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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Problem with Bouldering Comps

I hadn't been to a big-time climbing competition in quite a while, and I was keen to check out the Mammut Bouldering Championships in Salt Lake City, part of the Outdoor Retailer trade show. I've watched many comps since the early 1990s, including World Cups and national championships, and though they have little to do with the climbing I love most—the kind that takes place on cliffs and mountains—I've found the best comps to be heart-pounding, involuntary-screaming exciting.

Despite many, many positives, I thought last Saturday's event in Salt Lake fell short—which is disappointing because these NE2C comps represent the state of the art. At least 1,000 people had crowded onto the roof of a parking garage by the downtown Shilo Inn. There was food and beer; a DJ mixed live tunes. As the sun went down, concert-style lighting played on the four wildly overhanging bouldering structures. The climbers took huge falls and stuck outrageous moves. This was by far the best production of a climbing competition I've seen, and, at least at the start, it had a good festival atmosphere.

Yet the audience was surprisingly unresponsive. They'd cheer a strong move or a new high point, but there was little of the anticipation, the sense of tension, that a good live sport builds in an audience. By midway through the event, the crowd was listless. Despite the action-packed format (up to four climbers performing simultaneously), this had real drawbacks as a spectator sport.

Lead climbing may be boring to watch, but lead competitions are easier to understand than bouldering comps: Generally, whoever gets the highest on the final route wins, and since they send out the best performers last in the finals, the excitement tends to build. In bouldering the placing is determined by scores from multiple problems and attempts, so it's much harder to keep track of what's going on. The five-minute rests between each climber's attempts don't help, making it harder to follow along as the climbers move from one problem to the next. The Salt Lake comp had a live announcer and scoreboards updating the results, but they didn't keep up with the action or make enough sense of the developments for the audience.

Example: As the women's final neared its conclusion, the MC announced that last year's winner, Alex Johnson, needed to flash the final problem to win the comp. Johnson flashed Problem 4, everyone cheered, a couple of news guys (including me) corralled her for interviews. It wasn't until next morning that I learned that, in fact, Alex Puccio had won, because she matched hands on the highest hold she reached on Problem 3 in a single attempt; Johnson had needed two attempts to make this match. But there was no way we in the audience could have known this until long after the event was over. The men's comp was clearer, with Chris Sharma flashing three of the four problems. But Ethan Pringle, starting much later in the running order, also finished three problems. How close was he to Sharma? Was it possible for him to win? Was there a make-or-break moment in his performance? No one told us.

This is very much a friendly criticism, because I happen to think climbing comps are cool, and I want the athletes to get the exposure they deserve. The best comps I've seen have been thrilling, and I wanted this event to be just as exciting, but it wasn't. Climbing may make for rotten TV—most climbing shows are duller than dishwater— but it seems to need TV-style commentary and analysis to make it spectator-friendly. Large, immediately updated scoreboards would help, as would expert live commentary, though both would have to be used in a way that made the standings and the stakes clear.

Maybe for some fans it's enough just to see the sport's best do what they do—not so different from going to a golf tournament or a bike race, where you witness only a fraction of the action in person. But I think bouldering fans deserve more. With all the lights, music, spectacular outdoor setting, and lithe athletes making impossible-looking moves, the Mammut Bouldering Championships had the right ingredients, and the audience in Salt Lake liked what they were seeing. They just had no idea what they were seeing.


Clyde said...

It's a mistake to put this on during the trade show. Most of the people attend for the party and not out of interest in climbing. So you get a lot of non-climbers hanging out. The comps I've been to that were exciting all required an effort to get there (Snowbird, Serre Chevalier, local events) so the audience was there to see climbing. I'm sure the promoters will call this year a success due to larger crowds than past years when it was held further away. But it sounds like that is just spin for a boring comp, pity.

GW said...

I agree Dougald, I've been involved with indoor climbing/comps since 1992 as a gym owner/judge/producer and want to see the sport succeed and athletes/sponsors/producers do well, but even me who was at the Shilo event had a hard time figuring out exactly who was who and who was winning. Especially during OR where there may be many potential sponsors, new people to the sport make it easy to know what is going on, when you turn on a baseball game in 2 seconds you know who is winning, how many outs, who's on first, etc... climbing comps need to prioritize this aspect of the comp scene or it will remain a good old boys or now good young boys sport.

Graham @ CiloGear said...

Clyde, you weren't there, were you? I couldn't disagree with you more about the population at the comp. From the Salt Palace, I walked out and over and then onto the deck of the parking structure. I entered the condensed climbing part of the tradeshow, without the hikers, without the boaters and without the folks who just don't care about climbing. The party was five blocks away, an hour after the comp.

The format was terribly confusing. I'm a climber, I've done comps, and I had no idea what was going on. Also, I'm 6'5". I couldn't see what was going on either. The comp walls need to be elevated off the deck of the parking structure.

I think bouldering can work very well as a format, but there needs analytic thought and experience applied to the crowd's experience as well as the climber's experience. Greg's right, there needs to be a scoreboard or something equally comprehensible. I truly am not about climbing for points, but ...

When it started raining, nobody in the crowd had any idea whatsoever what was going on. There wasn't an announcement until 1/4 to 1/3 of the audience had drifted away, and as I recall, they just announced that the comp was continuing. Huh?

I wish there would be more thought towards what works for the audience...