Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Properly used, clubs can be the avenue to teach the new normal of sport with COVID-19 protocols mixed in. This article compares the organizational structure of two sports in India – hiking / climbing and amateur running – to illustrate what is possible with grassroots level outfits.

Running is an old sport.

As popular movement, it is young in India.

The country’s outdoor clubs are probably older than its running clubs.

The example of climbing

Given the risk associated with climbing and mountaineering, the sport features many protocols. Although the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) and the training institutes for mountaineering played a role, fact is the bulk of climbing – especially rock climbing – owes its growth to small groups of outdoor enthusiasts typically ordered into clubs. It is thanks to them that the basic techniques of climbing got disseminated in the domestic climbing ecosystem.  In some of these clubs, the pursuit of knowledge exceeds what you find at the training institutes, which tend to settle into an ambiance of employment. For instance, it was the passion for sport climbing among a handful of members at Girivihar that saw the Mumbai-based club organize a decade of domestic sport climbing competitions and eventually two editions of the IFSC World Cup in bouldering. Suffice to say, clubs are the immune system of sport; they spread the joy of activity and teach its techniques.

Organizations dedicated to risk management and safety in adventure activity have begun to emerge (Maharashtra Adventure Council [MAC] is an example). Thanks to digital age, these new organizations have established direct link with hikers and climbers. Information can be communicated directly to individuals bypassing clubs. However, you learn by doing. When it comes to ground level implementation of protocol and developing familiarity through practise, the clubs cannot be ignored. That’s because they are the ones leading hikes and climbs on a regular basis. It is a lot like the ongoing battle with COVID-19 itself; it isn’t so much top-down as it is bottom-up featuring simple precautionary measures diligently observed at individual level to keep you safe.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The challenges and how climbing’s structure can help

In an article dated March 24, 2020 that appeared on the Rock and Ice website, Peter Beal outlined what COVID-19 could mean for rock climbing. He wrote that a lot of public lands (earlier accessed for climbing) could be temporarily shut and the closure of climbing gyms and their business models shaken up by the virus may mean bleak investment scenario for the segment. Not all such businesses will survive. In an article dated April 29, 2020, which appeared on the website of Climbing, Bennett Slavsky, summed up reasons why climbing outdoors was discouraged amid the pandemic. “ A key component is so that climbers don’t travel from densely populated, highly infected regions to remote climbing destinations, introducing it to smaller local communities that lack robust medical facilities. Climbers can also spread the disease to one another while sharing ropes, climbing the same routes, or just being in close proximity at crags,’’ he noted. Sociability, so far a fun element in sport, may take a hit as physical distancing becomes necessary protocol. Vulnerable in this regard in climbing, could be bouldering, the sport’s most sociable format. Further, a simple visualization of potential scenarios will make you aware of operational difficulties in the field, particularly in contexts where outdoor activity is commercial or supervised with onus resting on a service provider. For instance, while wilderness first aid courses can prep you to recognize symptoms and activate relevant protocols in the outdoors, unlike in earlier cases where a single patient was evacuated and the rest continued hiking, COVID-19 demobilizes a whole group because every reported case is treated as patient plus contacts. Is this risk, commercially viable? Already there is talk among adventure tour operators of small companies being particularly vulnerable in the current downturn. “ Currently there are too many ifs and buts. There is a threshold that must be crossed. There is both the need for a certain level of pick up in traffic and comfort with overall environment before these outdoor activities can resume at sustainable scale,’’ Vaibhav Kala, founder of Aquaterra Adventures, one of India’s biggest adventure tour companies, said. As and when authorities allow operations to restart, small customized trips featuring limited number of people from one family or a close group of friends may be the genre first off the block, he added. That was the view from the commercial side.

Like many sports waiting to emerge from the shadow of COVID-19, climbing and hiking will have to come up with its share of disease related protocols for the short to medium term. The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA), global climbing’s apex body, has a COVID-19 Crisis Consultation (CCC) task force and webpage devoted to the pandemic. Indian climbing has at least two organizations capable of accessing international expertise on subjects close to its heart – the IMF and the Himalayan Club. The IMF has a circular from early April, albeit tucked into its news archives, providing overview of the COVID-19 situation. A director of MAC said that the council is aware of challenges to the field posed by COVID-19. For the commercial side of adventure activities in India, there is the Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOAI). For ground level coaching of hikers and climbers, there are the mountaineering institutes and the outdoor clubs. Many outdoor clubs are members of IMF and state level adventure associations. Point is, theoretically speaking; the domestic world of climbing and hiking has a structure – an edifice – through which important information about the sport may be transmitted to ground level. It is possible to source relevant protocol and coach people in it down the line so that at the very least, those who report for activity as and when it is permitted are aware of the full ramifications of the new normal. Emphasis on “ theoretically speaking.’’

