Competitive climbers hope the sport makes Olympic grade

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 21, 2015 9:07 AM

By Steve Ginsburg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - American rock-climbing wizard Alex Honnold insists he would not compete in the Olympics even if his sport gets the nod for inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Games.

It is not that Honnold does not care for the Olympics or does not like to compete. The man widely considered the best free climber of his generation says he just is not good enough.

"The real reason I wouldn't compete in the Olympics is just because I wouldn't even be able to qualify," the 30-year-old Honnold told Reuters, the day before a climb in the Patagonia region of Chile. "Competitive climbing is basically a whole different sub-sport."

"I'm more of an adventurer: lots of travel, lots of new routes outdoors, not so much training inside. I can't climb at nearly the level required for competition."

While Honnold enjoys scaling the famed El Capitan in California's Yosemite National Park or tackling Borneo's formidable Mount Kinabalu, he says a timed ascent of a manmade mountain does not interest him.

Sport climbing is one of five sports recommended for inclusion in the Olympics by organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, along with skateboarding, surfing, baseball/softball and karate. Under new rules, Olympic host cities can pick sports for possible inclusion at the Games in addition to the existing 28 core sports.

The International Olympic Committee must approve the addition of sport climbing and the other recommended sports.

Competitive climbing, of which sport climbing is one of the disciplines, secured a foothold in Europe in the early 1980s and then gained traction in the United States a decade later. Now, it is gaining a following in other parts of the world.

"It makes sense to put the sport into the Olympics, where it's more on the world's stage and people can get a really good idea of what this thing is," said Tyson Schoene, head coach of the five-time U.S. champion Vertical World climbing team, based in Washington state.

"It's really popular right now, and not just with young kids. College-age kids also love it. And older. And here in the Seattle area, it's grown enormously in the last five years."

Schoene said the sport is appealing because it combines fun with a full workout.

"It has very little to do with hard training for climbing. It's something that gets your body active and uses all these muscle groups you've never really used before," he said.

"And it's different. It's not like putting on your running shoes and running around the lake, where you're bored to death. It's interesting, and that's why it's grabbing folks."

PERMANENT ANCHORS

In a competition, participants are given just a few minutes to analyze a route up the mountain pre-determined by organizers. Climbing one at a time, whoever gets the highest in the time allotted captures the gold medal.

Unlike traditional climbing, sport climbing relies on permanent anchors like bolts fixed to the rock.

Drew Ruana, a 16-year-old competitive climbing national champion for his age group, said putting his sport in the Olympics would boost its popularity.

"If it were in the Olympics, a lot of people would see that and say, 'That looks like fun,'" Ruana said. "Otherwise, they'd never really hear about it."

Schoene, the coach, said he hopes climbing follows the path of snowboarding, which made its first Olympic appearance at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.

"From the minute it went into the Olympics, it just blew up in the media," Schoene said. "It exploded. It's all over TV, there's X Games footage everywhere. I'm hoping at some point that competition climbing moves into that area."

The IOC will vote next August on adding the new sports.

If sport climbing does make the cut, Honnold, the star of traditional climbing, said he would likely spend the two weeks of the Olympic competition in 2020 on a solo ascent somewhere on a remote part of the planet.

"Last season in Patagonia we attempted a traverse of the Torres that wound up taking 53 hours to get back to camp," he said, referring to a particularly tricky climbing site. "That kind of fitness and experience does not help at all when a competition lasts a few minutes and takes place on one extremely hard route."

"It's like asking an ultra marathoner if he'd like to win a 100-meter sprint. Sure, it sounds cool to win the Olympics, but I've already gone down a different path."

(Editing by Will Dunham)