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Asian Games 2018: Sport climbing’s moment in the sun

With sport climbing making its debut at the Asian Games, the three athletes representing India are keen to put on a strong showing

Bharath Pereira scaling a wall. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Bharath Pereira scaling a wall. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

When Shreya Nankar, 16, took on sport climbing around five years ago, the resources she needed to pick up the basics were relatively easy to access, given her father Sanjay’s mountaineering background and the outdoor culture prevalent in her home town of Pune. It was only when she went out to compete a few years later that she encountered the first problem—there were hardly any competitors in her age group.

So, her father would request the organizers to accept her entry in the women’s category—an exercise she would undergo time and again. She needed it to hone her skills in a sport that was still finding its footing in the country and was usually pursued by people such as the Nankars in their individual capacity. When it came to matching up against the best in the world and keeping up with the rapid changes the sport has seen over the years, the struggle got more real.

The storyline is common to all three climbers, who are representing India at the Asian Games in Indonesia, where sport climbing is making its debut, with an eye on the 2020 Olympics in Japan. The other two climbers, Maibam Chingkheinganba, 15, and Bharath Pereira, 18, too stumbled upon the odd wall in Imphal and Bengaluru, respectively, and instantly fell in love with the sport, before setting out to chase their passion.

While mountaineering and climbing have been common pursuits around the world for over a century, the first international sport climbing competition was hosted in Italy as recently as 1985. The International Council for Competition Climbing (ICC) was established in 1997 under the umbrella of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA). In 2007, the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) was founded; it was recognized by the International Olympic Committee three years later and continues to be the governing body for the sport today.

The first wall in India came up at the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) campus in Delhi in 1986, according to Mohit Oberoi, one of the first to compete internationally at the World Cup in 1991 and the Asian Cup in 1993. It is only in the last five years that more climbing facilities have cropped up around the country—there are over 100 today, though access continues to be a task for most. For instance, Maibam, who holds the national speed record at 7.2 seconds, never had the opportunity to train on a speed wall back home in Imphal.

“Almost 60% of the walls are with the Armed Forces, while 35% are set up in educational institutions. Only a small number are open to those who want to climb. It’s why the growth of this sport has been slow over the years," says Amit Sharma, coach of the Indian contingent.

During his competitive years, Oberoi says, the Chinese were on a par with Indians; today, they excel at the sport while India is still finding its feet.

“It’s not about infrastructure alone. The sport has evolved drastically over the years and you need route setters and coaches who are on a par with these changes. Only then will the next generation of climbers excel. This is one reason we are still playing catch up," Oberoi says.

The Japanese, recalls Oberoi, dominated the sport as early as 1991, with Yuji Hirayama routinely registering wins, and, eventually, revolutionizing the sport in that country.

“Kids in Japan had an idol to look up to and his success gave the sport a tremendous boost. A lot of climbing gyms came up in the next few years, our pool of climbers got bigger, and, since the last decade, we have identified a core team that is groomed for big competitions," says Shinji Mizumura, a coach with the Japanese team, who was in Navi Mumbai for the IFSC World Cup in 2016.

Hosting two editions of the World Cup in the last couple of years was great exposure for Indian climbers, who have otherwise had few opportunities to compete abroad owing to a lack of funds. A few, like Pereira and Maibam, have been lucky to receive aid from the Karnataka and Manipur governments after persistent effort; it has proved to be an arduous task for most others.

“It takes close to 2 lakh to compete in each international competition. But that’s the kind of platform our climbers need to match up against others," says Sanjay Nankar, Shreya’s father.

The Indian climbers almost didn’t make it to the Asian Games, and were a last-minute addition after frantic efforts made by M. K. Yadav, national chairman of sport climbing in India. Of the eight climbers selected for the camp, only three eventually made the cut, thanks to their medals at the Asian level, which means India will miss out on the Speed team event.

“Though we are affiliated with the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), we are not a permanent member. It was hard to convince the IOA and the sports ministry, since the sport is not popular in India," says Yadav.

Also Read: Asian Games 2018: 10 Indian athletes to watch out for

For now, sport climbing comes under the umbrella of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, whose focus has primarily been on mountaineering over the years. In his capacity though, Yadav has been instrumental in restructuring some aspects of the sport. The earlier set-up saw zonal competitions being conducted across seven regions, with only the top 3 climbers from each zone progressing to the nationals. These days, there are also six open nationals, with the leading climbers progressing to a final. In addition, a ranking system has been introduced for both individual and combined events.

“The lack of exposure due to limited competitions was a major hurdle in the past. The new structure has given a lot of other climbers the opportunity to compete and gain valuable experience," Sanjay Nankar says.

Since early May, the climbers have been at camp in Jamshedpur, Bhubaneswar and Delhi. The stint in Odisha was most productive, given the state-of-the-art-facility at the Kalinga Stadium and the invitation extended to Kris Peters, an American climbing coach who has worked with top athletes around the world.

“He brought in a very different approach to training, as well as new techniques—it was a lot of learning. Besides, his energy was infectious. The wall there is as per international standards, so it was a fruitful exercise on the whole," says Pereira.

What makes sport climbing at the Asian Games a level playing field of sorts is the fact that the competition will be held in all three formats of the sport—bouldering, lead and speed climbing—with each climber judged on the basis of performance over all disciplines. In contrast, the IFSC competitions are held in individual formats, which means that the leading climbers are specialists in each discipline. The Indian contingent is a young one and the experience gained while competing against top Asian climbers augurs well for the future.

For the chosen trio, Indonesia 2018 offers a chance to scale new heights, even as sport climbing looks to find its hold in India in the years to come.

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