PARIS / by Angela Payne

The past six weeks have taken me from a remote area of Greenland with three other people to an arena in Paris with a crowd of 16,000 or so.  The stark contrast of the experiences is almost as disorienting as the 21,000+ miles my body has moved in a month and a half.  Now, as I struggle to decide what time zone I’m in, I am realizing that my recent travels perfectly characterize the harsh transition from outdoor climbing to indoor competitions that has become a fixture in my life.


I almost cancelled my trip to Paris upon my return from Greenland.  I was weary from travel, slightly overwhelmed by the extent to which the trip had affected me, and out of shape for plastic pulling.  I was fearful of ‘failure’ at World Championships and I had a long line of excuses as to why subjecting myself to that would not be beneficial to my health.  It seemed risky to spend so much travel time and money on a competition for which I was not properly prepared.  Plus, I was fresh off a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the most beautiful place on earth.  How would a trip to a bustling metropolis to climb on plastic measure up to that?  I was, of course, comparing apples to oranges (a nasty habit I have).  In the end, I am glad that I went, because going to Paris was as refreshing for my competitive climbing as Greenland was for my outdoor climbing.


I arrived in France on Tuesday morning, which gave me a day and a half to relax before qualifiers on Thursday.  The competition venue (Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy) was an impressive structure reminiscent of an Egyptian pyramid.  The steep sides were planted with grass, giving it a natural look that set it apart from the cityscape around it (and begged the question—how in the world do they mow that lawn???).


On Thursday, I climbed in qualifiers.  We didn’t get to climb in the main arena for this round of competition, but instead on walls erected in a small gymnasium elsewhere in the building.  I surprised myself by climbing 4 of the 5 boulders in the first round, which earned me a spot in the top 20 women advancing to semifinals.  The boulders were great and the round was well organized, but the moderate energy level of the crowd and the mediocre location of the walls were far from indicative of the spectacular show that was in store for finals.


The female semifinals were held on Saturday on two free-standing boulders in the main arena.  Although the crowd was not gigantic for this round either, it was neat to be climbing up on the stage in such a huge venue.  I wasn’t as on my game as I needed to be in the semifinals, and while I could write a lot of should-haves, could-haves and would-haves about this part of the competition, I will spare you the obsessive details.  The short of it is that I needed to finish the boulder that I completed in fewer tries than I did and do the last move of boulder 2 in order to have a shot at finals.  Unfortunately, the bonus holds I reached on the last two boulders had little positive impact on my score, and so the competition was over for me.  Competition results often come down to small details, and this event was no exception in that respect.

Women's semifinal 4, photo by Patho Pix

Women's semifinal 4, photo by Patho Pix

All-in-all, the competitive portion of the event was a great experience for me, and I walked away having learned more lessons about comp climbing. While I could fill a whole post speaking about that topic, I would rather focus on the event on a larger scale, since it was much more exciting that my personal performance was.  The attendance and event organization that I witnessed at this competition were not that of a typical climbing competition.  Over the two days of finals, it is estimated that nearly 16,000 spectators were in attendance.  No, I didn’t accidentally add an extra zero.  SIXTEEN THOUSAND.  That’s a big number, and that doesn’t even include the people who watched the live-feed.  Never before did I think that a climbing event could draw in that kind of crowd.  But in France, it is possible, because climbing is more “mainstream” and the people seem to enjoy watching it.


The finals of all disciplines (bouldering, speed, sport and paraclimbing) were held on Saturday and Sunday.  I had been told that the event was sold out for both days, but in a venue this large, I couldn’t fathom that all the seats would actually be taken.  I was wrong, and when I showed up during the opening ceremony, it was truly difficult to find a place to sit.  I couldn’t believe how huge the crowd was!  The walls and boulders were lit with spotlights and looked amazing.  For a moment I began to replay semis in my head, thinking of what it would have taken to get to climb in front of this crowd.  I couldn’t obsess for long, however, because the show began and the finalists were introduced.  A large screen above the boulders displayed each climber’s photo and a short bio.  Then, before the climbing began, a brief video was played that explained how the scoring of the bouldering competition worked (at least I think that's what it was all in French...)


