Climbing is only just becoming an activity that households around the world are familiar with. However, with the addition of climbing to the Olympics, I’ve been seeing more questions about whether or not climbing is considered a sport. So I did some research into what is a sport and also considered hundreds of opinions found on forums and websites online and this is what I learned.
Is climbing considered a sport? To be a sport, the activity needs to involve physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment. Climbing meets all of these requirements.
Many opinions online suggest climbing isn’t a sport, however, these opinions indicated the person who shared their opinion wasn’t familiar with climbing and thus didn’t understand how climbing meets these requirements or understood the nature of climbing.
How Is Climbing A Sport
A sport, according to the dictionary is any activity that involves physical exertion, skill, and an individual or team competition against another or others for entertainment. Below is an outline of how climbing meets all of these requirements.
Qualification #1: Climbing Requires Physical Exertion
The nature of climbing requires the climber to move their body up a vertical wall using nothing but their own strength. The wall has handholds and footholds that create additional challenges the climber must overcome to reach the top. These challenges require a lot of physical exertion.
The type of physical exertion is dependent on the type of climbing performed. Below is a brief overview of the two most common climbing disciplines:
- Sport Climbing: Sport climbing is climbing a wall at least 30 meters or higher (in competitions, it is usually higher) with a rope that you carry up the route with you. This type of climbing requires a lot of endurance in the lower body, upper body and especially the forearms.
- Bouldering: Bouldering is climbing without a rope on routes that get as high as 4 meters. On these routes, a lot of physical strength and explosive movements in the lower body, upper body and especially the forearms.
In addition, climbing meets the requirements for all four types of workouts, Aerobic (Endurance) Exercise, Strength, Flexibility and Balance.
- The heart rate of a climber is usually between 70-85% Heart-Rate Zone making it an incredible aerobic exercise.
- Climbing requires pulling your body and pushing your body through the route wich is a great way to build strength using body-weight.
- Climbing (especially in competitions) requires climbers to be able to stretch their hips, hamstrings and shoulders in multiple directions to be able to complete the climb.
- Climbing requires you to use balance to keep your weight as close to the wall as possible so that you can complete the climb without falling.
Climbing, according to scientific studies that make up the Metabolic Equivalent of Task (MET) value scale suggest that not only is climbing physically exerting, it is among the high-intensity workouts.
Met value is broken into three categories:
- Low intensity (less than 3.0 on the MET scale) such as sitting at your desk and typing or watching TV
- Moderate intensity (between 3.0 and 6.0 on the MET scale) such as yard work and leisurely swimming laps
- High intensity (greater than 6.0 on the MET scale) such as running and calisthetics
On the met scale, climbing is an 8.5/10.0 on the MET scale, which means that it has been identified as requiring significant physical exertion.
Like any activity, of course, easier climbs require less energy and things like repelling down a route have been identified as a 5.6/10.0 MET value, which is moderate intensity. This means that like many activities, the harder you are climbing, the more physically exerting it’ll be.
This support that climbing meets the requirements of all four workout types workouts further supports that climbing requires physical exertion.
Qualification #2: Climbing Requires Skill
The second guideline for being a sport is that the activity requires skill. Climbing requires a lot of skills through technique and experience to help the climber reach or be able to get to the next handhold or foothold so they can reach the top of the climb. Meaning this requirement is fulfilled.
To help demonstrate how climbing requires skills, I have included a few techniques that are used to help climbers get to each hold.
- Smearing is a technique climbers use when there isn’t a foothold in the position they need their feet.
- Dynos is a climbing technique that requires you to leap from one handhold to the next. It is one of the most difficult climbing moves and is an incredibly difficult skill to build.
- Drop-Knee is a technique used to leverage your feet and leg balance and strength to position your body in a way that assists you with reaching the next climbing hold
- Flagging is one of the most common techniques in climbing. It is a technique that helps balance the climber or move the center of gravity and body position to reach holds in a controlled manner.