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Running can learn from climbing’s organizational structure

Indian distance runners have long held promise on the international stage – the late Shivnath Singh had finished eleventh in the marathon at the 1976 Montreal Olympics; T. Gopi placed 25th in the marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics besides being Asian champion in 2017. Elite athletes have their protocols addressed by organizations like the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and Athletics Federation of India (AFI). In fact, on the eve of lockdown, news reports mentioned guidelines issued by government to elite athletes on how to manage themselves amid pandemic. On March 28, 2020, The New Indian Express carried an interview with Volker Herrmann, AFI’s high performance director on lockdown regimens suggested for the elites.

What about the vast number of amateur runners?

As in climbing, running too has its clubs. Running is the bigger sport by a wide margin. It has annual events participated in by tens of thousands of people. With COVID-19 around, that size and scale of running also proved to be its Achilles Heel. Mass participation made it vulnerable before a virus with insatiable appetite for new hosts and pace of infection to match. Predictably, as the disease spread worldwide, major marathons got cancelled or postponed. Amateur running is more or less in hibernation. So far, amateur runners in India appear to have addressed lockdown in a fairly efficient decentralized, democratic fashion with leading coaches and runners offering advice online on how to stay fit and remain promising for the times when lockdown eventually relaxes. But there is a gap as regards new normal, that time post-lockdown when everyday activity must respect safety protocols as well. Protocols have to be imagined well, possess a standardized core, be accessible to all and must be communicated clearly. In this, having an element of organizational structure helps for both conviction and communication.

Recently, after weeks of lockdown and battering by COVID-19, Spain allowed morning joggers back on the road. It was done with safety protocols in place. Mark Steven Woolley is a retired ultramarathon runner living in the southern part of Spain. “ Everyone is pretty respectful of the distances and makes space for everyone to pass. The MTBs and runners share the same trails. It’s very cordial and relaxed,’’ he wrote in to this blog about the new normal requiring physical distancing. Mark – he has been finisher at major ultramarathons including La Ultra The High – is currently experimenting with mountain biking. From Czech Republic, elite athlete Adam Ondra shared with the world, a picture of him back to climbing outdoors. Climbing magazine reported of select crags reopening in Canada and Austria with COVID-19 protocols to be observed alongside. None of these predicaments are comparable with India’s, a crowded country of 1.3 billion people. However, if we go by these precedents (strictly as potential pattern), then, much before running returns as event, our right to run or walk in the morning will be restored. This will be accompanied by need for protocols, especially physical distancing. If one imagines further, weeks of such cautious return to activity could lead to resurrection of the old informal monthly group runs. It makes sense to try an event after observing how these informally organized runs play out.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

In Mumbai, group runs used to be overseen by major running clubs like Striders, Mumbai Road Runners and groups built around well-known coaches. If clarity is available early enough on what the disease related safety protocols to follow (specific to running) are, then these runs (they may not remain as clustered and sociable as before) can become opportunity to perfect new protocols like physical distancing and acquaint runners with them. They can help ensure that as and when events resurface, those who register are familiar with the new normal. Running has in its ranks those from the medical profession. Evolving correct protocols and disseminating it shouldn’t be tough provided a communication structure is in place. The question amid pandemic is – does amateur running in India have an edifice whereby a standard set of protocols recommended from the top is assured percolation to the bottom? Does amateur running in India have an apex body (that can decide on standardized protocols) with large city based-clubs and smaller ones positioned below, all linked for ease of communication? Inquiries revealed that the answer for now is – no; there isn’t any such structure. Without this structure (at least at big city or regional level), the clubs risk being left to their own imagination, when it comes to new normal and relevant protocols. It results in poor use of a valuable asset. There was also concern on how well the informally organized runs may serve to introduce the new normal because, in India, the sociability of running has always been a major attraction. Isn’t there something for amateur running in India to reflect on, in all this? Of relevance is also the architecture displayed by World Athletics in its move some time back to set up a medical task force for races. The task force saw collaboration between World Athletics and the International Institute for Race Medicine (IIRM).

A word of caution

Human beings are suckers for power and authority. If you allow organizations to grow in influence or exceed their mandate, you will kill the natural freedom of sport. Focus will then shift from sport to regulation and soon, to politics. The best type of organization is one that steps up when intervention is needed and steps back when its intervention is no longer required. Under all circumstances, the feel of organization and intervention must be light. Else, instead of addressing virus, you defeat sport.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. The above article has been presented here in the interest of thought and discussion. The author is not an expert in climbing, hiking, running or healthcare.)

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