Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Rock climbing & international news - do you want more?

The climbing community coming to grips with the increasing popularity of the sport is a curious thing. While many, including myself, have for years observed the slowly growing numbers of people cramming into climbing centres and littering the countryside with their presence on the weekend, rock climbing popularity has taken a lurch forward over the past few weeks after being thrown into the brightest of limelights.

Anyone who turned on a television, browsed an internet news service, flicked through a newspaper (that archaic practice) or skimmed over their Facebook news feed will be aware of #DawnWall. Therefore, I'm going to assume you know all about it. 

What is curious about #DawnWall (forever prefixed with a hashtag) is the sheer amount of publicity it garnered and the reactions this invoked not only in the climbing community but the wider, world-wide community. Indeed, it did elevate rock climbing into the entirety of this sphere, for once not confined to media catered solely to the lonely few who frequent dusty old factories converted into shiny, brightly coloured playrooms for adults. 

The world finally saw the cutting edge of climbing in a form they could understand. Forever have non-climbers thought vertical movement could only happen with large, jug sized holds, spaced like ladder rungs up a flat or slab cliff face. #DawnWall showed them the difficulty rock climbing can reach at the cutting edge - with TV news casters literally sticking matchsticks and American quarters to a wall to demonstrate the teeny weeny size of some of the holds on the crux traverse pitch of the leviathan of a route that Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson can now proudly declare themselves the first ascensionists.

This clamour to report their three week epic resulted in news channels world-wide carrying daily updates of their efforts. Indeed, the most powerful man on the planet, the President of the United States of America, Barrack Obama himself, took 15 seconds out of his day and got one of his aides to snap a picture of him stood next to an old and wonky oil painting of Yosemite valley and post it on instaweb. If rock climbing never reaches that pinnacle again, we can all die happy.

Seriously, though, rock climbing was well and truly given global attention for those weeks that two men "wasted their time" on the "pointless exercise" of attempting to scale a previously unscaled route up a natural monolith, which has hundreds of established routes on it already. Those quotes are paraphrased from various hilarious comments left on news articles around the internet. They are not my view - I think Tommy and Kevin's achievement was marvellous.

That was the reaction of the aforementioned "wider-world"... but what did the climbing community make of their efforts? It is safe to say the vast majority of the climbing world were proud to see their sport getting so much attention. Many were so enamoured with Tommy and Kevin they watched the live broadcast of them topping out #DawnWall. Here, in Britain, there was a healthy mix of fascination, interest and, as the weeks advanced, a growing sense of "get it over with already!". Indeed, this culminated in many furiously ruminating  on Twitter over the press conference that Tommy and Kevin conducted (probably under duress) and the ongoing TV stints on massive American talk shows that no one knows anything about on this side of the pond. Who is Ellen DeGeneres? Just joking - she's famous for that selfie with all her famous pals, right?

Indeed, on this, the 11th hour of climbing's short-lived (and everyone knew it was going to be short-lived) stint in the psyche of the world, climbers took to Twitter to sarcastically belittle that popularity. Like the jealous kid in the corner of the canteen watching the popular kid get the attention of the pretty girl. In the weeks, months and years previous, for almost as long as I've been climbing myself, I've listened and joined in conversations about rock climbing's lack of funding and wages for top athletes. Why o' why can't professional climbers get enough money to support themselves to train and compete internationally? 

The kind of publicity and interest #DawnWall brought to the sport is  what is needed to ensure climbers eventually get similar remuneration to other sportsmen and women who spend hours and hours toiling away in a gym, sculpting themselves into athletes. The kind of publicity that joining the Olympics would bring. The kind of publicity that some climbers are attempting to generate by themselves - through their efforts on social media. Social media, that channel giving many an outlet when the TV crews pack up their stuff, turn their backs on climbing and head off into the sunset, towards the next shiny subject to catch their attention. 

Top climbers need to work hard to get themselves in front of that camera - metaphorically and, hopefully one day, literally. And I'm not just talking about working hard in the gym. They need to put themselves out there, write blogs, interact on social media, start a vlog... whatever it takes. If they want to be able to support themselves climbing, they need to make it a full-time occupation and work at it. Don't expect a few hours in the gym each day, the odd hard ascent and a single obscure, blurry photo posted online each week is going to ensure you don't need a 9-5.

I read an interesting blog from a very talented American writer called Andrew Bisharat this morning. He wrote about Sierra Blair-Coyle. Who, you ask? Don't kid yourself... you know who. Indeed, that article sparked this blog, as it got me thinking about how some climbers get themselves into the public eye. On the one hand you've got two of the world's best climbers completing the world's hardest multi-pitch in the world's most famous big-wall arena and on the other a blonde bombshell with a fanbase to rival Justin Bieber. OK, her fanbase is not quite that big, but for the climbing community it's HUGE. 205,000 Likes of her Facebook athlete page. In comparison, Tommy has 74,000 (still impressive - no doubt given a boost by #DawnWall) and Kevin has 37,000.

Of course, measuring fame via Facebook Likes is a little nonsensical - I mean, has Sierra ever had a congratulations from Mr.President? No (I'm guessing). And a large proportion of those Likes are likely from individuals who just want to ogle the 20-year-old in her hot pants. But does that matter? The fact that people are looking at those photos in their thousands means she is a walking, talking billboard - and, therefore, she can make money and will likely be making money off climbing for a long time yet.

These two examples are extremes and maybe, for the average athlete climber, especially British athlete climbers, they need to find a middle ground. Mix the climbing achievements with a healthy dose of self-publicity. 

The British proclivity for understating our own achievements - much happier to play the humility card than shout from the roof tops - is a natural barrier for self-aggrandisment. Therefore, maybe we are happy working our 9-5 jobs and climbing on the weekend, at whatever level we currently call ours. But if you want investment in climbing and athletes and training and the British junior and senior teams then be prepared for climbing and climbers to be taking their turn in the limelight more frequently, even if that limelight is self-generated via the internet or thrust forward because of Olympic inclusion. And make sure you fully support whoever is front and centre when it happens.