TNB: PointGate – Why Comp Climbing Is Not The Future

I’ve been hearing about how comp climbing is the future of climbing for as long I’ve been writing about climbing…

By Andrew Bisharat | February 17th, 2015

Photo courtesy of U.S.A. Climbing.
Photo: Courtesy of USA Climbing.

Last year, Adam Ondra dedicated his entire year to comp climbing. Oh, he went outside and casually onsighted a few more 9a’s. But for the most part, he just trained indoors and went on to whoopass in the World Cup and do what no one else has ever done by becoming a World Champion in both bouldering and sport climbing in the same year.

Ondra is one of the most inspiring and talented climbers of his, or any, generation—but I have to say, it’s not because of his competition record. Climbing on real rock is what makes Adam Ondra the stud that he is. Through his animalistic brand of speed meets precision, Ondra introduced the world to 5.15c. No one remembers who won the World Cup in 2005, but everyone knows who did the first ascents of La Dura Dura and Change.

I’ve been hearing about how comp climbing is the future of climbing for as long I’ve been writing about climbing. The gist of the argument posits that climbing as a sport and industry can’t grow unless it fully embraces (through financial support, ostensibly) competition climbing and comp climbers. And unless you buy into this argument, you—with your shortsighted and old-school mentality—are holding the sport back from reaching its full potential.

I have tried really hard to be that open-minded, progressive climber who embraces comp climbing. I’ve even experienced some incredible moments first-hand watching comps live. Back in 2006, I was at the Gravity Brawl at the New Jersey Rock Gym and it was one of the sickest things I’d ever seen. It was dark and loud and we were a tight, howling crowd circled around some ferocious displays of strength and athleticism. I remember that energy more than I remember who won (I think it was Daniel Woods and Alex Puccio, but I could be making that up).

Watching a great climbing comp with great route setting that perfectly separates the field doesn’t get any more fun, really.

However, after watching the Nationals on the live stream, I was left feeling like comp climbing was not the bright, shining future child of our great sport, but more like climbing’s pet . I watched the whole comp (including qualifiers) and never understood who won, or why—and no one else understood, either, apparently. There have been a number of online debates and explanations about how the new point system employed by the ABS works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be). Even after reading these thorough explanations, I still don’t get it!

Getting to the top of the boulder is the best, but when you fail to do that, you are assigned a rank among your fellow competitors based on your high point, and when those high points are tied, the “value” assigned to that high point is divided up. As the Crank Chronicles explained, “Your final score is the nth root of all your ranks multiplied together: Total Points = nth√ (RankB1 * RankB2 * RankB3 * RankB4)”

The biggest problem with this system is that the competitors, the announcers, and the audience may have no idea who is winning, which makes the whole thing seem completely abstract, if not absurd. . Watching a comp like that is like being at a basketball game that doesn’t have a scoreboard. “Say, tell me again who is winning?”

***

What, exactly, is the point of comp climbing, anyway? Are comps really going to push climbing forward (whatever that means), or are we just watching a bunch of trained-up climbers swing around on holds under a bright light until the ringleader blows his whistle and, for no clear reason at all, declares one of them the winner while everyone else cheers with have no understanding of why?

Typically after every comp, the online community gets together and offers its critique of the live broadcast, which usually focuses on how lame the announcers were or how shitty the broadcast was. Over the years, the broadcast has undoubtedly improved. This latest broadcast from Louder Than 11 was the best one I’ve ever seen. Super professional. And the announcers, Big Pete Ward and Brian “Robo Narc” Runnels, did a fantastic job with their commentary. Truly fantastic work behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Honestly, I have a hard time seeing how much better the broadcast could get.

Yet, comp climbing’s rules and especially its point system are inherently flawed. And until these issues get ironed out, comp climbing will be the barking dog of the climbing world: something that everyone loves, but nobody quite understands.

I do have an idea for determining the best climber in the world. The person who establishes the most beautiful and hardest new routes and boulder problems is the best. I’m sure we can find a way for someone to spring for a little trophy and $2,000 bucks.


 

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