Pair carrying nation's hopes in sport climbing's Olympic debut

2020-12-24 12:06:52

Song Yiling (left) and Pan Yufei are hopeful of challenging for honors when sport climbing debuts as an Olympic medal event in Tokyo next year. The International Federation of Sport Climbing has confirmed the pair among its 38 competitors for the delayed Games. EPA/XINHUA China's brightest sport climbing talents are raring to shine on the biggest stage following confirmation of their qualification for the Tokyo Olympics. On Sunday, the International Federation of Sport Climbing named Pan Yufei and Song Yiling among its 38 athletes who will compete at the Games, which have been delayed until next summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Twenty-year-old Pan, who is considered China's biggest medal hope in the sport, booked his place in the men's competition by finishing sixth in an IFSC qualifier in Toulouse, France, last December. Despite failing to reach the women's finals at the same event, Song still secured a ticket to Tokyo, and in April showed she is a force to be reckoned with by breaking the world speed climbing record by clocking 7.10 seconds at an IFSC Climbing World Cup meet in Chongqing. That mark has since been refreshed by Russian Iuliia Kaplina (6.96). "I have to say the overall strength of Chinese sport climbing has grown very fast in recent years. We have advantages in speed climbing, and we plan to reach the world's top level of other disciplines in the short term," Team China's head coach Zhao Lei told xinmin.cn. "Since 2018 when we introduced a foreign coaching team, we have had big improvements in the disciplines of bouldering and lead. Pan, for example, has learned a lot from the foreign coaches." Sport climbing will make its Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games, with athletes competing in three disciplines: speed, bouldering and lead. The overall rankings will be determined by multiplying the placements from each section, with the lowest scores winning. In the speed event, two climbers race against each other on a 15-meter wall. In bouldering, athletes scale fixed routes on a 4.5m wall within a specified time. In lead, competitors attempt to climb as high as possible on a wall measuring over 15m tall within a specified time. Both Pan and Song are taking the postponement of the Tokyo Games in their stride, and are grateful to have more time to prepare for what will be the biggest competition of their lives so far. "I consider the postponement as an opportunity for me to improve. It really hasn't had a big effect on me," Pan told Sohu Sports. "I have more time to pinpoint and work on my weaknesses. I can also calm down a little and have time to think and feel about how I'm progressing. The extra time is helping me." Pan's rise to prominence has inevitably brought extra pressure from the public and media. The Guangzhou native, however, is confident he can block out all the noise. "My coach told me as long as I try as hard as I can and do not waste a day, I have already won against myself so to speak," he said. "So I just needed to relax my mind at the Olympic qualifying event. I wanted to know if there's a gap between me and the best of the world. The result was quite surprising and that was a huge confidence booster for me. "Each time when I take part in a competition, I notice a gap. So I'm trying my best to shrink those gaps in time for the next event. Step by step, I will become the best." Song has also grown accustomed to shouldering increasing expectations. However, more difficult to manage are her recurring injury problems. "Despite qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics, Song competed with injuries which worsened her situation," explained head coach Zhao. "She recovered slowly when she returned to China. This year she competed in several events, although the results were not ideal. "However, as long as we can arrange good recovery and training plans for her, she should get back to peak condition." The emergence of the two future Olympians has given even more momentum to a sport that was already a fast-growing sector in the Chinese fitness market. According to a rock climbing industry report, published by the Chinese Mountaineering Association last year, the sector grew an average of 39 percent annually from 2013 to 2018. Each year, about 10 million people participate in sport climbing in China, with that number almost certainly set to grow further considering its Olympic inclusion. "When I first began sport climbing, many people didn't even have a clue what it is," said Pan. "In the past, the sport was very limited here and developed slowly. Now it is very different. I hope more people can learn about and embrace the sport. "We didn't have many spectators before, but now more people like to watch our competitions."