In addition, there are many climbing books, blogs, videos, and training/clinics that are specific for helping climbers develop skills required to climb at higher levels. This further supports that climbing requires skills to complete the process.
The harder the climb is, the more skill is involved with completing it. Like in many activities, there are different levels of climbing. At the base level, children at the age of three can complete climbs and these routes require less skill. However, the higher the level of climbing, the more skill is required.
This leveling system is called Grades in climbing. Depending on what part of the world you are in, you may use a different grading system.
In the United States, bouldering (a type of climbing that uses shorter routes without a rope system for safety) uses what is called a V Scale. For roped climbs (such as top-rope, sport climbing and trad climbing), a YDS scale is used to indicate the difficulty of the climb and how much skill is involved.
- V Scale: This indicates the difficulty of the climb by putting a number from 0-16 after V. A V0 is significantly harder than a V6. Though the scale goes goes all the way up to V16, very few climbers in the world have ever climbed routes that difficult.
- YDS Scale: This indicates the difficulty of the climb by putting a 5 (indicating both hands and feet are required to complete the route – not like a hike) and then it is followed by a decimal and another grade of difficulty from a 1-15 as well as an a, b, c or d, which further breaks down the grade. A child can often climb a 5.1 but only a few climbers in the world have been able to complete a 5.15c
For more details about climbing grades, check out this article.
Qualification #3: Climbing Has Competitions
The last requirement in what makes a sport guideline is that the activity must have competitions where individuals or teams compete against another or other for entertainment. Climbing has had its first competition in 1985 and has grown to have local, regional, country, and world competitions and championships throughout the year.
Though climbing has been arround since the time of cavemen and climbing competitions have been around since the 16th century, it wasn’t until 1986 when a competition in Bardonecchia, Italy hosted the first lead climbing competition in an event called SportRoccia.
Since then, four different disciplines/formats of climbing has entered the climbing competition scene:
- Bouldering Competitions: Most bouldering competitions comprise of 5 boulder problems in each round. Each climber gets 4 minutes for each route and gets points based on the number of attempts and the time it takes to complete the route. The climber who completes the most routes in the least amount of time and attempts, wins.
- Sport Climbing Comptitions: Probably the most commonly known climbing competitions are sport climbing competition. The climber has 6 minutes and one attempt to climb as high on the route as possible. The climber that gets the furthest and in the shortest amount of time wins.
- Speed Climbing Competitions: Speed climbing is a much newer discipline in climbing and is very contriversial in the olympics because the skill and muscles required to speed climb is significantly different than bouldering and sport climbing. The route remains the same for every competition and the climber who reaches the top the fastest, wins. The speed record in a competition for men is 5.47 seconds set by Reza Alipourshenazandifar from China in 2017 and the speed record for women is 6.96 set by Luliia Kaplina from Russia.
- Ice Climbing Compititions: Similar to the rules of sport climbing, except ice climbing has additional gear and complications that makes it a completely unique competition. The ice climbing compititions don’t tend to get as many views as sport climbing but it is continuing to grow.
Over the years, these competitions have been separated and local, regional, national and international competitions have featured just one of the formats. However, in the last decade, there have been many combined-format competitions that include bouldering and sport climbing.
These competitions have thousands of viewers and many of them are broadcasted on TV. For example, ESPN broadcasted Search Results the USA Climbing: Bouldering Open National Championship and the USA Combine Invitational in 2019.
Climbing debuted at the Tokyo Olympics combining all three climbing disciplines (bouldering, sport climbing, and speed climbing) and future Olympics are planned to separate speed from bouldering and sport.
Climbers compete individually but in world competitions, they also represent the country that they come from. Each country competing in the Olympics for climbing will have a maximum of four competitors, two men and two women for a total of 40 competitors.
Unlike most countries competing in the Olympics, however, the USA climbing team doesn’t get any funding from the government and is dependent on companies to sponsor the team and/or individual climbers.
