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Of course, climbing being in the Olympics is a good thing. Of course. We’ve been trying to get it there for over a decade and in just one more year our Olympic dreams will finally come to fruition. But at what cost?
About a month ago, I sat in a concrete hotel conference room in Vail, Colorado. It was warmly lit with lamps that lined the walls and brightened the cherry-colored rugs. Tables were decorated with notepads, pitchers of water and hard candy. At the front of the room, a facing table, a projector, and a square, white screen. Over the course of seven hours, IFSC officials seated at the facing table described the history of Sport Climbing and its journey to the Olympics. Questions were raised about future goals and potential impacts.
“I fear that we may lose our values,” said Akiyo Noguchi. She had just placed second in the World Cup the previous day and second for the Overall 2019 Bouldering season. “Maybe there will be more appeals against athletes and less sharing of beta.” By values, Noguchi was referring to the sense of family that saturates the climbing community. Even at the highest level of competition, it’s common to see climbers from different countries discussing beta and cheering for each other.
At first, her comment seemed trite. After all, it’s the Olympics we’re talking about! But after hearing the same sentiment expressed throughout the room, I considered its full weight. It was George Orwell, to take that sentiment a step further, that once described sporting events as “orgies of hatred.” He went on to liken serious sport to war, minus the shooting.
According to Noah Cohan, a lecturer in American Culture Studies at Washington University, “The Olympics, more than any other sporting event, lay bare the political manifestations of athletics, and how important sports can be for economics. You march with your flag and stand before your national anthem. World leaders are in attendance, and countries, which maybe can’t afford them, invest billions of dollars in building stadiums and marketing their country.”
Many of those practices are already done at World Cups and Championships. A little bit of pride is harmless, but the question becomes, will the Olympics turn a little into a lot?
The Olympic Creed states: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) strives to shape the Olympics into an event for fair play and world unity, there’s no denying that historically, Olympic sports diplomacy has been a reflection of the good, the bad and the ugly.
On the surface, the 1936 Berlin Olympics might seem the best example of the bad and the ugly. Adolf Hitler’s antisemitic agenda was camouflaged behind a staged, picturesque version of Germany. Anti-semitic signs were temporarily removed and the language in newspapers was tempered. Still, Swastika flags could be seen flying high overhead Hitler’s uniformed marching goonies.
Article Six of the Olympic Charter states: “the Olympics are competitions between athletes… and not between countries.” The reality is that medals for each country are tallied throughout the Games, while democracy is weighed against dictatorships and economic strength is inventoried.
While there’s no denying the political jousting that occurred in the Berlin Olympics, there’s another, less told side of the story. While nationalistic sentiments were exacerbated by countries’ actions, the athletes chose a more peaceful stance.
The ultimate star of the 1936 Olympics was not Hitler, but Jesse Owens, the African-American grandson of slaves. Owens won four gold medals in the 100, 200 and 4*100 meter relay as well as long jump. His domination was a clear threat to Hitler’s myth of “Aryan” superiority. Lux Long, from Germany, took Owens’ demonstration a step further. Long was a tall, blue-eyed idyllic Nazi model. He was also Owens’ biggest competitor. Following Owens’ victory, Long was the first to congratulate Owens in an embrace— in front of a stadium full of cheering Germans and Hitler himself.
What can Olympic history teach us? Noguchi may be right—less sharing of beta and more appeals against athletes might be where climbing ends up. Maybe even cheating by officials, setters and coaches. Perhaps that sense of family may be lost forever. Time will tell.
We can hope that because our sport is rooted in the outdoors, an environment that teaches humility, we will be less susceptible to forces of pride and arrogance. Perhaps it’s the inherent dangers of the sport that will keep our egos in check. Perhaps it’s reliance on others to hold the other end of the rope or move the crash pad. Whatever the reason is, we hope that our athletes may follow the example set by Owens and Long.
Feature Image Forrest Liu/IFSC