there’s considerable interest in the extreme climbing some are doing—say, free soloing, or combinations of soloing and BASE jumping. Presumably the Olympics would raise the profile of that stuff, too.
Oh, sure. It’s all climbing, so the limelight of the Olympics, or at least the shadows of it, would be cast on the lunatic fringe as well. But there will always be limits to the public’s interest in the extreme stuff.
Because adventure climbing isn’t a spectator sport. It’s just not something most people would want to watch. For example, there will never be interest in a long-form climbing TV show—unless you built into it the possibility of somebody dying. Even when “60 Minutes” showed Alex Honnold free soloing Sentinel in Yosemite earlier this year, a segment that people are still talking about, that was only like 12 minutes long. It just captured a very telescoped, encapsulated moment of his climb. People aren’t interested in more than that. And that’s why adventure climbing will never be in the Olympics. It’s a sport for participants only.