It's now or never - Up-Climbing

It’s now or never

by Elena Corriero
 “Honestly I don’t think that we could do better than this. Honestly I don’t think that in four years we could do a better event than Bercy”. It’s either now or never: this is what is suggesting Marco Scolaris, the President of the IFSC, the international Federation of sport climbing.
The IFSC is pushing hard sport climbing’s candidacy to enter the Olympic Games in 2020. No doubt the World Championship, held in Paris, has been an enormous success with roughly 16,000 spectators – of which 15,000 paying – on the weekend of September 15th and 16th. The Palais Omisport in Bercy filled to its maximum capacity, must be a valid argumentation against those who still deem that climbing is not enough spectacular or telegenic. If that is so, why would anyone pay 35€ for a ticket?
To those numbers, we should then add those of the webcasting, or live streaming on the Internet: the virtual audience has touched a record of 130,000 viewers during the event, of which 50,000 only during the weekend of the finals.

It is possible that the event in Bercy has indeed been a valid argumentation in favor of sport climbing in the context of the Olympic bid: two IOC representatives have attended the World Championship to support the evaluation process of the IOC Executive Committee that will have to propose a sport for the inclusion in the 2020 Games and, according to Scolaris, their feedback was positive. “They had fun”, is what the IFSC president says. He adds that they have offered suggestions for eventual improvements, particularly for what concerns the staging of bouldering. They have also agreed that the best discipline for the Olympics would be the Lead, because it is spectacular, easy to understand and elicits a huge audience feedback. It is not a case that the IFSC has proposed it for the 2020.
“The biggest problem was the limit to the number of athletes which made it impossible to propose more than one discipline. Lead best represents sport climbing in the collective imagination for the height, the rope, the falls; and also the National Federations seemed more inclined towards it.”
Scolaris explains that the IOC representatives’ feedback at Bercy seems to justify such a choice: bouldering still lacks an efficacious presentation while speed, notwithstanding its spectacularity, is not universal, since it is not enough representative in terms of participating countries.
“With a correct placement of cameras, Lead retains its superiority” explains Marco Scolaris. “Unfortunately, in bouldering it’s difficult to understand who wins; and in fact, bouldering still hasn’t entered the World Games.”

At the end of December, the IFSC will officially introduce the sport to the Program Commission: in the meanwhile, the Commission will have received the reports of its envoys from the key events of each of the seven sports running for the 2020 Olympics. In February, the Commission will announce the sport that it proposes to exclude from the list of summer sports. At least theoretically, it could all end there, in case the IOC shouldn’t deem necessary to modify the program and to exclude one of the disciplines that currently are part of it.
According to the IFSC president, it’s difficult to say if any one sport risks more than the other to be thrown out of the summer program, but in this case the saying “mors tua vita mea” (your death, my life), is all the more appropriate. “I don’t like to speculate on the possibility that one sport is excluded” comments Scolaris, diplomatically. He’s a refined politician, careful not to make unseemly declarations, but he hints at a possible maneuvering space. “There was not a single sport that made a poor impression during the London Olympics, from a TV point of view, but there are widespread worries that the program is not sustainable.”

The evaluation of the 2012 London Olympics will thus be an important moment in the decisional process of the IOC, but clearly, much depends on the underlying objectives of the Olympic Committee: according to Scolaris, if they are actually looking for something new, sport climbing has good chances, because all the other candidates have similar disciplines already in the Games.  
Novelty is therefore one of the strong points of climbing, together with the exponential growth recorded in the last years, gender equality and the success of climbing among the youngest worldwide. Climbing is now a cool, young and alternative sport. Additionally, the act of climbing itself is one of the base movements of man, like running or swimming, and among those movement it is the only one still excluded from the Olympics.

Obviously, many factors weigh in the choice, some of which have nothing at all to do with sports: politics, lobbying and networking have their fair share. In this perspective, the decision to set an event in Saint Peter’s square in the Vatican is clearly a strategical move. Besides the sporting event, the salutation of the Pope to the National Federations, on October 7th, will certainly highlight the visibility and universality of climbing during the months that are crucial for the Olympic destiny of the sport.

If climbing were to be chosen, many things would change and new possibilities would open up, starting with the big sponsors, who already seem to be interested in the opportunities of partnering with the IFSC.
According to Scolaris, some of these potential sponsors attended the Championship in Bercy, but to avoid bad luck, he prefers not to name them. Sponsors would be more than necessary to go to the great expenses connected to reorganization, event planning and marketing of a sport preparing itself to the Olympics. Until 2020, the IFSC will not receive extra funding from the IOC, apart from the contribution that it is already receiving as a recognized sport. Already in the last three years, the Federation has reshaped the budget to bolster marketing and media: currently, one third of the IFSC budget is spent on the live web streaming and marketing. If the IFSC ever decided to provide television coverage, the costs would escalate. This is the reason why, so far, the initiative at this level has not been centralized, but left to the initiative of National Federation and local event organizers, in contact with national broadcasters.
If nothing,in case climbing were to be chosen for 2020, the National Olympic Committees would be compelled to finance their National Federations, that will be thus supported in their activities: something which is not happening right now.

“To be chosen for the Olympics would also be a challenge to prove that climbing is really different, that not necessarily bureaucrats take power where money flows”, adds the IFSC President. To preserve the values of sport and to promote athletes’ participation in the decisional process are key elements in the construction of an alternative model of a sports Federation. The recent elections for the athletes’ commission members and its president may be considered particularly promising, in this perspective. The Canadian Sean McColl has been elected President of the commission and the reigning Lead World Champion Jacob Schubert, from Austria, has chosen to be a member of the commission. This is positive for two reasons: in the first place, the athletes’ involvement within their federation is highly valued by the IOC in its review of the sports. Secondly, it represents a change in trend from the last years when the best athletes preferred to invest all their energies in the sport, and refused roles of responsibility within the commission. These are good premises for a bigger active presence of the athletes within the decisional process, which could help, among other things, to clamp down possible political pressures to pervert the core values of the sport to gain a larger mediatic appeal.

In May 2013 the IOC Executive Committee will officially meet the IFSC delegation and in june, finally, The Executive Committee will name the one sport to be included in the summer program (supposing that one sport currently in the 2012 program had been previously indicated for exclusion). The final decision will be taken by the Buenos Aires IOC Session, occurring in September 2013. It will be on that occasion that the session will have to either to accept or to refuse the proposal of exclusion of one sport and of inclusion of another previously made by the Executive Committee. According to the IFSC president, generally the Session approves the Executive Committee recommendation: but the vote is secret and the proposal is only approved with the two thirds of the votes in favor.
There is still a long way to go and the results of the Olympic bid are less than certain, but one thing is sure. With or without the Olympics, sport climbing has already proved its worth and its universal appeal; and with or without the Olympics, it will continue to grow.