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Rock climbers scale first hurdle to Olympic dream

Every time Marco Scolaris watched an event at the Vancouver Olympics he dreamed that one day he'd watch his daughter compete in the Olympics. Not as a speed skater, bobsledder or hockey player - as a rock climber.

It's not a far-fetched notion. During the Vancouver Olympics the International Olympic Committee took time out to announce that it had formally recognized the International Federation of Sport Climbing, which is the name of the competitive side of rock climbing. IOC officials said the recognition is a first step toward the sport potentially being included in the Olympics. The earliest that could happen is at the 2020 Games and the IOC will have to make a decision by 2013, when it announces the host city for those Games.

Mr. Scolaris, who lives in Turin and heads the IFSC, is working hard to get rock climbing included in the Olympics and he was in Vancouver to press his case with IOC officials. "It's a real sport," he said. "Climbing is a basic human movement."

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Versions of rock climbing have been around forever, but it became more of an athletic pursuit shortly after the Second World War when Russian soldiers incorporated mountaineering into their training regime.

In the 1980s rock climbing moved indoors with the development of artificial climbing walls in gyms. That helped popularize the sport in cities and lead to the development of competitions. There are now three main events - speed, lead and bouldering. In speed two competitors race up identical courses side by side and the winner is the first one to the top. Lead is more traditional, with a climber attached to a rope and trying to cover a course without falling. Bouldering, the most popular in North America, involves competitors without ropes covering a series of courses.

The sport has gained popularity in recent years, especially in Europe where climbing competitions regularly attract 10,000 spectators and athletes are treated like superstars.

"It's like hockey is here," said John Bowles, a Canadian climbing champion who competes in Europe during summers. "When I'm over there, kids want you to sign autographs."

Canadians have taken to the sport as well, he said. Mr. Bowles runs an engineering firm in Fredericton and also owns a climbing gym. "When I took over the gym six years ago we had 30 or 35 members. Now we have 200 members."

There's even a Canadian competition series, called the Tour de Bloc, which holds about 20 events annually and offers prize money. The last one in Ottawa attracted more than 200 competitors.

"You get hooked on it," said Luigi Montilla, 33, who took up rock climbing at the age of 11 and now runs the tour from Toronto. He noted that Canada has a bona fide superstar in the sport, Sean McColl of Vancouver, who is ranked among the top climbers in the world.

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Not everyone is happy about rock climbing getting into the Olympics. Several forums have popped up on various websites decrying the bid, saying it will ruin the sport, wreck is co-operative spirit and overcrowd gyms with wannabe Olympians. Others say some rock climbing events don't make good television, something the IOC takes into account when assessing new sports.

Mr. Scolaris understands the concerns, but says climbers should work together because getting into the Olympics will benefit all sides of rock climbing. He says IFSC has 75 member countries and the sport is hugely popular in cities and among young people.

"We don't want to become a victim of our success," he said. "It will take time to organize."

But for now Mr. Scolaris is dreaming of the Olympics and that, one day, his 12-year daughter, a national climbing champion in Italy, will be an Olympian. The sport "has started from nothing and now we are here and we have become eligible for the Olympic Games," he said.

"We deserve it."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More


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