Speed. Reinventing the spectacle
Speed climbing as an event has some huge things going for it, but at the same time is also lacking majorly in a couple of areas. Its deficiencies have been overlooked at a sporting level by detractors looking instead to rely on tired idioms like “it’s not real climbing” or “the speed climbers aren’t good climbers”.
With the introduction of a combined Olympic format we’re getting a backlash from some climbers who feel it doesn’t belong with the other disciplines of Lead Climbing and Bouldering, both formats with origins rooted in the outdoors.
And it is true, of the current disciplines, Speed is the event that has evolved furthest from climbing’s outdoor genesis.
The thing is though, Speed climbing has the longest tradition in competition climbing going back to the 1950’s, and in some areas and formats is still revered in popular climbing circles. Ok it may be dressed differently but in some areas, on routes of established, fixed difficulty, the speed of accents is the next frontier.
I present to you exhibit A – Yosemite. For years parties have been vying for speed records up the Nose, Half Dome and other routes. The trouble is, it’s clearly difficult to fashion a 1000-meter monolith we can cart between World Cups, so, lets settle for the 15 meter (vastly more practical) route length we have today.
So, if we accept that speed is effectively a bastardized format of an existing ideal in climbing, what can we identify as pluses and minuses for it as an event?
Lets start with the pluses
– It’s easy to understand. First to the top wins the day.
– The athletes are attractive. They have the most balanced physiques in climbing, which is already an attractive field in terms of the body shape of participants.
– It’s quick. And by that I don’t mean the climbers – that goes without saying. The events themselves are quick to complete and easy to package for highlights
And then the minuses;
– It can be boring. In a two-climber race if one climber slips or screws up the audience disengages.
– Unitards. Let’s face it, harnesses will never be a fashion accessory, slip a body suit in there and it’s just plain wrong!
– It’s not relatable. Every sport needs stars, currently Speed climbing is lacking them. When I switch to the 100 metres at the Olympics it’s to see Usain Bolt or in Swimming it’s to see Michael Phelps. Speed lacks those big personalities.
I propose that we start by ironing out the minuses. If we do that and then build on the pluses I think Speed will really grow in popularity and esteem.
If two climber races are boring the solution is simple. Add climbers! Up until recently the limiting factor has been belayers, now with Auto-Belays I believe we should undertake the biggest evolution in the sports World Cup level history and move to four climbers per heat.
We can engineer it to fit 4 lines up a standard speed wall easily enough, doubling the amount of climbing and action in every race. You don’t see any Olympic sport except track cycling limited to two athletes a race, and in cycling the restriction is the playing surface (velodrome), we don’t suffer that restriction.
With the increase to four climbers per race it would also give us the opportunity to change the scoring system, for this I would propose we look at the FIM Speedway GP series. Sure, it’s a motorsport series but they take 16 riders though a qualification round where every rider goes against every other rider over a series of 20 heats, earning rider points that they need to move them to the semifinal and final knock out rounds. I think this system is perfect for Speed climbing.
This system builds suspense as the climbers go through the heats as you know going into the later races who needs to finish where to get through to the last 8. It also gives the audience more time to get to know the climbers, the rivalries, the social dynamics of the sport.
Then, we are left with two semifinals where the top two climbers will progress and a final where all the medals are decided. This removes the clunky, anticlimactic bronze medal race that currently exists.
Sure, it means the climbers will need to climb more per event than they do currently and it will make the events longer, but it will increase the excitement and make it more worth the climbers while attending.
Secondly, dress code. Whether we like it or not, image is important from a marketing perspective. Tights or pants are fine as they exist in climbing already, and when matched with a reasonably fitted singlet (tank top) look fine. But lets face it unitards are not and hopefully never will be fashionable in climbing and should be ironed out. An example of a sport doing this, is where the UCI in cycling outlawed the use of skinsuits in Downhill mountain biking World Cups and World Champs. They realised it was unattractive to spectators and it would damage the sport long term as impressionable youths would be less likely to find the sport appealing and take it up.
The first part of this is consistency. I would propose that the top 8 in the season are protected going into every event, so that they don’t need to qualify into the top 16 and therefore risk stars missing out. (At the first event of a season you would just take the top 8 from the last season).
Having consistency in athletes means we will start to see the same climbers for longer, and having them compete through a series of heats means we won’t see them knocked out potentially early, another benefit as you want them getting screen time as you build their profiles.
I would also look, and I know this might be contentious, at getting all the climbers access to English lessons. It is the global language in the media and being able to interview and get to know the personalities of the athletes is super important from the sports marketing perspective. (This I believe should be implemented in all climbing disciplines prior to the Olympic build-up.)
Well, looking at the first point, it’s still easy to understand. We’re adding a layer of complexity to the heats but it’s still first to the top wins, as it always will be with speed.
For the second point of the athletes being attractive? If we do away with unitards and help them speak English it will only serve to broaden the sports and media appeal so no problem there. As athletes, they’re already awesome physical specimens we just need to build their profiles in a more rounded way.
Finally, it’ll still be a quick event. The introduction of heats will extend the event out of course but not unduly. At the moment, to win a Speed World Cup you need to complete six runs up the wall, so with this system, if you’re a top eight ranked climber you’ll only need to do one more, or if you were to qualify in from outside the top eight, its three more.
A side benefit is all the climbers who are in the round of 16 at a World cup get a minimum of five runs. Currently half the climbers that make top 16 are out after one run. Extending the number of runs can make it much more worthwhile for the climbers attending.
In summary, I don’t believe Speed Climbing is broken, but is current format is lagging behind in popularity and attendance. We have the opportunity to fix that and it’s something I think we need to do sooner rather than later.