Interview: How sport climbing connects the world amid controversy-Xinhua

Interview: How sport climbing connects the world amid controversy

Source: Xinhua

Editor: huaxia

2024-05-16 08:55:30

by sportswriters Dong Yixing and Wang Qin'ou

SHANGHAI, May 16 (Xinhua) -- The Paris Olympic cycle opens up a new era for sport climbing, and starting the OQS in Shanghai makes 2024 unique, Toru Kobinata, vice president of the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), told Xinhua in an interview.

The inaugural Olympic Qualifier Series (OQS) kicks off in Shanghai on Thursday, as 464 athletes compete in BMX freestyle cycling, breaking, skateboarding, and sport climbing at the newly-renovated Huangpu Riverside venue for over 150 quota places for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

Originating from high-altitude mountaineering and natural rock climbing, sport climbing developed into a competitive sport in the 1980s, with athletes climbing specific routes on artificial walls. After its debut at the Tokyo Olympic Games, sport climbing, which involves three formats - boulder, speed, and lead - will again be featured in Paris.

"2024 is totally different from the ordinary years, not only because of the Paris Olympic Games, and we have two additional very important events in Shanghai and Budapest," Kobinata introduced. "These two events give us a huge impact."

Based on one of the 15 recommendations from the International Olympic Committee's Olympic Agenda 2020+5, the IOC is introducing multi-sports qualifying events in collaboration with International Federations (IFs) besides individual stand-alone events, which means IFs including IFSC will have to re-arrange and streamline their sporting calendars.

Kobinata denied the possible conflicts brought about by the new Olympic qualifying processes, adding, "Taking part in the Olympic Games has given us a great opportunity to show the world our value. Our athletes have such huge talent and potential to encourage people."

Kobinata admitted that the inclusion of sport climbing in the Olympic Games has significantly boosted the development of the sport, and Tokyo Olympic women's combined champion Janja Garnbret can be a great example.

"She's not known only in the sport climbing community anymore, but treated like a phenomenon," Kobinata said, adding that the number of climbers, national federations, and commercial gyms has been increasing worldwide.

In tandem with its widespread visibility, the Olympics has managed to both transform the outward appearance and internal dynamics of this burgeoning sport. Certain climbers argue that rock climbing, traditionally viewed as an extreme pursuit within natural landscapes, is inherently resistant to being standardized for competitive events. This contentious issue came to a head prior to the Tokyo Olympics and remains a topic of ongoing discussion.

"I know that there is some criticism of entering the Olympic Games. However, thinking about the entire community, it gives us a huge opportunity and huge benefit," Kobinata continued with his personal experience, saying "When I was young, it was forbidden to. But today, you can find many teenagers with the support of the state and understanding from the parents."

Kobinata believes sport and natural rock climbing healthily complement each other. "If we wait another maybe two or three decades, many people who started from the competitions may then go back to the natural environment," said Kobinata.

"If the athletes finished competing at a very highest international level, they still have some stages [in the wilderness] where they can show their performance as a lifetime activity."

In the Paris Olympic cycle, the focus of controversy has pivoted towards the newly introduced discipline of speed climbing. This discipline has been detached from the combined event, now standing as an individual event, effectively augmenting the tally of Olympic gold medals in sport climbing from two to four.

Both male and female athletes engage in speed climbing on identical standardized parallel routes, facilitating the establishment of world records. Yet, this development has elicited apprehension within the traditional climbing community. There are concerns that the uniformity of the routes may undercut the innate creativity that has long characterized the sport.

"We did [think about changing the route]. One option was immediately after Tokyo that we considered the recreation of a new speed route, but we did not have the right moment," he said. "On the other hand, the record is still improving. We would like to have an Olympic record by real speed athletes as a separated discipline in Paris."

Fully understanding the intentions of the critics, Kobinata also acknowledged how speed climbing has indeed brought more attention to the sport. "Speed climbing has one of the shortest routes [15 meters wall] in Olympic speed events. It's easy to understand for the people, even for those who watch the sport for the first time."

"The concept is that we need a standardized speed route to spread this discipline worldwide," he added.

Despite the controversy, Kobinata believes some of climbing's core values have been preserved and amplified on the Olympic stage - encouraging people to set aside their differences and work together for mutual success.

For example, before boulder and lead events, athletes are given a collective observation time of six minutes to preview the route, during which athletes can communicate and discuss their solutions with each other - a unique scene that can rarely be seen in other sports but happens every day in natural rock climbing and mountaineering.

"This is one of the very unique things about our sport," Kobinata noted. "[Athletes] share the same experience together, so naturally they could feel the sympathy. This is the beauty of the sport."

On top of the success in East Asia, Europe, and North America, Kobinata is determined to bring this kind of beauty to more corners of the world, such as Africa and South America with future continental and regional events to improve their level of competitiveness.

China and Japan are the leading countries to host high-level sport climbing events in Asia, as China started hosting World Cup events in 2008, just one year after IFSC was founded, in various locations such as Qinghai, Chongqing, Shandong, Fujian, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang.

"China is very good in speed climbing, and I saw a huge improvement in boulder and lead too," Kobinata said. "East Asia has always been one of the core areas from the global point of view. It's quite important to show the Asian performance to the world."

"But depending on a particular continent or a particular nation is not [enough]. It's important to encourage young people to communicate," he added.

The upcoming OQS will be held at an open venue, allowing spectators to enjoy the competition in a relaxed street atmosphere and providing an opportunity to experience the joy of sports, which Kobinata believes is where the vitality of young sports like climbing lies.

"It was nice for the first edition in Tokyo, but unfortunately we didn't see any spectators due to COVID," Kobinata said. "With good ticket selling in Paris, we expect a large crowd of spectators and hopefully a great success."