Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Climbing, steroids, and being thin

Jamie Emerson recently had an interesting post on steroids and climbing and Andrew Bisharat (the editor of R&I) recently posted a related article called "Climbers Who Cheat" discussing the advantage in climbing given by being thin. I just couldn't bite my tongue and hold off on responding to this most recent article. Since the R&I site doesn't allow comments, here are my thoughts.

First, I think Jamie's article on steroids is good mainly for asking questions about steroid use in climbing in a public setting. Jamie has a very popular site and likes to ask thought provoking (and reaction provoking) questions. Unfortunately, the comments occasionally sink to profanity, personal attacks, and heated tempers. I have a few thoughts on steroid and PED use in sports in general and climbing specifically. Personally, I am not morally or ethically opposed to the use of PEDs, what I'm opposed to is cheating (defined as breaking written rules), lying, and dishonesty. For that reason, I'm against the use of banned PEDs in all competition settings. I also have a huge problem with someone misrepresenting their achievements outside of competition by using PEDs without disclosure.

That being said, climbing is different that most organized sports. Most climbing does not take place in a competitive setting, it takes place in small groups of friends with each person competing only with him or herself. If Joe Schmoe wants to dope so he can send V10, I have no problem with that. Personally, I take pleasure in working hard and clean for my progress and would not do this. The issue becomes a bit murkier when dealing with top level athletes who are earning a living as sponsored climbers. Again, I would have no problem with someone climbing 5.15 while doping, as long as there is full disclosure. Sponsors would then have to choose whether or not to sponsor said climber and I'm sure most would not.

The problem in all sports is that the risk of being caught is low (especially in climbing where no outside of competition testing system exists) and the rewards are potentially large. That is, there is a strong incentive to use PEDs without much deterrent. A final complication, as evidenced by many comments on Jamie's post is the belief by many people that steroids will not help in climbing since the added mass will cancel out any strength gains. This is a terribly flawed understanding of steroids in general. There are many different steroids and other PEDs that have different effects ranging from adding muscle mass to increasing endurance and aiding recovery. Cyclists are even more weight obsessed than climbers and surely everyone has heard the doping controversy coming out of cycling in recent years.

Now, on to the R&I post. This post is what really spurred me to write today. I suggest you read the original, but the post basically discusses the advantage of being thin as climber and the perception that this is somehow cheating akin to using steroids.

"At what point does losing weight to climb hard offend our senses of “what’s fair”? When does losing weight become cheating?" I would say never. I can only speak for my group of friends, but I have never heard anyone mention being thin as unfair or cheating. In my belief, and I think my friends' as well, being extremely thin can be a very serious health problem (as Andrew discusses), but I've never seen it as unfair. Let me know if I'm off base here.

"Some (but certainly not all) of the top climbers in the world have the hollow, sunken-cheek, and ashen look of anorexics. Look at any World Cup podium, and the finalists seem like they could be blown over in a stiff wind." Disagree. There are very few pro-level climbers I would describe as waifish. Do you have to be thin to be a top climber? Absolutely, but you also have to be beast strong. Any top level athlete in an active sport (basketball, football, soccer, cycling, ultimate, running, tennis, etc, etc, etc) is thin and in great shape and think climbing is no different.

"When climbers, our friends and peers or even the pros, succeed on a hard climb, it’s common to hear others qualify their ascents behind their backs." Obviously there will be people who question or are jealous of others' achievement in anything. I choose not to climb with people who have this type of attitude. I think this has less to do with the perception of being thin than it has to do with the excuses and negativity that some people always bring to the table.

Finally, Andrew tries to draw a parallel between being thin and using PEDs which I think is so far off base that I had to post this. Using PEDs is generally frowned upon and absolutely banned in competition. Using PEDs amounts to using artificially engineered substances which have been specifically designed to increase performance. Being thin is living, exercising, and eating in a way that shapes your body according to your desires. Finally, I think the biggest problem with this post is the claim that there is a widespread belief that being thin is somehow similar to using PEDs and gives an unfair advantage. I have personally never thought this and I can't remember ever hearing anyone say this. The only time I've been concerned is when someone looks so thin that it appears unhealthy. Maybe some other people can chime in in the comments to let me know if I'm off base on this, but I simply don't thing this perception exists.


  1. Completely agree! Thanks for posting this so that I didn't have to. Weight loss (to any degree) Is. Not Cheating. Opening the door to allow people to judge what is "appropriate weight" is a dangerous and slippery slope. Climbing is similar to (competitive) running in that weight loss helps until your body starts to deteriorate, making you more likely to sustain injury and increasing the time needed to recover. Only an athlete and their doctor should be involved in any discussion of weight.
    As for PEDs, I agree that folks should follow the rules and stick with a policy of disclosure. Nice post!

  2. I definitely agree that losing weight is in no way equivalent to cheating. If modifying your body to perform better at a sport is cheating, then where do you draw the line? Is lifting weights to get stronger cheating? Are training sessions using campus and system boards cheating? Elite athletes, almost by definition, mold their bodies to be better suited to their sport, and climbing is certainly no exception. I think the very premise of the R&I article is kind of silly. Anyway, way to write up some thoughts.

    And just to play devils advocate and really throw a curve ball...if synthetic PEDs meant to aid in building muscle do constitute "cheating", what about synthetic weight loss drugs or supplements?

  3. Hmm, interesting question about the weight loss drugs/supplements. My gut tells me that's not "cheating" in the same sense as using PEDs, it's just unhealthy. I'm not totally sure why that feels different.

    Here's one difference though:
    Anyone who's working hard enough to climb at an elite level is not going to have a problem dropping weight to a pretty low BMI. The number of calories you burn working out for several hours a day should make that type of thing completely unnecessary so I just don't see the point. As for anyone who's a bit on the tubby side, if they want to take diet pills I still think it's not a great decision health wise, but the world at large is not going to care if that helps them drop 20 lbs and start climbing V5.

  4. I think the point of the PED vs. being thin argument in the Bisharat article was more to encourage debate as to what exactly is a level playing field in sports. The particular comparison of PED gains and weight loss as both being questionable tactics for athletic enhancement is silly, of course.

  5. That may be the case, but like you say, it's a rather sill comparison. Also, I don't really see the point of posting an article to encourage debate on a site that doesn't allow comments. AB has a personal blog were a debate could be carried out, instead we just have lots of fractured discussions on various sites.