In addition to competitions, sport climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing have all been added to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (now moved to 2021), where it debuted. This further supports that climbing has competitions that are for entertainment.
Common Misconceptions About Climbing
While doing research into this topic, I learned that there are a lot of misconceptions about climbing.
According to a survey on Debate.Org, 67% of respondents agreed that climbing was a sport. However, the responses supporting the argument that climbing is not a sport, are based on uneducated assumptions about climbing.
Hopefully, the above clears up most of those misconceptions, but here are a few others that you may not be aware of.
All Climbing Disciplines Are Sports
Climbing is broader than sport climbing and includes speed climbing, bouldering, trad climbing, free-solo climbing, etc. However, not all of the climbing disciplines are sports. For example, trad climbing, though an amazing activity that is physically exerting, requires a lot of skill and is very entertaining to watch (almost every climbing documentary is of trad climbing), there aren’t established competitions so it doesn’t meet the requirement of
The climbing disciplines currently that have established competitions and meet all of the requirements for the definition of a sport is sport climbing, bouldering and speed climbing.
Climbing Isn’t Entertaining
This is a difficult misconception because one could argue that “entertaining” is a subjective matter. However, in the context of the definition of a sport, the requirement is that it must be for “entertainment,” meaning that winning or losing is “just for fun” and there aren’t serious consequences for losing or failing.
Climbing also uses safety gear and has specific requirements that make it safe for competitions so there aren’t any serious consequences for losing or in this case, falling. No one is forced into the competitions and it is, for all intents and purposes, for entertainment.
If Climbing Is A Sport Then All Other Outdoor Activities Would Be Categorized As Sports
The main argument here is that many people compare climbing to hiking or camping. However, these activities can’t be compared because they require different strengths and skills, not to mention gear and general knowledge.
Is Outdoor Climbing or Free Soloing Considered A Sport?
Some have argued that Alex Honold’s El Capitan ascent in the famous Free Solo documentary was a competition to reach the top in the fastest time and thus counts as a sport. However, since the competitors were not clear, it doesn’t count as a competition.
This doesn’t mean that free soloing or outdoor climbing isn’t a sport, however. It is a branch of the sport, just not a competitive branch of the sport.
Is Climbing In The Olympics?
Climbing is debuting in the 2020 (now 2021) Tokyo Olympics. Up to two men and two women will represent their country with a total of 40 competitors. The sport will be showcasing bouldering, sport climbing and speed climbing.
- Bouldering: Usually bouldering competitions have 4 minutes for each set route. That is likely going to be the same for the Olympics but the Olympic website says “athletes climb as many fixed routes as they can within four minutes,” which could suggest that they will climb multiple routes in a total of four minutes. One thing that is the same with the Olympics and world cup competitions is that climbers aren’t allowed to attempt the routes before the time starts and they won’t be able to see others climb it either.
- Sport Climbing: In the Olympics, they are calling this lead climbing. Like all world competitions in climbing, each competitor attempts the over 15-meter high wall. The goal is to go as high as possible without falling and the winner is the one that makes it the farthest, fastest. One tricky part of lead climbing is that you have to bring the rope up with you and use what’s called quickdraws to attach the rope to safety bolts along the route. In on Olympics qualifications, one of the competitors, Adam Ondra, accidentally stepped on a bolt and was disqualified from the competition (he later took first place in another qualifying competition to win his spot at the Olympics representing the Czech Republic)
- Speed Climbing: This is one of the more entertaining disciplines in the sport because each round is over in a matter of seconds. Unlike the other two climbing disciplines, the climbers have had a chance to practice and train on the exact same route for decades (though some of the competitors will have significantly less experience). Many climbers feel that it is unfair to include this in the same scoring system for a combined score because it takes more memory and quick movement to get up a 15-meter wall that is at a 95-degree angle. It has been announced, however, that the 2024 Olympics will showcase this discipline in a separate event with separate medals for winners.
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