On Being the Only Brown Guy at the Climbing Gym

Two things stood out to me last night, when I entered the local climbing gym: 

i) I was the only person of colour
ii) I was the only person who placed a lock on my locker

…I suspect these two facts are not unrelated. 

I’ve been in various predominantly-white spaces before, but indoor climbing is easily the whitest. This is not an indictment, just an observation. I don’t have any uncomfortable incident to unpack or any accusations of racism to mount – some of my best friends are climbers. Everyone at the gym was pretty nice to me, and most people seemed so engrossed in their climbs that I never felt particularly judged or out of place. Still, since only 15ish% of Cape Town is white, the intense homogeneity of the space does seem strange. 

(Caveat: I am by no means a regular climber – I’ve been to this gym maybe seven or eight times max. On some of these occasions, I have seen other people of colour – but often this was just because I brought them with me. Even then, I’ve never seen POCs comprise more than 3% of the total number of people present; and I’m told by friends who climb a lot more than me that this is representative of what the gym looks like most of the time, except on days when underprivileged kids come as part of an outreach initiative.)

Is it just a cost thing? Indoor climbing is not a cheap hobby: a monthly pass for a non-student is around R500, and this excludes the specialized shoes which seem to cost at least R1500. To just drop in for an evening, I paid R130 for a day pass and R70 for a shoe rental. So insofar as cost is a barrier to entry, and wealth is unevenly distributed across racial groups because [gestures at South African history], I think that’s obviously a part of it.

But I don’t think it provides a full explanation. Most general-purpose training gyms are similarly expensive on a month-to-month basis, but the ones I’ve been to around this city tend to be a lot more diverse (even if still often majority white). And the people in these gyms tend to have cool shoes too – Nike, Adidas, and the like – so I think it’s about more than just cost.

That said, it might be that most people, facing limited money and a choice between a general gym (with a pool, weights, classes, etc.) and a specialist climbing place, would sign up to the former before considering the latter. If true, this would imply that many members of the climbing gym also have memberships elsewhere; that climbing is not their only source of indoor exercise.

I have no idea whether this is in fact the case. It might be for some members, but as I’ve met a fair number of people for whom climbing is their main source of exercise, I don’t think it holds as a generalization. So what else might explain the skewed demographics, the ‘Morrisey followed by Peter Bjorn and John followed by MGMT on the sound system’ of it all?

One answer lies in the history of the sport. As far as I can tell, artificial climbing walls originated in America in the 1930s; although the first commercial wall was only built in 1964, in the UK. These early walls relied on grips that were cemented on, meaning they could not be easily changed. They were designed for outdoor climbers to practice on. 

In the mid-1980s, with the introduction of ‘bolt-on-holds’, it became much easier and more cost-effective to produce climbing-walls, and to overlay/colour-code routes of varying difficulties onto a single wall. Consequently, these walls began to attract not just dedicated outdoor climbers, but also everyday people interested in alternative ways of becoming fit. By the 1990s, indoor climbing had become so popular across Europe and North America that at least one person felt comfortable declaring it “the sport of the 90s”

However, this popularity seems to have largely been limited to those continents, if this ancient website can be trusted. As per the site, there are more climbing gyms in Europe (smol place) than in Asia (big place), and more gyms in North America than in Africa and South America combined. I highly doubt the precise numbers from the site are accurate, but it seems plausible that this at least roughly reflects the global distribution of indoor gyms. 

So the sport of indoor climbing seems to have emerged from countries where the dominant populations are white. And it seems like the trend of indoor climbing overwhelmingly being something which white people do (even when controlling for socioeconomic status and for the relative size of different racial groups) holds in America, and presumably in Europe as well. A notable exception here is Japan, which I’m told has a thriving climbing scene and frequently wins international tournaments. Beyond this, I’m not sure what to conclude – if you have any special insights on this topic, feel free to comment below. 

Is the lack of diversity in climbing spaces a problem? I’m not sure: it doesn’t seem like there’s any active harm being perpetrated by the status quo, but it also seems probable that there exist people of colour who have the socioeconomic means and interest in fitness necessary to pursue climbing, who may find the sport incredibly rewarding, but who nonetheless do not climb. If you’re one of those people, and you’re looking for a sign to try something new, consider this it. 

(Also: if you’re a white person looking to expand your social gaming horizons, can I interest you in a game of thunee?)

 

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Yegan Koseelan
Yegan Koseelan
1 year ago

Wow. Even I was interested in indoor climbing walls. Very well written with just a hint of dry humour!

Naadirah Moola
Naadirah Moola
7 months ago

I remember feeling this way at the start too – the unmissable fact of being the only brown person (and being a girl) climbing. However, things have changed drastically in the last 2 years and there are many more POC climbing :)! Bloc South seems to have more of a mixed crowd than North and I think this is due to Bloc South being located around areas that are inhabited with more POC so accessibility is easier I’ve never felt excluded nor marginalized for being brown. Climbing is just generally not a sport that exists in POC communities and so I’d originally chalked it up to that as the main reason as well as the steep price point entry to climbing. I use the gym facilities of both gyms and don’t have an alternative gym membership because i can’t afford to have another. However I think people still prefer normal gym memberships if they’re not regular climbers as they have access to a larger variety of equipment etc.. in 2020/2021, City Rock hosted a series of webinars where one of the topics did center around women of colour and climbing. I hope that you continue to feel welcomed and safe at the gym!