Is Rock Climbing a Sport? Or Not?

Rock climbing has its roots dating back to 200 BC where ancient paintings depicted Chinese men supposedly rock climbing. Through the passage of time, rock climbing has left an impression in many communities gradually evolving from an alpine necessity to a recognizable athletic activity. 

It is thought that the idea of rock climbing transcending into a sport began in the late quarter of the nineteenth century in various parts of the continent of Europe.

Presently, rock climbing has developed into a sophisticated activity with a plethora of different types of rock climbing, varying difficulty grades, and a generous spread of rock climbing equipment for the different types of rock climbing and also tailored to an individual’s personal preference. But is rock climbing a sport or not still is a matter of debate and discussion. 

What defines a sport

Before concluding on whether or not rock climbing is a sport, let us take a look at the fundamentals that govern calling an activity a sport. By definition, quoting from the Oxford English Dictionary, a sport is ‘ An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment’.

This definition holds true for activities that are already considered sports like football, basketball, cricket, etc. Activities like playing chess, backgammon, Jenga, or scrabble fail to meet the physical exertion criteria and hence cannot be categorized as a sport. 

From the above, we learn that for an activity to be considered a sport, it ought to have the three parameters that are listed. In essence, rock climbing should involve physical exertion and skill, should have some form of competitive grounds, and should provide fun or entertainment.

In addition to this, it is imperative to state that even though activities like football, basketball or baseball are considered sports only when there is more than one person playing. A person could be dribbling and shooting baskets all alone, which would mean the person is merely exercising or practicing and not playing a sport. If another person were to join in, it could become a 1v1 basketball match and hence would then be considered a sport. 

This would suggest that the notion of whether an activity is to be considered a sport or not depends on the circumstance. 

Does rock climbing fit the criteria for being considered a sport?

To dive into this, I have highlighted a brief summary of some of the various branches of rock climbing and have analyzed whether or not these branches of rock climbing can be considered as a sport or not.

Below are some of the branches of rock climbing:

Traditional Rock Climbing

In this type of rock climbing, a climber or a group of climbers place the required gear to protect themselves against falls and then remove it when a pitch is complete. The bolts in the climbing route are placed similarly to that of a rock climbing gym. This branch of climbing is thought to be an ecological friendly form of climbing because the climbers do not leave any gear, like bolts, behind in the rock. This type of rock climbing can be a sport when a group competes to see who can make it to the top first or can be recreational, just for the sake of the individual or group to have a fun adventure. 

Sport Rock Climbing

Sport Rock Climbing, as the name suggests, is a sport in which the participants have to climb up, climb down or climb across artificial or natural rock formations. It is a physically and mentally demanding sport that tests an individual’s strength, agility, endurance, and mental control. The climber has to climb on pre-bolted crags and as they move up the formation, they clip themselves onto evenly spaced fixed bolts for protection. 


Bouldering is a type of rock climbing where the climber has to scale a boulder rather than crags or cliffs. The boulder formation could be artificial or natural. However, the practice of bouldering in natural formation can be detrimental to the environment as handholds and footholds can damage the rock. 

The boulder is climbed without the assistance of ropes or harnesses as the height of the boulder is relatively low and at worst, a fall could result in a sprained ankle. Climbers usually only wear climbing footwear to secure their footing and chalk their hands to prevent slipping. Bouldering provides good training for climbers to practice their moves and develop their stamina and endurance. It also helps develop finger strength while scaling. 

Since the 1900s, bouldering is now also considered a sport. Individual ‘bouldering problems’ have ratings assigned to them based on their difficulty. 

Top Rope Climbing

Beginners usually start off in the rock climbing world with Top Rope Climbing. For Top Roping, there is an anchor fixed to the top of the climb where the climbing rope can be attached to. If by chance the climber were to slip, any injury obtained would be minimal and not serious if caught by a properly trained belayer. Top Rope Climbing is a great way to learn the basics of rock climbing, practice moves and enhance your climbing skills. Top roping is not usually considered a sport as its practice is mainly aimed towards training purposes.

