Akash Gaikwad lives in Virar, a district in Maharashtra, outside Mumbai. He travels from Virar to Goregaon (a suburb of Mumbai) seven days a week to train. That’s a distance of just over 50 kilometre, one way. Some would say that’s daunting, but for Gaikwad it is a journey worth taking for the few hours of practice he would get with his coach. The 19-year-old is clear about which sport he wants to excel in.
His passion? To climb walls.
“Cricket ka shauk hi nahi hai mujhe. Rules bhi pata nahi theek se. (I have no affinity towards cricket, I don’t even know the rules properly.) My main hobby was dancing a few years back,” Gaikwad says. “After the guy who taught us joined a night school, I had nothing to do with my time. One day, five years back, my bhai (his aunt’s son) took me to a gym, showed me an artificial wall and asked me if I wanted to climb. I did. That moment changed my life. The joy of that moment drove me to take up the sport,” he adds, with a glint in his eye and a firmness in his voice.
Climbing has been a sport for nearly three decades now. Popularised in the ‘80s in France, the sport has grown to have over 85 associations affiliated to the International Federation of Sport Climbing. The event’s popularity in Japan combined with the domination of athletes from the country has seen it become an Olympic event for Tokyo in 2020.
The sport has three categories – Lead, Speed and Bouldering. Lead climbing involves athletes climbing a vertical wall, secured by a rope, and the one who goes farthest wins. Speed climbing involves going up parallel walls, and athletes are timed for speed. Bouldering involves climbers negotiating pre-designed routes that require them to think on their feet and climb to the top – a format that lends itself to some spectacular moves that showcase the athletes’ power and technique. There are eight World Cups for each event round the year.
“Mountaineering is an old-age hobby for thrill-seekers around the world, but these days it’s all just about climbing Mount Everest. Very few do it for the sheer thrill,” says Dilip Lagu, President of Girivihar, an adventure club for trekking and climbing enthusiasts. “But as a sport, climbing offers much more. It gives the athletes the thrill they seek along with an audience to watch and applaud you for the skill. It offers gratification to the athletes who seek more than just thrill. It’s a chance to win.”
The venue is the CIDCO Exhibition Centre in Navi Mumbai. The stage is set, quite literally, for the best in the world to compete. It’s the Climbing World Cup for bouldering and it’s being held in India for the second year running. The distance from the entrance of the hall to the stage is about 200 metre and the enormity of the 15-foot-tall artificial wall becomes apparent with every step toward it.
It’s not just a vertical wall. It’s a series of planks held together to represent a section of a mountain rock, with artificial boulders placed on it, at locations pre-determined by “route-setters” – men who devise a route for the climbers to crack, going from top to bottom. It’s a unique route every time and the athletes have no clue what “problem they have to solve” before they step on to the stage for the final. It’s like writing an exam without knowing the syllabus, as one of the climbers put it.
Sport climbing is not just for thrill-seekers. It requires tremendous upper body strength while testing an athlete’s agility at the same time. The climbers present are not heavily-built – it’s all about the shoulders and arms for them. For an outsider, the mere thought of negotiating a complicated route from bottom to top, filled with obstacles – or features, as the climbers call it – is daunting.
But the athletes thrive on it.
‘Climbing ka bhi World Cup hota hai?’
That’s the question Siddhi Manerikar, 21-year-old from Mumbai, was asked when she told her friends that she was participating in the World Cup in Navi Mumbai, last year. Between then and now, her friends know that not only there are World Cups for the sport, but there’s a chance to call yourself an Olympian.
Manerikar has been training at the Arun Sawant memorial climbing wall in Goregaon since 2010. She took to the sport because the wall was in her school and one fine day, she found out she was good at it. She is now the best climber among the Indian women. She finished 29th in the qualification event at the current World Cup, an improvement by four places from last year.
“Ever since it was announced that the event was going to be at the Olympics, my friends ask me what the sport is about and how can they get into it,” says Manerikar. “The awareness is increasing. And having the World Cup in India gives us a chance to see all these top athletes. It’s inspiring.”
Does she hope to be at the Olympics in three years time?
“Hope toh hai hi (of course, I hope so) and maybe with the improvement in infrastructure, I will have a shot.”
The wall that has been erected for this Bouldering World Cup costs over Rs 70 lakh, the mattress that the athlete fall on, costs Rs 25 lakh. Just to dismantle the wall after the event is over, it costs a couple of lakh more. Clearly, it’s an expensive sport.
