Photo: Shyam G Menon
In climbing, problems are on the wall.
In Indian climbing, problems exist off the wall too.
Nothing was more evocative of what happened to the Indian team at the 2016 IFSC World Cup in bouldering in Navi Mumbai, than this remark by a team member: it is easy to don the country’s colours; doing justice to it is another. This is my last bouldering competition at this level. If you participate, you must prepare well first. Else, don’t participate. It was said honestly, sincerely. Being host country, India fielded one of the biggest contingents. None of the Indian athletes made it past the initial qualifying round. Not that the qualifying round at a World Cup is easy; it is difficult by domestic climbing standards. But a miracle was hoped for by many in the Indian climbing community given a World Cup had come to India.
The climbers in the team provided many reasons. Although it was known that a World Cup was scheduled to be held in India, team selection and training didn’t happen well in advance. While the last national championship in climbing took place in the last quarter of 2015, team selection for the World Cup was done only by April 2016. Actual training, team members said, would have spanned a fortnight at best. A couple of them also availed loans and spent money from their own pocket to attend a climbing competition in Singapore. They thought it would help. According to some of the team members I spoke to, what is missing in India is a whole ecosystem that prepares you for competition climbing. To begin with, there are very few Indians travelling abroad to participate in international competitions, essential if a climber is to shoulder the pressure that comes with competing in an arena filled with people. The more you compete, the better you become at handling the pressure. Second, you need competent route setters at home who will challenge you and push you in line with the type of routes seen at competitions. “ You need a good coach, you need a good route setter,’’ one of them said.
Third, while the route setter can imagine, the software in the mind transforms to hardware on the wall through a bank of climbing holds. Software and hardware are mutually connected. There are no big climbing gyms in India; certainly none of the sort that can be compared to the facilities some of the foreign athletes train at. This leads us to a fourth point – Indians get to touch for the first time, many of the holds and voluminous features used on climbing walls only when they travel to compete overseas or a World Cup comes to town as it did in May 2016. They are not familiar with certain types of holds, especially the big volume holds and features, which typically cost more to purchase in the market and which are found more and more on contemporary competition routes. Foreign athletes on the other hand are so familiar with some of these holds that they are able to guess well on seeing a hold, which part of it may be capable of hosting grip. As was evident on the opening day of the Navi Mumbai World Cup, Indian climbers lose time figuring out how to grip a hold or feature, often at the starting portions of a climbing route. Fifth, traveling abroad and participating in competitions is an expensive proposition. Few Indians have the financial muscle for this. Some, including those driven by passion and borrowing for the purpose, manage to compete overseas. Going there for a precious learning experience denied at home, they return with few discernible results that home federation and sponsors can take notice of. As Indian climbers participate in international competitions without being able to make an impression, the outcome reinforces the feeling in officialdom that the whole exercise of going to World Cups is basically futile. “ This becomes a vicious cycle. Unless you support the athlete consistently and for long, he or she is not going to gain experience and without experience you cannot hope to make an impression at competitions like the World Cup,’’ a team member said.
Lack of resources is typical of developing economies. One of the interesting things happening in climbing is that even as it is recognized as a sport with European roots, at present its growth is driven a lot by the Asian market. Affordability cannot be ignored in such contexts. The Navi Mumbai World Cup is itself an example of this drift – climbing’s rising popularity in Asia helps endorse the case for a World Cup in India. At the same time, budgetary constraints saw one of the walls used in the competition being fabricated locally. That is the affordability paradigm at work. Sean McColl is Athlete President in the Athlete Commission, which represents the interests of climbers in the World Cup circuit. I asked him if any athlete exchange programs or special funds to train athletes from the developing world were being thought of as climbing journeys to new geographies. He said nothing has been thought of yet. Potential reasons for it ranged from a lot of the administrative and developmental work in climbing being done on a voluntary basis to the athletes’ own busy schedules. However the IFSC, he said, does what it can to spread the software of climbing, like courses for judges; the rationale being that if climbing infrastructure and know-how grow, then climbing of good quality will follow. As my question was posed against the backdrop of Indian climbers and their feeling that lack of competition experience was doing them in, Sean highlighted another angle: Asian teams like those from Japan and Korea, have had athletes come for their first World Cup and yet make an impression. He had a point. For instance, climbers from Iran are familiar to the Mumbai climbing community thanks to the previous visits they made to participate in the Girivihar annual climbing competition. Iran had two athletes in the men’s semifinal. Singapore’s Ashraf is similarly known to the Mumbai crowd. Although he didn’t reach the semis, he put up a creditable performance. “ It may also be a case of having to work on strength,’’ Sean said as he prepared to leave the venue late evening, having watched the women’s qualifying round.
In the audience at Navi Mumbai, witness to the collapse, was a large contingent of sports administrators and officials overseeing Indian climbing. One thing is clear. The time for excuses is over. Indian climbing either gets its act together and goes about improving the quality of climbing or stays content hosting World Cups. A rising generation wants creative thinking and results to show so that they can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best in the world. The journey will be tough. But the least everyone can do is – make it happen.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)