The speed of confusion
As the rain poured down, the athletes of the 2017 European champs huddled under the huge Campitello di Fassa lead wall. They were protected from the worse of the weather but had to struggle to stay warm as the evening drew on.
Yet again we saw a top level international Speed competition impacted by terrible weather, the tiny covering on the wall providing scant protection from the elements and the start pads being splattered by the rain. It seems incredibly shortsighted to fit tiny awnings to the top of speed walls, or to have a mere meter or so of roof projecting above them when they are to provide host to athletes who have paid sometimes thousands of Euros to attend.
In Campitello things got underway again after a short break but once again the Speed community found itself poorly served with only a handful of brave spectators braving the conditions to watch the spectacle.
After a fraught event the 2017 Speed champions were crowned, Iuliia Kaplina of Russia and Marcin Dzienski prevailing on the night. By that time however I was in my car, heading back to my accommodation as I wasn’t willing to risk my equipment in the wet conditions, and from the limited shelter available no good vantage points could be had. As a friend of many of the athletes I’d have liked to stay but by then, with Lead semi’s starting early the next morning so another early start on the cards, I was disillusioned with the whole process and decided it was time to leave.
Speed, as a discipline in top level climbing, struggles to get purchase among the wider climbing community and with the way things are going at the moment I can understand why. 2017 saw the implementation of a couple of new rules that I believe have weakened the sport and robbed it’s proponents of some of the joy they find in competing. Three things have changed over the last couple of seasons, one of which, the move to autobelays, I think is fantastic. The other two… Well here’s my thoughts.
For 2017 we have seen the introduction of a standardized start system, with three beeps sounding then the climber beginning their race after the third beep. This has caused a level of confusion and frustration as you can’t leave on the final beep but only after it.
In all other forms of racing where an auditory signal begins the race, the athletes are primed to react to the noise, in track events, swimming and the like, the athletes go on the starters pistol. To ask an athlete not to react to the sound, which is what we’re primed to do from sporting events at an early age, just doesn’t work.
In a sport with visual queues, a light going out can be used and is very effectively in motor racing events, but not nearly as much relearning is required to react to a visual change as an audible one, therefore a absence of light is easier to react to than an absence of sound
I think if the sport wants to stay with an audio signal the rule should be adjusted to get the athletes to start on the beep, not after it.
In conjunction with the second new rule, that of instant exclusion for a false start, the three beep system has frustrated athletes and fans from the very start of the season.
In Campitello we saw false start after false start, knocking no less than 18 athletes out of the event. This simply detracted from the spectacle left confusion in its wake. I had climbers coming to me adamant they’d left enough time and questioning the validity of the system, watching replays over and over trying to see what had actually happened. If, as a sport, we leave athletes frustrated and confused we will see a negative impact on participation.
The other thing we began to see was athletes stating very slow, at the end of a tone it is much more difficult for us to pin point the end of the noise, especially with electronic music which at times sounded similar enough to the tone, playing in the background.
These slow starts cost the climbers who weren’t willing to take risks, but to take a risk now means paying for it with exclusion. A high price indeed to pay.
In a silent environment like Nanjing it was easier for the athletes to react to the absence of sound but in Campitello that wasn’t an option.
There is also the issue that sound travels much slower than a light signal, in China where some false starts occurred I heard athletes told their team or personal video footage could not be held as accurate due to the time it took the sound to travel to the recording device. If that is the case, and we’re talking mere hundredths of a second here, how can we ensure the time it takes the sound to pass through the official media is any more accurate?
So I believe (and it’s a view I already held, confirmed at the European champs) that climbers should either start on the tone, or a start light be mounted so it can be conclusively measured (after all, the speed of light is much faster than the speed of sound).
I just hope the powers that be take away some positive feedback from the event and look at a way of making the system fail safe so as not to negatively impact the spectacle, and indeed the act of participation by the athletes.