Fifty years ago, astronaut Neil Armstrong took his one small step for [a] man on the moon. Five days prior to the launch of Apollo 11, David Bowie released Space Oddity, a record inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The BBC used this track during coverage of the moon landing.
A spacewalk, it turns out, is more of a climb than a walk. The harsh outer space conditions, an extreme lack of gravity and the constraints of a cumbersome spacesuit all make it harder than on Earth. Therefore, preparing astronauts for space missions is rather challenging. One preparation method is rock climbing as it develops coordination of the trunk, back, lower arms and fingers.
After completing five Space Shuttle missions and seven spacewalks, astronaut Scott Parazysnki climbed Mount Everest. He is the first person to have both flown in space and summited the highest point on Earth.
Just recently, NASA have developed LEMUR, a new climbing robot which can scale rock walls by gripping with hundreds of tiny fishhooks and using AI. It is apparent that climbing and space go hand in hand.
In September 2018, the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) held the World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria. It played host to 58 nations and 843 athletes; over 500kg of chalk was used on over 2,000 holds.
The Bouldering World Championship title was won by 19-year old Kai Harada from Japan. Japan triumphed again in June of this year when 23-year old Tomoa Narasaki won gold at the IFSC Worldcup in Vail.
Besides Tomoa Narasaki and the young Kai Harada, Japan produces some amazing climbers including the professional Akiyo Noguchi. She is known for winning the IFSC Climbing World Cup in Bouldering four times and she has won the Bouldering Japan Cup nine times, more than any other Japanese athlete. She has a total of 8 medals for Lead and 58 for Bouldering.
Koichiro Kobayashi, 51-years old, won gold at the Paraclimbing World Championships in 2018. Kobayashi is visually impaired but with the aid of his coach he uses the Japanese HKK climbing method (in English its DDS meaning Direction, Distance, Shape).
In June 2019, the second World Indoor Climbing Summit (WICS) was held in Sofia, Bulgaria. It hosted almost 300 attendees from 26 countries, including Japan, UK and USA. The John Atanasoff Forum on the Sofia Innovation Park was the venue and it was hosted by Walltopia. Founded in 1998, Walltopia is the world’s biggest manufacturer of artificial climbing structures exporting to over 70 countries. The Forum is located next to Walltopia’s stunning HQ building, a new cathedral to indoor climbing and bouldering.
Speakers at WICS highlighted how private equity investment in France has enabled The Arkose Group (a provider of natural urban climbing) to expand. A panel including speakers from the USA, Asia, the Middle East and the UK all gave examples of growth and regional trends.
Doug Miller, a fitness veteran from the UK spoke passionately about the evolution of the fitness industry and I spoke about areas of innovation that’s driving growth in fitness. We were followed by a panel discussion on what indoor climbing can learn from fitness with Ivaylo Penchev, CEO of Walltopia, believing “that fitness has a sexier image than climbing”.
The image of climbing could change when the sport makes its debut at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. It will feature three disciplines: speed climbing, bouldering and lead climbing. Speed climbing pits two climbers against each other both climbing a fixed route on a 15m wall. In bouldering, climbers scale fixed routes on a 4m wall in a specified time.
At its 134th Session the International Olympic Committee (IOC) accepted a proposal from the Paris 2024 Organising Committee to include climbing as one of four additional sports, as it is not yet a permanent Olympic sport.
Different from Tokyo, Paris will expand from one to two distinct competitions with 6 to 12 medals and 40 to 72 athletes in total. Under the proposal 16 women and 16 men would compete for 6 medals in the Speed; 20 men and women would compete for 6 medals in the Bouldering and Lead. Still provisional the IOC will make a final decision by December 2020 on proposed new events following observations at the Tokyo Olympics.
The Aomi Urban Sports Park, a temporary venue close to the Athletes Village and with views across Tokyo Bay, is one of the venues looking to engage the youth with Climbing and Basketball events.
Figures from the Association of British Climbing Walls (ABC) demonstrate that around 1 million people in the UK currently climb independently indoors and estimates 59% climb exclusively indoors. The number of wall visits is up 16% on last year and ABC expect the figures to rise a further 12% across the 500 plus walls in the country. The IFSC estimate there could be around 50 million climbers worldwide by 2020.
Previously a niche discipline, indoor climbing is now booming. For example, TV coverage of climbing is expanding; BBC had the speed finals from Innsbruck on YouTube, iPlayer and app. Red Bull TV, ToFreeClimb TV, Reel Rock TV, EpivTV all cover the sport.
New technology and innovation are also providing new opportunity for climbing – indoor walls can now be installed at home and it doubles as an ambient work of art when not in use.
Europe’s largest indoor climbing arena is the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena, next to Edinburgh airport, Scotland. Built into a disused quarry EICA has over 15,000 bolt-on holds, with 300 routes ranging in difficulty from grades 2 to 8b. The centre is also home to the only official IFSC World Record Speed wall in the UK and Scotland’s only ‘clipnclimb’.
EICA will host the IFSC European Championships (Lead and Speed) in October 2019. The IFSC biennial Climbing World Championships, for the first time in the competition history, will be hosted in Hachioji, Japan on 11-12th August 2019.
Both competitions will be keenly watched as qualifiers will later head to the Olympics. Climbing is taking one small step for sport and one giant leap for participation.