All of the officials for the event were dressed in suits, which added a level of classiness to the competition that I haven’t seen before.  After a climber attempted a boulder, the screen would display a few instant replays as well as the most up-to-date scoring.  Although the graphics depicting the scoring still seem slightly cryptic to me, it was better to have those than nothing at all.

The climbing was pretty entertaining throughout the event, although there were a few portions that seemed to lose my attention.  The crowd seemed into the whole thing, for the most part, and there were moments when the noise level was quite impressive.  The boulders were not as “showy” as some American comps, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the crowd would be even more enthusiastic if the climbers were doing a little bit more dynamic movement or visibly fighting harder.  I don’t mean that the climbers weren’t trying hard, but the subtle movements of many of the problems weren’t always very dramatic looking.  While I truly appreciate the technical “Euro” style, it is not always the most exciting style to watch.  Just as the movements weren’t always visually striking, the problems were also quite subtle in their appearance.  I think the thing that really distinguished the problems at this competition from problems at American comps is the size of the holds.  There were lots of tiny holds on the problems in finals, so when you looked at the boulders, it was sometimes hard to even see where the problem was.  I think holds can add significantly to the aesthetics of a competition, and that is something that was lacking for me at this event.


One of the highlights of the whole weekend for me was watching the paraclimbing.  The finals of the visual impairment category were held on Saturday, and it was the first time I have watched this type of climbing.  The crowd had to be absolutely silent while the climber was on the wall so he could hear the instructions from his guide on the ground.  Watching these climbers work through the route was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen.  Then, when the climber would fall, the silent crowd would erupt with cheering.  It gave me chills every time.  The amputee category on Sunday was equally impressive and the crowd loved it just as much.  Craig DeMartino of the US claimed third in this event and brought home the only medal that our country earned the whole weekend.  Way to go, Craig!  I would venture to say that some of the loudest cheers of the whole event came during the paraclimbing.  I have the utmost respect for these athletes, and I would encourage everyone to watch a paraclimbing competition if you ever get the chance.

Although there were many times during the weekend that I wished I could be climbing in the finals, it was very neat to sit in the crowd at an event of this scale and watch the show as it unfolded.  It was obvious that the organizers did everything they could to present climbing as an “Olympic-worthy” sport to the massive crowd and the International Olympic Committee members that were rumored to be in attendance. 


Seeing this event definitely gives me hope that climbing could win the Olympic bid.  There are some things, of course, that could still use some improvement.  For example, it is pretty typical for the sport climbing competitors to get at least half-way up the wall before beginning the “fight” of the route.  That means that for 3-4 minutes, plus the time in between climbers, the pace is quite slow.  Maybe I am just a product of my technology-ridden environment that seems to spew entertainment options in my face at all times, but there were definitely moments when even the climbers in the audience seemed a bit bored.  Another issue, as I mentioned before, is the live scoring of the bouldering competition.  It seemed that the crowd was more enthusiastic during the sport climbing comp, when it was obvious what a person needed to do in order to advance into first place.  Bouldering, however, isn't as clear cut, and even with the live scoring being displayed, it isn't always very easy to know what a competitor needs to do to improve his or her ranking.  For the most part, however, the event moved along as quickly as it could and seemed to hold the crowd’s attention.  It was inspiring to see SO many people gathered in one place to watch climbing, and I walked away feeling like competitive climbing can be as entertaining to the general public as it is to the climbing community.

On a broad level, I would definitely chalk up World Championships as a success for the sport of competitive climbing.  It was refreshing to see so many people interested in something that I enjoy so much.  The event was also great for me on a personal level because it renewed my motivation to be involved in these events in the future and put things in perspective for me.  I came into the event feeling unprepared and nervous about 'failing.'  I walked away feeling okay about my performance and having realized, once again, that the mental aspect of these competitions is just as important as the physical aspect.  That's certainly not to say that training is irrelevant, but it is good to know that I can do other things, like go to Greenland, and still have a shot to do alright at these events.

More than anything, being in Paris reminded me that climbing, whether it be competitive or not, has enriched my life in more ways than I could ever count.  Had I cancelled the trip, I would have missed out on the fun of exploring Paris and being reunited with good friends I have made through climbing.  The enjoyment I got from those things more than made up for any disappointment I felt about my performance in the comp.

A few shots from Paris...