Rapid Indonesian speed climbers push boundaries and smash records

By AFP   October 4, 2023 | 02:38 am PT
Rapid Indonesian speed climbers push boundaries and smash records
Indonesia’s Veddriq Leonardo (L) in action at the Asian Games. Photo by AFP/Adek Berry
Smashing records and nabbing multiple medals at top international events, Indonesia are an unlikely powerhouse in sport climbing ahead of next year's Paris Olympics.

The country's climbers have been at it again at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, winning three out of six medals on the first day of the sport, all in speed climbing.

Climbing was officially included in the Olympics for the first time at the pandemic-delayed Games in Tokyo in 2021.

On that occasion, athletes competed in a single event combining three forms of the sport -- lead, bouldering and speed -- a controversial decision at the time.

Paris 2024 will feature speed climbing as a separate event -- good news for Indonesia.

In the discipline, competitors scramble up a standardized 15-meter (50-foot) vertical route in a matter of seconds.

The format is simple: fastest to the top.

Indonesia, which has not generally excelled in global sport, sees the new standalone event as a chance to make it to the Olympic podium after single-mindedly pouring resources into speed climbing in particular.

Veddriq Leonardo, who this year became the first man or woman in history to scale the speed wall in under five seconds, told AFP he has his eye on Olympic gold.

Indonesia have won only eight golds in their Olympic history, all in badminton.

"I am training for that," he said in Shaoxing, the city near Hangzhou that is hosting the Asian Games' sport climbing events.

He clocked the fastest time at the men's speed final on Tuesday, leaving the competition in the dust and setting an Asian Games record with a 4.95sec climb -- but only won bronze due to a quirk of the tournament rules.

It was just slower than his 4.90sec world record set in Seoul earlier this year.

Fellow Indonesian Desak Made Rita Kusuma Dewi took gold in the women's final, beating China's Deng Lijuan by a whisker while also setting a Games record of 6.52sec.

A third teammate, 24-year-old Rajiah Sallsabillah, won bronze.

This success is not by accident.

The climbers are the product of a rigorous national program that designated climbing as a priority sport for Indonesia, alongside badminton and weightlifting.

Government agencies and local climbing associations were told to produce champions.

For decades, climbing had a small group of devotees in the Southeast Asian country.

But the 2018 Asian Games hosted by Indonesia turned it into a nationwide craze, Indonesian Wall Climbing Federation member Sapto Hardiono told AFP.

"Indonesian wall climbers have always been good because there are many wall-climbing facilities in the country, both natural ones and manmade facilities," Hardiono said.

"It's just the sport was not very well known in the past," he said, adding that Indonesians were increasingly sending their young children to climbing classes.

The federation scoured Indonesia's population of more than 270 million in search of talent through its National Rock Climbing Circuit and junior tournaments.

Star power also helps, with the country's recent crop of super-fast climbers inspiring others to compete at the sport's highest levels, Hardiono said.

Leonardo, 26, said that the national team has climbed together for years at camps.

He and teammate Kiromal Katibin have driven each other on, repeatedly surpassing one another's top speeds over the past three years.

Between them, the men accounted for the previous eight world records as they pushed toward the five-second barrier.

Leonardo said the secret behind Indonesia's climbing success was teamwork.

"We (also) have a good coach and team, that's the reason maybe," he said.

Like Leonardo, the 22-year-old women's champion Dewi now immediately switches focus to the Paris Olympics, less than 10 months away.

"I was unwell for about a week just before coming to Hangzhou so I see my achievement here as outstanding," she said after receiving her gold medal.

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