Durban’s Erin Sterkenburg will be the first to represent the country in sport climbing, when the code makes its debut at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in July.
The 17-year-old was crowned the continental champion at the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) African Championships in Cape Town in December, gaining her a coveted Olympic quota place.
Competing in her third IFSC competition after the 2018 and 2019 IFSC Youth World Championships, Sterkenburg ruled the final from the beginning, placing first in the speed stage with a time of 12.52 seconds.
In the boulder and lead stages, Sterkenburg was ahead of her teammate, Georgiana Dorward, 18, twice, closing her final with the perfect combined ranking score.
“I just want to say thank you to every person who helped me with my climbing and training, and who supported me and allowed me to get to this point, I am so grateful,” Sterkenbrug said on her Instagram account.
Sport climbing has become popular in the past two decades and, according to 2012 data at the IFSC website, 25-million people climb on a regular basis.
After years of debate about whether climbing should be included in the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to combine sport climbing, lead climbing and bouldering. The IFSC is only entitled to award one gold medal in this Olympic’s launch competition.
The IFSC decided that the combination of these three climbing disciplines wouldn’t leave anybody out, despite its tough implications for those who have invested in specialising in one discipline, and are now following adjusted training routines to be competitive in all three codes.
Sport climbing has a relatively youthful following, and falls in line with the IOC’s plan to give back to the youth. “We want to take sport to the youth,” said IOC president Thomas Bach. “With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.”
It is still unclear whether climbing will feature in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. It needs to be approved by the IOC through two rounds of voting; it had its first voting round in March and succeeded; its next is scheduled for 24 June. And then the situation will be assessed on 20 December, after the Tokyo Olympics. If sport climbing has limited viewership or interest there, the IOC may decide against approving it for the Paris Olympics.
If it is approved for the Paris Games, climbing will be split into two separately judged sports: sport climbing, and lead climbing/bouldering.
The Tokyo Games will see 20 women climbers competing in a contingent of 40, and, if approved, that number will increase to 72 for the Paris Olympics — 36 women and 36 men. This will see 16 women competing in speed climbing in pursuit of bronze, silver and gold, and 20 will compete in lead climbing/bouldering for the remaining set of medals.
A lot rests on the shoulders of the competitors in the sport’s Olympic debut this winter. Sterkenburg and the other competitors will want to make a lasting impression to ensure the sport remains on the IOC’s agenda for the future.
This article is part of a collaboration between the M&G and gsport, a platform dedicated to journalism about women in sport