Representation is important. How many footballers cite John Barnes or Thierry Henry as influences? And how many kids are being influenced to follow their dreams right now by seeing the impact Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford are having on and off the pitch? Of course opportunity matters, but seeing people who look like you actually doing the thing you want to do is important. In 2020, that's relatively easy in a sport like football, but other sports have further to go to increase diversity and inclusion.
Climbing is one of those sports. In an online British Mountaineering Council equality survey, compiled in 2019, 0% of respondents identified as Black, Black British or Mixed: White and Black Caribbean or African. Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence also suggests that UK participation by Black climbers is low, to put it mildly.
A group of climbers in London is trying to change that. Set up in early 2019, CLMBXR (pronounced climber) is a community of climbing fanatics, which is open to all, but has become a safe space for ethnic minorities to try climbing in the company of a community of encouraging and increasingly experienced climbers. We spoke to its founder, Rotimi Odukoya, to find out more about the group and what it's doing to increase diversity in the sport of climbing.
Men's Health: Can you tell me why you created CLMBXR?
Rotimi Odukoya: I was going climbing by myself, and my friend saw me on social media, so we formed a Whatsapp group, and then we formed an Instagram page and just started documenting our trips when we went to climbing walls. Other people started to join us as well, so that's how it formed – organically. There wasn't a grand plan when we got started; it wasn't like we want to form a community, but it just became that way.
MH: What has it grown to now and did you envision that at the beginning?
RO: So we're no longer on WhatsApp, we're on Telegram, so that's one thing, but when we first started, it was literally four of us in a Whatsapp group, and we used to go to Mile End climbing wall, and that was our home when we initially started. Now we've got over 50 people in our Telegram group, and we've got a membership scheme as well. It's really grown.
MH: Why did you start climbing?
RO: I was at a coding bootcamp, and every Monday, everyone would go climbing, and then my friend said 'hey, come along', and I thought why not? I was going to the gym, and I was heavy into bodyweight stuff, so every time I'd go to the gym I was always doing some form of calisthenics or handstands, so my friends thought I'd be really good. I went that Monday, and I just completely loved it. It was just like, why have I never done this before? I was addicted. And I think that's the case with most people who come climbing.
MH: Has it ever been an aim of CLMBXR to increase diversity in this space?
RO: When we initially started no, because it wasn't at the forefront of our minds. When we initially started we literally said 'hey, we're a group of friends. Let's go climbing.' And that was it. And then because I have Black friends, we became a Black climbing community, but honestly we literally just started climbing because we actually really enjoyed the sport. What's now happened is we do recognise that, firstly, we're in a position of privilege where we can potentially be that representation for someone who wants to get into the sport of climbing and wants a community that looks like them. We've modified our thinking about how we speak about ourselves by saying we do want to be that space where Black and underrepresented communities can come to feel safer in the sport.
MH: Do you have arrangements with the climbing walls you go to, because obviously you're bringing a lot of diversity to their space and making them look a lot better than they might otherwise?
RO: We do get discounted rates, so we get discounted rates to help with the community and help combat the diversity issue they have at the climbing walls. When we're at the climbing walls we bring at least 20-plus people on any given Saturday, and 10-plus people on any given Monday, so yeah they do give us discounts to help to promote the sport of climbing for sure.
MH: Do you think that's enough for what you're providing? Is that sufficient?
RO: I think the true goal is to eventually own our own climbing wall. Because then you have more control over what you can do and what you can provide, and financially it makes more sense than us growing the sport and lining somebody else's pocket. But at the same time, I'm grateful for the opportunity the climbing walls have provided us. They didn't have to do it. I understand why they are doing it, but at the same time, I'm really super grateful for them helping us out.
MH: Is that a fixed goal then, to have your own walls and your own space?
RO: I think so. I think it's a good goal to have in mind, for sure. I don't think there are any Black-owned or Black-led climbing walls in London, so it'd be interesting to be the first to do that. I think that'd be really cool. But even if that isn't the case, I'd be open to partnering with another climbing wall and doing colabs, for instance, or partnering with brands.
MH: How has COVID-19 impacted CLMBXR?
RO: Well we obviously had to stop during that sort of initial lockdown period when all walls were forced to close. We got back up and running in late July, and everyone in the community was like 'it's great to be back'. What's now happening is when we go to climbing walls we have to wear masks, which can be jarring because climbing with anything around your mouth just makes it 10 times harder. But besides that we've been okay. We've been able to climb, so we've actually been not too badly affected, which we're really grateful for.
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