Folk also picked up on my appeal not to make a big deal about my different opinion on the grade. I get frustrated when people blindly assume that climber do climbs for exposure or sponsorship rather than just because they are looking for challenging climbs. I also get frustrated when the grade of the route becomes the centre of the discussion. Mick Ryan from UKclimbing says “I laugh when I see a top climber saying that grades don't count and aren't important - its sheer bullshit.” I can’t think of anyone who has, but even if they did, perhaps they might just be attempting to get some kind of balance from the media which is always focusing on them above the other important things. When there is such a leaning towards this view of cutting edge climbers, I think it’s natural that they will rail against it and move closer to the opposite pole.
Things are not so black and white. It’s not that grades are all important or not important at all. The truth is that they are a small part of going climbing, which has many important aspects. This is why I didn’t offer a grade immediately for Echo Wall. Yes, it’s the hardest climb I’ve ever tried or done by a mile. Yes, that is important, but it’s not everything. The effort, the appreciation of the climb, the location and the skills needed to climb it were more important. This is not some hippy, wishy washy idea, it’s real. It’s what made most of us want to start climbing in the first place and it’s still why I go climbing now. I felt the only way I could take control of that was to not offer the grade from the start. I’m pretty glad I did.
These days I get asked at nearly every lecture I give if I feel pressure to perform or to produce big grades from sponsors. Sometimes after spending an hour talking in great detail about my motivations for climbing, I figure I have not explained myself very well. I can see that this cynicism is engrained and that in some cases, external motivations for doing climbs are assumed from the start. Some healthy cynicism is definitely good, but there is a large patch of middle ground between engrained cynicism and being sycophantic.
At times during my sports science degree studying the history of sport and drugs in sport I became fairly close to being utterly dejected with sport after seeing what a mess of drug cheating exists in a lot of mainstream sports. I have no smart solutions to offer here. But it is my opinion that constant scrutiny by the media on comparisons between athletes and the external rewards and recognition that sporting success can bring can reinforce the problems as much as it can be useful in exposing negative aspects of sport.
When the columns are filled with comparisons, medal counts, and dishing dirt this creates an image that this is normal – what it’s all about. Young people coming through believe this, and so it goes on. It doesn’t help that some athletes and media are caught up in the idea that the competition is the end, rather than just the means. It also doesn’t help that a minority of website users who post on discussion forums think that this medium absolves them of responsibility for the words they post and the effects they can have. That is why athletes blogs can be so interesting and popular, because the people themselves get to talk freely about what makes them tick, which is usually the thrill of breaking personal barriers and pushing themselves and the adventures along the way.
This is part of a much bigger problem that ‘getting ahead’ is thought to be a worthy goal in life and will make people happy. Naturally it’s projected right onto sport. Climbing has held out from this for a long time, but it’s in danger for sure.
The reporting media (be it editors or site users) could lead here, instead of always going for the lowest denominator. It might seem like poor commercial sense in the short term – controversy will always receive a peak of interest. But a calmer approach will help bring people on board to collaborate and tell the real stories better, rather than athletes and media suffering from mutual wariness.