The three climbers selected for the Asian Games train in earnest at the International Mountaineering Foundation’s (IMF) training complex in south Delhi.

This is one of the two places they can train in the entire country without compromising on the international standards set for speed climbing, the other being the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha.

Or so they thought.

The wall at the IMF complex built in 2010, became obsolete in 2012 due to new standards set by the International Federation for Sport Climbing. Renovated at a cost of 55 lakh rupees, the wall seems off as two national record holders, one previous and the other current, struggle to scale it due to the incorrect positioning of the holds on the newly-built wall.

Eventually, current record holder Maibam Chingkheinganba is sent up with the tools as he goes about re-positioning some of the holds. For a sport which will make its debut at the Asian Games in 2018 and the Olympics in 2020, development of sport climbing infrastructure is at a nascent stage despite its 27-year-old competitive history in the country.

Foundation, not federation

The Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA), the international body for sport mountaineering decided to spin off Sport Climbing into the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC).

The IMF, the Indian affiliate of the UIAA, still retains the right to hold official competitions in Sport Climbing and oversees the sport. Colonel HS Chauhan, the president of the IMF, is upbeat about the potential of the sport and talks about building a culture of climbing before producing world-class climbers.

“This sport is such that you don’t need a lot of infrastructure and time. Plus, it is an adventure sport which can be easily taken up. With more walls coming up, I expect that we will have more takers for the sport,” says Chauhan.

The foundation, note foundation not federation, isn’t one of 48 National Sports Federations recognised by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS). In fact, the IMF is classified under Youth Affairs and not sports.

Could official recognition be helpful? “Yes, it will help us. We have asked to be recognised several times. It will help us avail better grants and send our athletes to various competitions throughout the world,” says Chauhan.

The president of the IMF is surprisingly pragmatic about the current state of the sport in the country, “Currently, we don’t have any world class climbers. I don’t expect that we’ll be able to produce such climbers overnight. We have however competed outside the country and returned with 30 medals since we started climbing in 1991.”

Budget for competitions absent

Head coach Amit Sharma reckons that IMF could do with a specialist division or spin-off for Sports Climbing which oversees the three disciplines of Speed, Lead and Bouldering specifically. For Sharma, sending climbers to international competitions remains a priority.

“IMF can bear some of the expenses but it has a limited budget as well. For the sport climbing specific competitions, like the World Championships and the various World Cup stages, climbers have to pay their own way currently,” rues Sharma.

Initially, the contingent was unsure of going to the Asian Games as the IMF’s eight names which were suggested were not cleared. After a series of meetings between IMF and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), three were finally cleared to go to Indonesia.

The IMF has tried to address this lack of competition in its own way. Zonals across seven divisions – North, South, East, West, North-East, Armed Forces and other services (Police Force/BPF) – are held once a year and Chauhan estimates that an average of 30 climbers take part in these, which are open competitions. Climbers however, must pass minimum criteria to take part in these.

Several IMF-approved competitions such as the All India Sports Climbing competition in Jamshedpur have cropped up. The challenge in the domestic circuit is to standardise the walls, with only two – the one at IMF, New Delhi and the second at the Kalinga Stadium Complex, Bhubaneshwar – meeting international standards.

Expensive walls

“Walls are expensive,” says Bharath Pereira, previous record holder and one of several climbers from Bengaluru, which Sharma says is a hotspot of climbers alongside Manipur and Odisha.

Shreya Nankar, also heading to the Asian Games, finds it difficult to practise due to what she terms a ‘lack of infrastructure’ back home in Pune.

Pereira says Bengaluru have several walls including the Equilibrium Sports Complex, the Kanteerava Stadium Complex and Church Street, but none that meet the standards. Small holds (foot and hand) can cost thousands while larger, more specialised holds can cost an enthusiast a lakh or two.

The IMF website lists 57 major walls across the country with 12 on those list located in Delhi. Chauhan says new walls are a huge undertaking, with initial costs in excess of two crores. Shoes made of specialised malleable rubber, are also to be imported given the variety of holds that one encounters during competitions.

For coach Sharma, the challenge is now to produce versatile climbers. While the Asian Games will award medals in all three categories, the Olympics in 2020 will involve excelling in all three categories with a combined medal awarded at the end of the competition.

“There are those who only like speed or bouldering. Maibam has a youth medal in lead climbing as well, and all three heading to the Asian Games will have to compete across categories. For the Olympics though, it’s likely to be a stiffer prospect,” says Sharma.

He signs off on a hopeful note though. “While 2020 is expected to come too soon, we can definitely think of a medal in 2024. All the climbers here are young and with proper training and exposure, we definitely have the capability.”