The sport of ice climbing rarely sees a lot of media coverage, but during the 2014 Winter Games, it held centre stage in the town of Sochi.
A 20-metre tall ice tower was constructed inside the Olympic Park, where a group of around 25 ice climbing athletes conducted daily demonstrations of speed climbing (ascending an ice wall as fast as possible), and lead climbing (technical ascent on wooden structures scored on points). By using an extensive refrigeration system throughout the tower, the ice wall remained intact despite the 25 C temperatures experienced throughout the days in Sochi. The cultural event was part of an ice-climbing festival where everyone from spectators, athletes and officials were able to attempt to climb the ice tower in an effort to raise awareness of this niche sport.
"I don't see myself as an Olympic-calibre athlete, but I think just going to be a part of it and being able to do my sport of choice at the Olympics definitely makes me feel like I'm having that experience," said Jen Olson, who was invited to the cultural event alongside World Cup (WC) competitor Gord MacArthur.
"I'm super excited to represent Canada and promote the sport, it's a really fun opportunity," she said.
Olson, an internationally certified climbing guide from Canmore, Alta. first competed in ice climbing in 2007 and attended her first world cup event in 2012. Like most ice climbing athletes, her background is in rock climbing with most of her experience being gained from expeditions. While the technique is the same for both competitions and expeditions, the mental pressures are quite distinct.
"(In the field) you're working through the cold and the objective hazards, whereas in competition you're trying to deal with the stress of performance," said Olson.
"It's really easy to fall off (the wall) in WC comps, even the best people fall. They make competition holds deliberately insecure, to challenge competitors and to make the environment the same for each competitor. It's much easier to be secure on real ice, it's much easier to climb. When you're ice climbing in the field you don't fall, because it's likely that you'll break your ankles."
The inclusion of slopestyle and halfpipe events at the 2014 Winter Games has been indicative of the International Olympic Committee's goal to host events that appeal to a younger audience. While ice climbing is yet to enjoy the publicity of televised events such as the X Games, its athletes are hoping that the "extreme" nature of their sport will win over both viewers and officials, despite there being no competitive ice climbing events during the demonstrations in Sochi.
"It would be such a huge boost for the sport in North America and the world in general," said MacArthur.
"Already there seems to be a big surge in ice and mixed climbing lately, but being inducted into the Olympics as a medal sport I think we would see a huge wave of climbers jumping on board. (The demonstration) is going to be a very exciting opportunity for sure, because we need to show the world we can lead the way. This could be the birth of ice climbing in the Olympics."
Being accepted as an official event would also mean more support for athletes from national sporting bodies. Canadian athletes are organizing all their own funding for travel costs to WC competitions and the Sochi cultural event. The Russian team — a dominant force in the sport — received full financial backing from its federal government.
"Any athlete that is going from North America has to do the fundraising themselves, it's definitely 100 per cent on our heads," said MacArthur, who works around his competition schedule as a graphic designer.
Olson was able to raise over $10,000 through crowd funding campaign websites Indiegogo and makeachamp.com to help with her travel during the 2014 WC season, but was still well short of covering all of her costs.
"I received an amazing amount of support, but there's no funding from any of my sponsors or from a sporting body," she said.
"I still have to raise all my own money for training time and expenses."
Olson hopes that making the general public aware of climbing — as a way of accessing mountainous environments — that there will be less hesitation for backing a sport with such a perceived level of risk.
"I think there's a lot of fear around climbing, particularly people who don't live in mountain environments, it's not just an adrenaline junkie sport," she said.
Both Olson and MacArthur will also be competing at the final World Cup stop in Ufa, Russia, from Feb. 28 to March 2, 2014.