Rope climbing. Not just the domain of Martha’s physical abilities testing at that haunted snake farm. At seven different Olympics from 1896 until 1932, climbing a rope counted as Olympic gymnastics. On five of those occasions, individual event medals were awarded for excellence at rope climbing (the other two times, it was included as an apparatus in the men’s all-around).
The first Olympic rope climbing event—appearing at the inaugural modern Olympics in 1896—was also the most intense. The rope was 14 meters high, just shy of 46 feet. It would never again come close to that height, with the next-highest Olympic rope climb ever contested coming in more than 13 feet shorter.
The 1896 competition originally had to be postponed due to darkness, but when it was brought back the next morning, a whole five people showed up to compete. The Zhaoqing Challenge Cup vault final owes it so much. Only the two Greek competitors fully completed the rope climb, with Nikolaos Andriakopoulos taking first place in 23.4 seconds. Standings were supposed to be based on both time and style, but sadly the rules for how style was evaluated have not survived. It’s a great shame for all of us. I badly need a document about how best to reflect an artistic theme through the medium of rope-climb arms.
The method for scoring or judging an event like rope climbing (Time? Style? Elbow pointiness?) and how to compare it to other apparatuses proved a conundrum that was never really solved, especially in the years when the rope climb was included in the all-around.
At Paris 1900, when the all-around was a full 16 routines long and included the long jump and weightlifting, rope climbing also made the cut. This time, the rope was just six meters high (about 20 feet), but athletes were required to begin seated, then climb up and descend the rope with legs together and extended.
The judges could award up to 20 points for each event in the 1900 all-around, with some rather indistinct specifications. They were supposed to award 1-2 points for being “très mal,” 3-5 points for being “mal,” 6-8 points for being “médiocre,” 9-11 points for being “passable,” 12-14 points for being “assez bien,” 15-17 points for being “bien,” 18-19 points for being “très bien,” and 20 points for being “parfait.” I have no questions, and I’m sure it was very fair.
The next time the rope climb was included in the all-around competition was 1908, when the Olympics dispensed with judged interpretation of everyone’s ropiness and the athletes instead received half a point for every 18 inches climbed. This did create an imbalance as there were far fewer points available for rope climbing than for other apparatuses, where athletes could receive up to 72 points for a perfect routine (24 points per judge, 3 judges).
When the rope climb returned to the all-around in Paris in 1924, the rope was 24 feet (7.3 meters) and athletes received a perfect 10 for making it to the top in a time under 9 seconds. This resulted in 22-way tie for first place on rope. BUT TEH SEPARATION. To decide the event medals among those 22 athletes, they were ranked on pure time, with the gold medal going to Czechoslovakia’s Bedrich Supcik with a time of 7.2 seconds.
It was Czechoslovakia’s only gymnastics gold of those 1924 Olympics despite clearly being the best team at the event. The Czechs would have dominated the team competition, but two team members were injured on parallel bars and could not complete the other apparatuses, leaving the Czechs without enough scores to count. Elsewhere, the Czechs won 8 silver and bronze medals individually.
In the instances where the rope climb was contested for individual medals but not the all-around, ranking the gymnasts solely on time proved less of a problem. In 1906 in Athens, rope climbing was the only apparatus competed separately from the all-around competition, with Georgios Aliprantis giving Greece its second Olympic title on the event by climbing the 10-meter rope (nearly 33 feet) in 11.4 seconds.
In 1904, rope climbing was among several event finals contested at a secondary Olympic gymnastics session in October, which followed the main Olympic gymnastics event that July. What’s that you say? Two gymnastics Olympics in a single year? Tell me more things.
In this secondary session, only American athletes competed. Big twist: the US swept all the medals. The rope climb champion was George Eyser, who climbed the 25-foot rope (7.6 meters) in 7 seconds and who became an icon of the early Olympics because a childhood train accident had forced his leg to be amputated. He competed in Olympic gymnastics with a wooden prothesis, making his Olympic title on vault all the more impressive. Deal with that, Kerri.
Olympic rope climbing returned to the US for a second time when it made its final Olympic bow in 1932 in Los Angeles. Once again, it was a slightly separate contest from the main gymnastics competition, included as part of a series of “special events” along with power tumbling—the only time Olympic medals have been awarded in that discipline—and club swinging. In these contests, the US was permitted to enter three athletes in each, and then whatever other athletes who were also present for the regular gymnastics ccompetition ould decide to participate just for the hell of it.
So, in a lovely tribute to the first Olympics, just five people competed in the final Olympic rope climbing event—three Americans and two members of the Hungarian team who thought it seemed fun and participated in the first of two attempts but scratched the second. This time, the rope was 8 meters high (just over 26 feet) and the title was taken by Ben Bass in 6.7 seconds, a cool tenth of a second better than his Navy teammate William Galbraith.
Ben Bass was a member of the inaugural US Gymnastics Hall of Fame class and opined in 1982 that the rope climb was eliminated from the Olympics after 1932 because the IOC was mad the US went 1-2-3, but…I mean…that was by design? The rope climb was a special event held specifically for the US athletes and no other countries sent athletes who were training it or aiming for medals in it.
Creating an event specifically for yourself to win, winning it, and then accusing others of being jealous of you for winning it is a chef’s kiss encapsulation of the American identity.
Beginning with the world championships in 1934, followed by the Olympics of 1936, the six men’s events were standardized as floor, horse, rings, vault, PBars, and HBar, meaning that the day of the rope climb had officially come to an end.