Sport climbing quickly rising as 2020 Olympic hopeful

With the clock winding down, the star athlete makes one last jump into the air ... and grabs the top of the wall. Yes, the wall. And no, this isn’t basketball, football, baseball, or any of your more “normal” sports. This is sport climbing.

Rock climbing has been rising in popularity, with new indoor climbing gyms popping up all over the country, including about 15 more just this year. In North Carolina alone, there are over 25 different facilities that feature indoor rock climbing walls, including several gyms dedicated solely to the sport.

Climbing has become so popular it is among the new sports the International Olympic Committee will vote on in August for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. On June 1, the IOC executive board supported the package proposal of five sports, which also included surfing, karate, skateboarding, and baseball/softball.

The sport is international in appeal and the local growth in North Carolina is a perfect microcosm of rock climbing’s growing popularity. On May 14, the USA Climbing Sport & Speed Youth Regional Championship was held at Triangle Rock Club’s Morrisville location — the same day 15 other regional championships took place across the country.

To compete in the divisional championship, climbers had to participate in two local competitions earlier in the year. Traveling from all over Tennessee, South Carolina, and North Carolina, 135 youth climbers competed in Morrisville with the top ten scorers in each category (based on age and gender) moving on to the divisional championship on June 18-19 in Charlotte. Each of them holds out hope advancing to the national championship held in Atlanta this July.

So what does a climbing competition look like? To the average person, it might look like a bunch of people climbing up a rock wall. But like many sports, once you dig below the surface, there’s far more nuance to how the game is played than what meets the eye.

Specifically to climbing there are three primary disciplines: bouldering, sport climbing and speed climbing.

Bouldering is climbing a route or “problem” that is shorter, but without the use of a harness or ropes. Don’t worry, there is a safety mat on the ground for falls in bouldering. Sport climbing is a longer route climbed by either top-roping or lead climbing, so the climber is attached to a rope by a harness with someone else working as a belayer to take up the slack in the rope while they climb. Speed climbing consists of top-roping a route that is scored by the length of time it takes to complete.

Sport climbing routes are graded by the Yosemite Decimal System, which goes from 5.0 (flat ground) to 5.15c (most difficult route) and in a competition, they are set progressively so that the beginning of the route may start off easier (for instance, a 5.9) and gradually get more difficult (perhaps a 5.12) by the end.

Not only are competitors trying to complete the route without falling, but they are given points based on how they do it. The scoring for sport climbing is very subjective. Scott “Skinny” Eney, facilities manager and comp coordinator at Triangle Rock Club, compared it to figure skating, in that spectators don’t often see or realize the slight distinctions in a move, but the judges do, and score accordingly.

Routesetters, the certified people who set the climbing routes prior to the competition, create a scoring sheet for the judges that show the intended way to climb the route, assigning point values to each hold. Judges then track the climbers as they progress through the route, tallying up the points based on the various techniques used. Only after completing the route does the competitor get to see their score and learn how the points were assigned.

Sport climbing competitions start like a trivia game show, with competitors going to an isolation room so they can’t see the routes or interact with other climbers who have already climbed. Once on the clock, they are brought into the competition room where they have three routes to complete — five minutes for each one — with a break in between each route. Points are tallied across the three routes in order to rank competitors within their group.

The speed climbing portion of the competition, while far easier to understand as spectator and judge, is optional. Many competitors at the divisional championships opted out completely. While he prefers the technique and strategic climbing required in sport climbing, Eney said, “I really see speed climbing as the only hope for making it in the Olympics just because it’s easier for someone who’s never climbed before to understand. It’s exciting; it turns over quickly.”

As for the Olympic potential of the sport as a whole, Eney added it will “only do good things for the industry.”

Whether it is included in the 2020 Olympics or not, interest in the sport is quickly climbing.

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