From dole to gold

Today’s welfare system is notoriously punitive, but in the 1980s it provided the basis of future Olympic success, argues Peter Goulding

August 24, 2020 · 7 min read
Climbers on ‘The Take Over By Dept. C’, a classic route first climbed by Nick Harms in the 1980s while he was on the dole (Credit: Peter Goulding)

In next year’s rescheduled Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the UK’s Shauna Coxsey OBE stands a good chance of bringing home a medal in the new ‘sport’ of climbing. Her potential success has its roots in the activities of the 1980s climbers whose main source of income was the giro: part of Thatcher’s lost generation.

In 2018, UK Sport agreed to fund the GB climbing campaign for Tokyo to the tune of £670,000. Coxsey, Britain’s top competition climber, qualified for Tokyo by placing well in the established competition climbing circuit: she has twice won the Bouldering World Cup and has numerous medals in national and international events. It is now possible for elite climbers like Coxsey to be paid to climb, partly through sports funding but more importantly from sponsorship deals with climbing and outdoor clothing manufacturers. Yet the success of such elite athletes builds on the achievements of a vibrant and standard-pushing climbing scene that was primarily funded by the welfare system.

The fact that top athletes can be sponsored by manufacturers shows the exploding popularity of climbing. In the last twenty years, the number of climbing walls has vastly increased, up to more than 500 across the UK, with more than 100,000 people regularly climbing, 71 per cent of them indoors. Most climbing walls cater to anyone interested, roughly equal numbers of men and women, all ages from very young kids to gnarly old-timers, students and office-workers. The majority are probably in their twenties or early thirties pursuing a lifestyle activity. Climbers have their own clothes, ethics, jargon, heroes, and (often expensive) products – from chalk for the hands to technical rubber climbing shoes.

Pushing standards

In the 1980s, the climbing scene was very different. A new generation of unemployed climbers started to infiltrate Sheffield, on the edge of the Peak District, and Llanberis in north Wales. Unlike the previous generations of working class climbers, this generation had no work and no prospect of work. Their climbing would be mainly funded by social security: the fortnightly delivery of the giro. This payment, around £70 a fortnight in the mid-1980s, wasn’t necessarily enough to live on. Most supplemented it with cash-in-hand work, petty scams and shoplifting expeditions into Sheffield city centre.

What they did have was a lot of free time. Anyone with innate talent would rapidly become very good, because they constantly climbed to fill up their days. Nick Harms, a climbing pioneer who arrived in Llanberis in the mid-1980s, climbed every day. In two years, he went from climbing at a fairly average level to getting the second ascent of a hard new route called Windows of Perception. This had the hardest single move on slate, a rock-type of notorious technical difficulty.

I think it was a very rapid growth in what I could do, Nick Harms later said. Everyone was doing that, I didn’t appreciate how out of the norm that was… When everyone is climbing [routes graded for difficulty as] 8a, 8b, 8c around you, I didn’t think it was particularly special. These grades are still notable today and are much harder than what the majority of today’s new breed of ‘indoors’ climbers achieve.

What was special about Sheffield or Llanberis was the community. Individuals of exceptional talent were surrounded by other climbers who were very nearly as good. The culture was to get out climbing as much as possible, then spend the night partying. Information about what climbs had been done was mainly passed on by word of mouth sitting around the local cafés, or reading the New Routes Book. As the community thrived, climbing standards were pushed to new levels.

Winning on the dole

Making shoestring climbing trips – hitch-hiking or driving battered cars across to France – showed the best of the UK dole climbers that they were as good as the best French or German climbers, two nations traditionally associated with hard climbing. Newly established climbing competitions were just starting to become popular, and British climbers started to enter, attracted by the prize money which might be enough to buy a new motorbike. In 1989, Jerry Moffatt, one of the exceptionally talented and motivated dole-climbers, won the first ever round of the Climbing World Cup held in Leeds.

Simon Nadin, another British climber, won that first World Cup overall, by entering more rounds than Moffatt and being prepared to travel to more events on the continent. He was being paid as a rope access technician. Many climbers found that their abseiling skills could be used painting oil-rigs in the North Sea, or cleaning windows on tower-blocks. These were lucrative jobs that enabled travel, and in Nadin’s case, to compete internationally.

Formal climbing competitions were held on custom-built indoor-climbing walls, which eliminated environmental damage to rock faces and created predictable conditions for the climbing. Such competitions would ultimately take British climbing down a route which required more reliable training, regular lower level competitions, youth teams and coaching. This has built up into the pyramid structure of support that lead to Shanua Coxsey’s highly specialised sporting prowess and prospects for medals in the Olympics.

Climbing success?

If Shauna Coxsey does well, climbing indoors is likely to see a further increase in popularity, particularly for indoor climbing walls. Funding of successful elite-level athletes therefore has the knock-on effect of drawing people to try the sport. But this funding-enabled achievement is built on a huge pyramid of activity, most of it entirely voluntarily, and historically paid for by traditional welfare systems.

Welfare today is often presented as a ‘trap’, with strict punitive measures and strong moral disapprobation aimed at anyone who claims it. This suits a policy of welfare cuts aimed at the poorest in society. Yet for Thatcher’s ‘lost generation’ it gave them spare time to exercise their innate creativity. The money paid to the dole-climbers acted as a hidden investment which directly influenced a valuable portion of today’s economy – and potential Olympic success.

Peter Goulding is a writer and climber originally from the north of England. His first book Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate Climbing Scene is available now on ebook, and published as a paperback on the 10th September

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