The first Olympic climbing champions will be decided at the Tokyo Games over four days, starting on Tuesday 3rd August (9.00a.m. BST). But how did rock climbing become a competitive sport in the UK?
It turns out its roots were outdoors and not without controversy. Mick Lovatt was involved from the start and competed until 2000 becoming British team coach ’99-2001. He recalls: “I was one of the Malham Catwalk regulars, including John Dunne, Ian Horrocks, Mark Leach and Paul Ingham. The banter and competitiveness was intense and you had to grow some thick skin."
The eighties climbing world was certainly testosterone fuelled. A cursory flick through David B. A. Jones book, The Power of Climbing (1991), shows that of the 46 UK climbers highlighted only two were female.
Lovatt recounts: “The first comp we informally arranged was at Malham around 1986 to see who could climb Free and Even Easier (7a+) the fastest. There was only six of us and the prize was a plate of cakes from the café at Beck Hall. It’s where Dunne famously said ‘I can taste those cakes already’ as he tied-on. To be fair he won it. It was reported in the mags as much as a piss-take as anything else.”
“Shortly after that we cordoned off New Dawn (7c) and had a timed race up it. It was filmed but I’ve lost the cassette. You can imagine that us taking over the crag didn’t go down well and the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) got involved after complaints. John Dunne saw that comps could be the next big thing in climbing, set-up the International Sports Climbing Association (ISCA) and sought sponsorship. In 1988-ish Dunne turned his attention to Tilberthwaite Quarry in the Lakes as the stage for the next competition and manufactured a route. The local climbers didn’t like this, ‘coming over here and chipping our crags’, so the event didn’t go ahead.”
Lovatt added: “However, it did show was that there was an appetite bubbling under for competition climbing. Everyone knew about the Eastern Bloc speed climbing competitions and there had been a lead climbing comp outdoors in Italy at Bardonecchia in 1985 and Arco later.” In 1988 the BMC decided to support climbing competitions, as long as they were held on artificial walls and not on natural crags.
Graham Desroy of DR Climbing Walls picked up on this undercurrent of demand and organised the Yorkshire Open Indoor Climbing Championships at the Leeds University sports hall. Taking place April 1st-2nd in 1989 on 35-foot high purpose built walls this became the first indoor climbing competition in Britain, as the World Championship event planned for February was put back to May.