Last year, tired of not seeing women’s sport on free-to-air TV, I started looking around for a new sport to watch.
Before long, something about competitive bouldering was tweeted into my feed, so I took a look. I was hooked instantly, and the more I watch, the more I am convinced that competitive indoor bouldering is close to the perfect sport: a sport that values and celebrates women to the same degree as men.
A bould new concept
In principle, indoor bouldering is pretty simple: it’s a competition based on climbing a wall with holds that climbers use to get to the top.
There are no ropes, and scoring is based on how many tops and bonuses each climber gets and their number of attempts to get them.
There are many amazing things about bouldering, but the best is pretty simple: the men’s and women’s competitions happen simultaneously. They are on the same stage at the same time.
During major meets, such as the World Cup and the European Championships, you can’t buy a ticket to just the men’s or women’s events, except during qualifying. So too, the television coverage is of both events at once.
While there might be some variation in the about of time given on screen to men’s and women’s competitions, essentially they are treated as equals.
In presenting the sport this way, the International Federation of Sport Climbing, the body that looks after Bouldering, doesn’t draw any differentiation in quality between the men’s and women’s competitions: it treats them equally.
Playing to strengths
The nature of the sport itself also benefits male and female athletes in different ways. It is not a sport defined by raw strength- though that is certainly a factor.
A well-designed “problem” (the) will balance flexibility and problem-solving skills as well as strength, with the factors weighed differently across the set of problems faced in any competition.
While men’s bouldering can exhibit exceptional feats of strength, the flexibility required for a well-designed women’s problem is equally absorbing.
There are other things about bouldering that are just cool. For example, the terminology used is very different to most sport clichés.
As well as each wall being called a “problem”, the bits that stick out that climbers climb on are called “volumes” and if you make it to the top on your first attempt, it’s called a “flash”.
It’s also a sport that balanced brawn and brain. It rewards (literal) creative problem solving. Before each stage in the competition, competitors get five minutes to look at the problems at think about them.
You can have all the athletic prowess and strength in the world, but unless you are able to consider and try different approaches, you’ll never be great at bouldering.
The sport is also devoid of violence. While I understand a bit of biff is really appealing to some people, there’s something delightfully refreshing about a sport where competitors enjoy a genuine sense of camaraderie and where, while there is certainly competition for positions, it is essentially climber versus problem.
To be aggressive in bouldering doesn’t mean to be tough on opponents, it means to take on the problem in a fierce way. Directing that competitiveness at an inanimate object makes it a fundamentally non-violent.
The ISFC has made bouldering incredibly accessible. All the World Cup events are streamed live on their YouTube channel (except when they are held in countries without the infrastructure to do so), and full replays are available afterwards indefinitely.
You don’t need a Foxtel subscription or even a TV to follow bouldering: it’s free and accessible for anyone with access to the internet.
Bouldering is also just an amazing sport to watch. Watching these incredible athletes use their strength, flexibility and thinking to solve complicated problems is one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a long time as a sports fan. Unconvinced? Check out my favourite bouldering athlete.
The next round of the IFSC Bouldering World Cup takes place this weekend in Navi Mumbai. Check it out on the IFSC YouTube Page.