“After the two days for the World Cup last year, the wall went to a godown, and remained there for 360 days, before we put it together for this event,” says Lagu. “What we need going forward is walls of international standards with boulders and holds that are used in these international events. And what we also need is a sporting structure that start from schools.”
Sport climbing in India does not have a recognised national federation under the sports ministry yet. It is run by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation – an organisation run mostly by former army men, who have a passion for climbing. Brigadier MP Yadav, chairperson of IMF West Zone, feels that recognition from the government will be a huge aspect in taking the sport forward.
“For our part, we are focussed on reaching out to schools and encouraging children to take up the sport,” says Yadav. “As of now, we don’t have the money to send our athletes to World Cups around the year, we need the help of private entities to make that happen. With the funds we have, we are sending eight kids to Asian Youth Championships in July and if they return with medals, that will encourage more investors to come in.”
‘Come on, Shauna!’
The 350-400 strong audience who have gathered to witness the final, where the six best men and women try and outclimb each other, are captivated by what’s going in front of them. Shauna Coaxsey, the reigning World Champion from Great Britain, is evidently the crowd favourite.
It’s the last of the four “boulder problems” that the athletes have to solve in the final. The five women who tried before her, failed to finish that route. With four minutes assigned to assess the route and finish it, time is running out for Shauna as she falls on the mattress, on her back, with a minute left on the clock. She has already won the event, so she could have just stopped.
But she lay there for a few seconds, eyes closed, and got back up, as the crowd egged her on. With one final push, and seconds remaining on the clock, she jumps from one boulder to another – the very move none of her competitors could manage. The crowd gasps. She reaches the top at the exact moment the buzzer goes off. The crowd roars.
A seven-year-old girl at the audience screams into her mother’s ears: “Mom, I want to be like Shauna.”
Realistically, of course, one cannot expect an Indian athlete to make it to the Olympics in Tokyo. Albeit with the hope that something special could happen, it’s far-fetched, as the men and women who are running the sport concede. But don’t tell the athletes that.
“It’s my dream to go to Tokyo,” says Adarsh Singh, the 19-year-old from Delhi who has been the national champion in bouldering for the past few years. “Of course people will say we are lagging behind, but every sport needs just that one person to do well, for the recognition to follow. Like Dipa Karmakar, for example. I want to be that person for sport climbing.”
Singh, who started climbing only because one of his friends in school dared him to and to “bunk a few classes at school,” is now the best climber in India. At the World Cup, he finished the best among Indians, placing 33rd among 58 climbers, and the only Indian to finish two routes. If he finished 33rd among the best in the world, why can’t he go to the final of the Asian Games in 2018, he says, confidently. He found a sponsor who sent him to Slovenia to train and he was also part of a eight-member team who went to Europe before the World Cup for a three-week training tour. But...
“Climbers are running out of money,” he says, screaming into the recording device, almost willing the sponsors to hear him on the other side. “There are eight World Cups in a year and we can participate in only one that we host. We can’t even afford to travel to the other events.”
Gaikwad, who finished fourth in lead climbing in nationals last year, was placed 55th in the World Youth Championships in 2015 among nearly 100 young athletes. He went to the event because he managed to get funding from a local NGO. “Since then, I have not been able to go ask anyone for money. If I don’t win medals, how can I expect funds? Pehle nationals mein medal laana hai (I have to win nationals). I’ll think about funding after that.”
Things are starting to look up on the monetary front. Meraki Sport and Entertainment is the organisation that is entrusted with bringing the investors in. While the World Cup in 2016 did not get the attention they sought, 2017 was a different story, says Namrata Parekh, the director and the co-founder. “The one line that made the biggest difference was: Sport climbing is now an Olympic event. It instantly became much easier to get people to notice the sport. It was seen mainly as a hobby before, but now people see it as a sport that appeals widely to the younger generation. The interest that was shown this year by sponsors was a testament to the growing popularity.”
As the World Cup ends, and the crowd – most of them climbers from around the country – starts to disperse, one thing is clear. The passion for the sport is evident. As an event, it lends itself to great drama, and guarantees a rush of adrenaline, even for those watching. With money an obstacle, the sport in India is dependent on men and women running the show, because they are passionate about it. A parent of a 14-year-old climber from Pune, says his daughter cannot end the day without scaling the wall she trains at. Her trainer, the father says, is a man who takes a meagre Rs 700 from his wards as fees, because he “works for the wall.”
Tangible success in the sport is still a mountain to climb for Indian athletes, but they are scaling it one wall at a time.