Aid Climbing

In this branch of rock climbing, the climber makes use of special gear to propel themselves up the scaling route. Here, the climber is more dependent on their gear than their skill. Aid Climbing is usually practiced on long routes that can take many days to finish but is not limited to mentioned routes. This type of climbing requires the individual to place gear for both, to protect themselves in case of a fall and to aid them to move up the route.

Big Wall Climbing

In the case of Big Wall climbing, unlike sticking to a single or half-day climb objective, the climber commits to scaling a ‘big wall’ that takes many days to complete. Big wall climbs are made of multi-pitch routes and owing to their difficulty, climbers usually do them as aid climbing routes. 

There is a lot of training that the climber has to undergo in order to endure the course until its very end. Preparation calls for the individual to pack a whole lot of gear and supplies like sleeping bags, food, ropes, and harnesses. The sport part of this would be setting records to scale a specific big wall in as little time as possible.

Ice Climbing

Ice Climbing is another branch of rock climbing activities. In this climbing activity, the individual scales inclined ice formations with the aid of specialized gear to help ascend the slippery surface. 

The formations could range from manmade ice walls to naturally frozen waterfalls. It is a sport that tests the determination, speed, mental control, and precision of the climber. The climber needs to possess a physically strong body along with flexibility. Some people even take up Ice Climbing as a recreational activity during the winters as a substitute for regular rock climbing. 

Alpine Climbing

is rock climbing a sport

For Alpine Climbing, the ultimate goal is to reach the summit of the mountain. It usually happens in remote, high elevation regions and often has some mix of rock climbing, ice climbing, and hiking involved. 

Alpine Climbing is a good transition from rock climbing for beginners to upgrade their skills and challenge themselves even further. Once climbers scale their way beyond the tree line, where they will do the rock climbing portion of the expedition and probably a little hiking, they will reach the glacial part of the expedition. Here, they need to have sound knowledge and experience in swinging an ice axe, stabbing crampon tips into thin ice, and boring holes for ice screws. 

You require good navigation skills, physical fitness, and mental fortitude in order to reach the summit in the shortest time possible so that a sports record can be created. Records are also created when an individual climbs the most number of summits. 

Free Soloing

Free Soloing became the rage with media like youtube and Facebook where expert climbers would post themselves scaling a huge cliff with nothing more than shoes and a chalk bag. 

Free soloing has its climber not using any sort of protective gear or equipment when scaling the route. It shows semblance to bouldering where there is no use of rope to help with the ascend. The only difference between the two types of rock climbing is that in free soloing, the climber scales a much greater height so the likelihood of falls is much greater and severity is of greater danger and fatality. 

This is not a very common branch of rock climbing and is usually undertaken by those who are confident with their physical capabilities and have good mental fortitude.

Deep Water Soloing

Deep Water Soloing is a branch of rock climbing where the climber scales a rock formation over stunning seascapes with putting on any gear or equipment. The sea body below the rock formation acts as a cushion in case of a fall as long as the climber is aware of how to enter the water without getting injuries from the impact. 

The water acts like a safety net for the climber to fall into with a highly reduced risk of serious injury. This type of rock climbing is considered a sport where climbers have to scale high-grade difficulties in the shortest time possible. 

Speed Rock Climbing

Speed Climbing is a branch of rock climbing that is generally associated with competitions. It is a sport of speed. Speed rock climbing has the competitors scale a given route on an artificial climbing wall with the goal of reaching the summit the fastest. Additionally, the plastic holds on all of the speed climbing routes during competition have the same arrangement of a jug, pinch, and sloper. This means that the competition is all about which part of the hold the climber grabs. The climber needs to have a strong presence of mind, flexibility, and strength. 

What can we infer from this?

We can come to a conclusion from the above on whether or not rock climbing is a sport by considering the branch of rock climbing and whether certain goals are set or records are to be broken. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved rock climbing as a sport for the Tokyo Olympics 2020 in the year 2016. To secure a winning position in the sport, the competing climbers have to battle against each other in three different rock climbing events: bouldering, sport climbing, and speed climbing.

Rock climbing is an activity that can be pursued for the sole reason of wanting to experience a sense of adventure or to compete against other people to set time records. It is an activity that is both physically and mentally demanding and fits the definition of a sport when it is carried out as a competition. So whether it is a sport or not is purely circumstantial.

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