Russia targets International Children’s Games to train next crop of climbers

RUSSIA :In nearly a year from now, climbers will assemble in Tokyo to reach out for the sport’s first Olympic medal. Russia, however, is planning for further ahead, preparing to gain a foothold in the sport for the future. At the recently concluded International Children’s Games (ICG) in Ufa, participants from nine Russian cities, as well as contingents from Slovenia, Sweden and Austria competed in two categories.

“Climbing is my first sport, and this was my first competition,” said 12-year-old Alina from Ufa. “I took it up after a school excursion, and it took months for my parents to realise that it is a sport and you can get Olympic medals from it.”

Originally not in the list of sports at ICG, Russian authorities requested the inclusion of climbing as an event in order to gauge the talent pool and introduce the sport to the public. Held at the Vatan park, a picturesque venue besides the town square and overseeing the Sutoloka river, participants competed in speed and lead categories. Speed climbing sees two competitors climbing a fixed route on a 15-metre wall, while in lead, athletes look to go as high as possible within a fixed time. A third format, bouldering, where climbers scale a number of fixed routes on a 4m wall in a specified time, will feature in Tokyo and the medal will be awarded on the basis of combined rankings.

In its drive to urbanise and youth-appealing, IOC added sport climbing, as well as baseball/softball, karate, skateboard and surfing, to the Tokyo Programme in 2016. Furthermore, the body also unanimously voted to provisionally include sport climbing in the Paris 2024 Olympics last month, along with surfing, skateboarding, and breaking (break dancing).

Climbing has had a long history in Russia, beginning about 50 years ago on the rocks at Dombay in the Caucasus mountain and flourishing in the cities of Tyumen and Crimea. Sergey Stepanov, an ICG official and head of sports and physical education of Ufa, believes the legacy gives Russia a leg up.

“Russia is one of the leaders in climbing. The main thing for us and all of the climbing society is that it’s included in the Olympic programme in Tokyo and Paris,” says Stepanov, who climbed the 5642m-tall Mount Elbrus at the age of 16 and was part of the Russian mountain climbing team from 1995 to 2001. “In Tokyo, there is just one set of medals, but in Paris the speed climbing will be separate, so there will be two sets. In Ufa, we have historically had climbing champions, and world record-breakers.”

Other countries are still trying its grip on the sport aspect of climbing. Alfred, coach of the Swedish contingent who failed to perform well at the ICG, says the country will take some time to adapt.

“We have traditionally been boulderers. For us it is mostly about outdoor climbing. But the indoor sport has been gaining popularity,” says Alfred. “15 years ago, you wouldn’t find one such gym. Now there are several in every city.”

Alfred philosophises when asked to differentiate between the indoor and outdoor climbing.

“The major difference is you don’t get the nature experience,” says Alfred. “We weren’t climbing to compete with each other. We have always climbed for our own sake, to be one with nature.”

Stepanov, however, notes that to excel in either, the participants have to be prepared for both.

“We always include training outside, with natural rocks, so that kids understand what it means to be with ‘live rocks’,” says Stepanov. “You have to use a special technique. You need to know how to place a hook, how to place yourself, and all this experience helps them when they climb an artificial rock indoors.”

Andrey Krivosheev, technical officer for the climbing event at ICG, organised with sponsorship from Russian state gas company Gazprom, believes infrastructure is also paramount.

“We don’t have big mountains here in Ufa. So the plan is to keep these walls and circuits safe after the event and use them for practicing.”

Krivosheev, a Soviet and Russian speed skater, also talks of the resistance from purists as ‘unconventional’ sports are having their moment in the sun.

“Listen, my son. He hated skating. He thought it was boring, and chose to play basketball. My daughter ignored all sports,” says Krivosheev, who competed at the 1998 Winter Olympics. “But trust me, if they see people climbing up in a race, without any complicated rules, points from judges, they would get it and enjoy it.”

Stepanov agrees with his compatriot’s assessment.

“There is very obviously a request for new, creative, dynamic, extreme sports. That’s why one way or the other news sports are coming into the Olympics, and the sports that aren’t as fast or as noticeable, they adjust the rules to become more interesting,” says Stepanov. “Whoever asks the questions should remember that the audience sets the trends.”