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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

As climbing makes its debut in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Spokane climbers reflect on the evolution of the sport

When Spokane’s Chris Kopczynski threw himself at some of the hardest mountain peaks in the late 1960s and ’70s, he said he was “looked at as just another nut” participating in a fringe activity – at least in America – known as climbing.

Fast forward nearly 60 years and aspects of that nutty endeavor have reached the sporting world’s biggest stage.

“It’s kind of refreshing to see it actually in the Olympics,” Kopczynski said. “It’s gone from a pioneering activity to an actual competition.”

On Tuesday, men’s climbing made its debut in the Tokyo Olympics. The men’s final will be held Thursday night. The women’s qualifying round was Wednesday night, with finals Friday.

The activity has changed in the decades since Spokane residents Kopczynski, John Roskelley, Kim Momb, Jim States and others established some of the hardest high-altitude climbs in the world and pioneered rock, ice and snow routes throughout Washington, Idaho and Canada.

Back then, climbing was focused largely on adventure and exploration (with plenty of competition) and was practiced by a handful. Now, it has become a bona fide sport with multiple disciplines, practiced by millions.

That transformation is exemplified at this year’s Olympics.

This week, viewers watched climbers race up 49-foot walls on a predetermined route reminiscent of a 100-meter dash (speed climbing), perform dynamic and acrobatic movements on a nearly 15-foot wall with no rope all in 4 minutes (bouldering) and test their endurance and technique on ropes while climbing roughly 50 feet, all in under 6 minutes (lead).

All in a safe and controlled environment.

Despite the differences between the sport’s birth in the unpredictable mountains, the basics of all three events hearken back the earliest days of alpinism. After all, the athletes are using their hands and feet to fight gravity.

Roskelley watched some of the speed climbing competition Tuesday morning with his wife Joyce and enjoyed it, marveling at the physical and mental “memory” needed to execute the moves. He never imagined climbing would become an Olympic sport.

“It’s interesting how it has evolved over the years,” he said. “Definitely a change in attitudes. In how they approach these climbs. How many falls they can take.”

A long time coming

The effort to get climbing into the Olympics has been a long one, as documented in climbing journalist John Burgman’s book “High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing.”

The International Olympic Committee first recognized alpinism (at the time the only form of climbing) as a sport in 1894, although it didn’t award an Olympic Alpine Prize until 1924, when the IOC gave 13 alpinists a medal for an unsuccessful attempt of Mount Everest.

Nearly half the climbers died during the summit attempt and were awarded the medal posthumously. In 1936, two German brothers received the prize for the first ascent of the north face of the Matterhorn in Europe. One more award was given in 1936.

When the Olympics returned after World War II, the IOC dropped the alpinism award, partly because of the risk. The Olympic conversation started back up in the late 1980s as competition climbing, fueled by the growth of climbing gyms, gained popularity. In 1992, climbing was included as a demo sport in the winter Olympics, but ultimately curling was selected instead of climbing.

The effort was revived in 2016, when climbing was again a demonstration sport during the Rio Olympics, finally leading to its inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – albeit delayed a year due to the pandemic. Olympic organizers hope that the sport will attract a younger audience.

Climbing is joined by four other new sports this year – karate, surfing, 3-on-3 basketball and skateboarding.

The climbing format in Tokyo isn’t without its problems, according to some climbers. The primary one being that the Olympics will only award one set of medals for men’s and women’s climbing.

That has led to the combination event. Climbers have to compete in three distinct styles of climbing – lead, bouldering and speed climbing. This is like telling skiers that they have to compete in the slalom, super-G and downhill simply to have a shot at one Olympic medal.

“I don’t like the format and wished they had not joined three disciplines into one medal,” said George Hughbanks, a Spokane-area climber and prolific climbing-route developer.

“It just doesn’t represent climbing that well, let alone the sport of competition climbing very well.”

The format may inadvertently disadvantage Spokane-area youth climbers, said Ivy Pete, a senior at North Central High School.

“We do not have the ability to train for speed unless we go to Seattle or Bozeman,” she said. “With the possible combination at a regional, divisional or national level on the youth scale in the future, it just means less kids climbing at the elite level.”

The goal, according to reporting from the New York Times, is to separate speed climbing into its own category in the 2024 Paris Games while keeping bouldering and lead climbing a combined event.

Growing popularity

Another area of hope and concern for Spokane-area climbers is the increased exposure the Olympics may bring to an already popular sport.

“I personally am PSYCHED to have climbing in the Olympics,” climbing coach Chelsea Murn said in a message. “I know some are worried that climbing might get ‘too popular,’ but I believe that the more climbers we have the better opportunity we have to take care of the areas we love and continue improving access to them.”

Zach Turner, the manager of Eastern Washington University’s climbing gym, believes the Olympic spotlight will raise the “standards and opportunities for competition climbers, which is awesome.”

His comment raises an important distinction.

The style of climbing highlighted at the Olympics – competition climbing – happens in a highly controlled and safe setting, a climbing gym.

Climbing rock, ice or snow outside is an entirely different endeavor and some worry the increased exposure will lead to more people climbing outside without the proper safety and etiquette training.

“I think of indoor climbing and outdoor climbing as entirely different sports,” Levi Leab said in a message. “I think more people will end up trying outside climbing and the junk show will continue/expand.”

Climbing’s growing popularity has led to overuse issues, with crowds descending on once-lonesome areas. To some extent, Spokane has been buffered from the crowding but that’s likely to change with the region growing.

Safety is also a concern.

Chris Celentano, a Coeur d’Alene climber and outdoor adventure photographer, said he’s seen an increase in “downright sketchy and incredibly dangerous” behaviors from new climbers at outdoor climbing areas this year.

“Maybe that’s a pure volume issue and there are just too many people getting in to the sport than there are people willing to teach them,” he said.

For his part, Roskelley isn’t concerned that the Olympics will drive more people into the mountains.

“It’s not going to bring 100,000s of people out in to the mountains,” he said. “It may drive them to the rock gym.”

In 2020, 44 new climbing gyms opened in the U.S., while 18 closed due to the pandemic.

“You just walk out 100 yards from the road and you’re away from people if you want to be,” Roskelley said.

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