For most people watching the debut of sport climbing at the Tokyo Olympics, their knowledge of the sport was probably limited to glimpsing people hanging off ropes when picking the kids up from a birthday party at the local climbing centre.
But if terms such as “dyno” and “scorpion” don’t mean much, most observers would still be able to recognise and marvel at the power, strength and mental toughness needed to compete in one of the Games’ four new sports.
Social media lit up on Tuesday when the men’s qualifying rounds unveiled the explosive attraction of combined sport climbing to millions of viewers around the world.
The first discipline of speed climbing looked like something dreamed up for It’s A Knockout, with climbers tied to bungee safety ropes as they shot up an overhanging climbing wall with the aim of touching a buzzer at the top in the fastest possible time.
The athletes’ agility was astonishing, but even more hair-raising were their exploits on the bouldering wall. This is a 4.5-metre wall set up with a number of climbing challenges, or problems, and featured climbers such as France’s Mawem brothers flinging themselves into space in what appeared to be the remote hope of clinging on to a hold on the other side of the void – a so-called “dyno” move. Some failed, but others, twisting and stretching every sinew, solved the improbable problems.
Their exploits – along with the third discipline of the more traditional-looking lead climbing exercise – made sport climbing the top trending Olympic sport in Google search and looks set to maintain interest when the world’s best women take to the walls on Wednesday.
Climbing has been a serious sport for years but its rugged outdoor setting resisted much codification or mainstream exposure, save for the odd headline-grabbing tilt at an El Capitan or a Highland stack.
But the exploding number of indoor climbing centres in urban areas across the world, its growing popularity as a way to keep fit and the determination of the Olympic movement to include such lifestyle sports has seen it finally reach the top.
The combination of three disciplines for the Olympic event – speed climbing, bouldering and lead climbing – has succeeded in synthesising the essential elements of the pursuit to create a highly watchable event for millions of people around the world.
Romain Thevenot, chair of Sport Climbing Australia, says the Olympic debut represented the beginning of a “new era”, which could see a huge expansion in the number of people taking to the walls.
“It’s been a long road,” he says. “The international federation has been working towards it becoming an Olympic sport for more than 10 years. So it’s a big gamechanger for the world of climbing, and it’s also a big gamechanger for the world of climbing in Australia.”
There are now nearly 200,000 people going to climbing centres in Australia, he says, thanks to a boom in the building of new facilities.
“We can now only expect to see more people to come to the climbing centres. Millions of Australians are looking on, wanting to try it and get their kids involved and to have a go. It’s a new era for the sport.”
Bouldering appears to be the most esoteric of the three different disciplines but Thevenot and other people in the climbing industry pinpoint this activity as the key to expanding the popularity of the sport.
Steve Morris, who has run a climbing shop called Rock Hardware in Bendigo for more than 25 years, acknowledges that it was odd to see his sport make it to the Olympics, but said it was down to a shift towards indoor climbing from the traditional outdoor rock climbing that he has practised his whole life.
His bestselling items are highly specialised bouldering shoes that give you extra grip on the walls now commonly found in climbing centres and where people can either exercise for fun or for more serious ends. The walls extend no more than a few metres above the ground and if you fall there’s a safety mat.
“Indoor climbing has really come into its own in the last 10-15 years and that’s down to the rise in interest in bouldering,” Morris says. “You don’t need a lot of equipment, just a pair of shoes and away you go.”
For Thevenot, the important appeal of bouldering – and therefore sport climbing – is its social dimension. Unlike with roped climbing, which is usually done in pairs – one climbing, and one at the bottom belaying the safety rope – bouldering is more communal and groups can gather and climb together.
“With bouldering, everyone can feel like they are part of the same experience. Everyone is waiting and watching and talking, and people can try different things on different parts of the wall, easy or hard.”