How sport climbing connects communities: "Tall or short, black or white, climbing is for all" 

Sport climbing makes its debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and popularity is scaling up at grassroots level

By Ken Browne

Climbing is "a sport which you get addicted to straight away," says James Rotimi, founder of community climbing group Clmbxr.

"Clmbxrs is a community climbing group made up of people that come from all kinds of backgrounds with different levels of experience, empowering each other through the sport of climbing," says the founder.

What began as a small Whatsapp group in London grew into a community of over a hundred people, fast.

The group was set up in early 2019, by 'sports-enthusiast, explorer and trouble-maker Rotimi', as an alternative to his repetitive gym routine, and since then it's fast growing into a movement that explores walls together all over London, building community and connecting people.

He tells Olympic Channel about how the group has grown, how it's an antidote to the loneliness epidemic in the city, about making minority groups visible and how an Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020 in 2021 can energise the sport.

"Climbing doesn't discriminate;" Rotimi says, "whether your tall, whether you're short, if you're black or white, climbing is a sport for all."

And in our new Olympic Channel series Road to Tokyo: Sport Climbing - The Qualifier Stories you can get the inside story on world-class climbers from across the globe like Bassa MawemKyra CondieAdam OndraAries Susanti and Mia Krampl.

Clmbxrs - How it started

"My friend introduced me to climbing," continues Rotimi, "I was like, this is amazing. Why have I never done this before?

"This sport is like full body movement, it's very technical as well as physically challenging, and I just love climbing since.

"I started uploading stuff on Instagram, on WhatsApp and my friend asked me can I join you can join you tonight? So I formed a WhatsApp group, and from a WhatsApp group to an Instagram page. And we've just grown super organically since."

What does he mean by organically?

"Through good old-fashioned word of mouth! And also social media is giving us a platform to have our posts being shared by friends etc. So that's helped drastically. But like word of mouth, just telling your friends, hey, join us. And people just being curious."

Climbing goes way back says Rotimi, it's something we all love deep down.

"The first thing babies do is climb, it's intrinsically in us, we all climb. So I think people have always been interested in climbing but perhaps didn't know that these climbing walls around London existed."

"Climbing doesn't discriminate"

From the pictures on the Clmbxr website and social media it's clear that it's a diverse group of people who have joined up in London.

"So when we started, it wasn't an aim, when you start something when it just happens organically, there isn't much thought behind it, like there isn't a mission statement.

"I think what I found is that there is the lack of diversity within climbing. And so black and underrepresented communities don't often get seen in magazines or seen on climbing walls.

"We do go climbing. So I think for me, an aim is to sort of bring attention to that and and highlight the fact that, hey, there are black and ethnic minorities actually in these spaces.

"And this is a space that shouldn't be foreign to us, and this is a space that we can sort of strive in and do really well, and I think climbing is a sport which anyone can take part."

Climbing doesn't discriminate whether your tall, whether you're sure of your black or white, climbing is a sport for all.

The group doesn't discriminate by ability either, "we are people who like myself, have been climbing just over a year, and we have had people who have been climbing for 20 plus years and newbies.

"I think what you find is that people learn from one another, that's it's this knowledge shared between two people. So you get newbies rubbing shoulders with people who've been climbing for years and you just see how both of them are really excited when they reach the top of the climbs with both hands like this (Puts his hands up!)."

"It's this excitement that everyone sort of feels. And I feel that's a really good thing."

Climbing and mental health

Apart from the physical benefits of climbing, the community, friendships and relationships it builds are also positive for anyone taking part in a mental sense.

"I think that loneliness is a massive killer and a massive problem in the UK," nods the Clmbxrs creator.

"And I think many people are struggling with, like forming friendships, networking, building, friends, and stuff like that. And I think communities help or enable people to meet new people, and they also have like an accountability group, for example.

"I know it's helped me for sure be consistent with my climbing because I know I'm accountable to my members and I think vice versa as well. So I think communities definitely help you sort of stay consistent and stay encouraged when you're trying something new."

People come to the group with different goals, and the group support helps them achieve their objectives.

"Personal goals," Rotimi explains, "whether that's losing weight, or staying in shape, or just being consistent at something. And I think when you have a community around you, it sort of allows you to sort of lean on other people where you feel sort of discouraged or dissuaded."

"So I think helping people, it's just a big thing. I think sport allows people to help people if that make sense."

The rapid rise of sport climbing

Climbing has gone from niche sport to global game in a really short period of time.

According to the Climbing Business Journal, the commercial climbing industry grew 11.8 percent in 2018, IBISWorld estimates that from 2012-2017 average annual growth for the indoor climbing wall industry was 3.9% in the USA alone, that’s over 39% greater than the gym, health, and fitness clubs growth over the same period.

Indoor rock climbing gyms, where enthusiasts can climb bouldering walls are popping up in cities all over the world.

"In London, we've seen tons of climbing walls being built already," says Rotimi, "I think in the last five years you've seen it, more climbing walls sort of being propped up in London. And I think what you'll see is more of the same that more people sort of engaging with the sport and saying this is a sport which is cool.

"It's it's perhaps an alternative to go into the gym. And that doesn't require much equipment to get started with."

In Britain the Association of British Climbing Walls (ABC) recorded a million visits to indoor walls in 2017, with about 100,000 people climbing regularly, and the numbers are growing by 15-20% a year.

The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) has become better supported than ever and the global nature of the game is clear from the top climbers.

Women's world champ Janja Garnbret is Slovenian, and right behind her is Japanese scaler Akiyo Noguchi with Indonesian 'Spiderwoman' Aries Susanti also making a name for herself.

Czech climber Adam Ondra is a big name in the men's game, but there are plenty of young upstarts looking to rewrite the world order like Chinese 19-year-old Pan Yufei, and 17-year-old Spaniard Alberto Ginés.

Sport Climbing at Tokyo 2020

And now with the hype building around sport climbing's debut at the Tokyo Games, that upward trend looks set to continue.

"I'm very excited," says Rotimi, "I think it's only going to do wonders for the sport. I think it's going to propel and bring attention to the sport.

"And I think what you're going to see is more of the same with more people sort of engaging with the sport and saying this is a sport which is cool."

Why should I take up sport climbing?

That's an easy one for this climbing enthusiast.

"If you're looking for a new sport to try - a full body sport to try a sport that's going to test you physically and mentally, then climbing is the sport.

"It's a sport which you get addicted straight away if you're into problem solving, if you're a person that loves to try something new and wants to explore the possibilities of your body through climbing as well."

And of course, if you're in London, then why not check out this climbing family.

"Climbxr is a wonderful community. We bring tons of vibes we have this sort of mixture of like Black British culture and heritage around that, and we just combine it into two.

"Anyone who comes to the community for the first time always knows it's a warm, encouraging and supportive community for sure. And if you're looking for that, we are the people to go to."

Clmbxrs isn't standing still either, "I'm hoping that we grow our community," says Rotimi.

"So our London based community, it'd be so great to get out of London, go to places like Sheffield, Liverpool, if not in Europe somewhere, perhaps places in Africa where I know there is climbing in my home country of Nigeria. We'd love to go there to do some climbing as well."