Under new rules for the Olympics, host cities can pick sports for possible inclusion. On August 4, it was announced that five new sports would be introduced at Tokyo 2020.

Sport climbing, skateboarding, surfing, baseball/softball and karate were selected as the latest disciplines to enter the hallowed walls of the Olympic pantheon.

The International Federation of Sports Climbing, the international governing body for the sport of competitive climbing, had recently declared the sport was booming and as the Olympics approach, India’s very own Indian Mountaineering Foundation will be hoping to send candidates to the quadrennial extravaganza as well.

Image credit: Ladoza Photography

Equivocal response

The response from the climbing community has been equivocal – there are many rejoicing the growth of the sport and see Olympic acceptance as a sign of global recognition and progress.

Then there are others, who believe climbing is an art form, is an adventure or an experience and should not be clubbed with other sports, thereby diminishing its novelty factor. Alex Honnold, considered one of the world’s best free climbers, had this to say about the sport’s inclusion in the Olympics, “I’m more of an adventurer: lots of travel, lots of new routes outdoors, not so much training inside. I can’t climb at nearly the level required for competition.”

For Manikandan Kumar, the sport’s inclusion is a welcome announcement and hopes that it will further the growing interest about the sport in the country. “It’s a wonderful sport and if you get into it, you become addicted to it. It’s not just about being physically able. It’s about your ability to remain mentally strong and fit as well,” he said, speaking to Scroll.in.

A strong competitor

Mani's profile on the iFSC website

The 30-year old para-athlete will be 33 by the time the next Paralympics comes around, but he is looking forward to being an active part of Tokyo 2020. He has been sport climbing against the best in the business for a very long time and has taken on all comers, able-bodied and otherwise, since he was 15.

“When I was in school, I went to camp to Ram Nagar. Then I went to the wall and started climbing there. Then I started participating in various local and national level meets. I took part in the 2003 nationals for the first time and was given the Nationals Best Climber Award at the age of 16 by the jury,” says “Mani” as he is also known. Mani was stricken by polio, leaving his right leg (the most crucial limb for sport climbing) with no power.

He struck gold in the first international competition the he participated in – the 2012 IFSC Paraclimbing World Championships in Paris – winning gold for India.

Asking him if he ever thought he would win a gold medal in his first ever try at a global level, Mani says, “For me, it was a dream come true. When I got into the finals, I kept thinking, ‘this is it. Maybe I can beat those guys.’ But I didn’t think I would become a world champion.”

Mani’s results since then have been nothing short of stupendous with the veteran climber bagging 11 medals in international competition – three golds, seven silvers and one bronze.

With India winning four medals in the recently concluded Paralympics, Mani could very well add his name to that list in four years’ time.

Sport climbing takes place in three categories – lead climbing, speed climbing and bouldering. Mani’s specialty is the lead climbing, which involves the climber ascending a difficult route to the top, reaching a series of targets or bolts on the way. In the end, the winner is adjudged by the difficulty of the route taken and the number of targets reached.

Although not officially formalised, it is expected that sport climbing at Tokyo will involve climbers participating in all three events and the climber with the lowest tally of individual positional finishes in the three events will be declared the winner.

The son of a carpenter and a maker of incense sticks born in Malleshwaram, Bengaluru, managing funds was not easy for Mani. “Initially, I struggled a lot for these world championship medals. They started sponsoring me with whatever they did. The Karnataka State Police Corporation pitched in as did close friends, family and students.”

Mani was helped out by the Karnataka government’s Gethnaa scheme as well as One Good Step, a not-for-profit organisation based out of Bengaluru.

Image credit: Facebook

Challenges lie ahead

There are several problems impeding the sport currently. The IMF, although recognised by the IFSC as the sport’s official governing body in the country, is not one of the National Sporting Federations yet.

“Without a federation, it’s very difficult to procure funds to send more athletes to international competitions. Even awards and recognition are difficult to attain without a federation,” said Mani. The NSFs are required to nominate one or more candidates and send the names across to the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. Mani strongly believes that he should have received Ekalavya Award and the Arjuna award for his achievements so far,but he is confident of receiving those awards in future.

The 30-year old also doubles up as a sport climbing coach and gives lessons at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium. Next on his agenda is to organise a national competition of para-athletes in sports climbing, the first of its kind in the country.

Mani himself has not let his disability stop him from competing actively in competitions for the able-bodied. “I have qualified from the South Zone for the nationals six times,” says Mani.

Infrastructure is also something that the sport lacks in currently. “Good climbing walls come at a cost of Rs 3 to 4 crore. We need to come up with better walls. Currently, Bengaluru, Gwalior, Delhi and Darjeeling are the only places with good walls," Mani says while also adding that Asian countries like South Korea, Japan, Iran and Indonesia are very strong at the world level.

When asked to name a worthy adversary, Mani’s mind springs to the Frenchman Mathieu Besnard, “He has been my toughest competitor till date.”

Mani has a busy year in 2017 and he hopes to participate in eight international competitions and will go to Canada to train under instructor Kimanda Jarzebiak in January.

Administrative difficulties are the farthest thing on Mani’s mind currently, “As of now, I just want to win as many medals as possible for my country," he signed off.