Sport climbing sets sights on 2020 Olympics

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Climbing is on the precipice of becoming an Olympic sport, raising the profile of a recreational activity that is seeing a surge in young participants.

The ascent to potential Olympic inclusion got a boost on Wednesday after the International Olympic Committee executive board gave its approval to include climbing along with four other sports: baseball-softball, surfing, karate and skateboarding. The IOC will decide in August whether to add the sports to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Japanese organizers initially proposed the new sports in September and looked at climbing as a competition that could appeal to teens and young adult, an age where there is already increasing interest.

“My dream is to … keep on helping getting [climbing] bigger and bigger so hopefully I can compete in the Olympics and win it maybe,” said 15-year-old Ashima Shiraishi, a New Yorker whose parents were Japanese immigrants. Her spider-like ascents up rock walls and cliffs have made her a viral sensation online and drawn the curiosity of late-night television.

There were roughly 35 million climbers worldwide in 2015, according to the International Federation of Sport Climbing, up 40 percent from two years earlier. As of last fall, about half of the total was younger than 25 “thanks to the latest trend of urban/action sports,” the federation said in a report.

USA Climbing had almost 3,800 registered members age 19 and under as of the 2015-16 season, an increase of nearly 90 percent in nine years — a boom that could position the United States to emerge as a top Olympic contender.

The United States “is already a very active country for climbing and we trust the national federation will keep on developing its expertise and keep on bringing kids to our competitions, which would be definitely a plus for a possible medal in 2020,” said Anne Fuynel, spokeswoman for the international federation in Turin, Italy.

Many young climbers are getting a foothold indoors at climbing gyms, which have grown in number to nearly 400 across the United States. One young climbing star, 16-year-old Kai Lightner, got his start indoors after visiting a gym in Fayetteville, N.C., a decade ago.

“Kids like me have access to these resources that did not exist decades ago,” Lightner said. “When you are able to start training at high levels, as young as 6, 7 years old, it shouldn’t be surprising that kids are becoming more skilled at younger ages.”

Indoor climbing removes barriers inherent outdoors, like weather, travel and expensive equipment, said Ian McIntosh, president of Mesa Rim Climbing Center in San Diego.

Techniques can be perfected year-round indoors. It’s an option to fill time between soccer seasons for the average, on-the-go pre-teen in the suburbs.

Lily Canavan of Boston is one of the top competitors at her age bracket. Now 18, she got into the sport about eight years ago while attending a birthday party at a gymnastics facility that had a climbing wall.

The physical demands can be extreme, but Canavan is attracted by the mental side of climbing. Finding the right route and piecing it together with the right movements is like solving a puzzle.

“So you can be the strongest person ever and not be able to climb as (well) as someone who isn’t strong,” Canavan said.

She was among 134 participants at USA Climbing’s Bouldering Open National Championships in Madison this year, an increase of 47 percent from 2010. The youth nationals in Madison a month later drew 499 competitors, up 37 percent from last year and almost 55 percent from 2010.

USA Climbing’s goal over the last 10 years has been to focus on developing its youth program. While Olympics inclusion has never influenced the organization’s decisions, CEO Kynan Waggoner said, the potential addition to the Summer Games “can’t do anything except promote the sport and raise the profile level, period.”

In the 2020 Olympics proposal, competition would only take place on manmade structures, though it hasn’t been determined if walls would be constructed indoors or outdoors. Participants would take part in the disciplines of speed, bouldering and lead (also known as sport), with results combined into one overall ranking system to determine medalists.

Waggoner said he likes the strides American climbers have made on the youth level in international competition. If the Olympics were held now, the United States would be competing with top contenders including France, Austria, Germany and Japan.

Waggoner stopped short of predicting how success now might translate to performance in four years, even with top young climbers like Shiraishi and Lightner presumably in the mix.

One wrinkle is that climbers usually specialize in one or two disciplines. For the Olympics, they would need to take part in three.

“I don’t know who we’ll have ready to go in 2020,” Waggoner said. “I do know some of our best U.S. athletes … are starting to train.”

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Elena Fanchini, medal-winning Alpine skier, dies at 37

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Elena Fanchini, an Italian Alpine skier whose career was cut short by a tumor, has died. She was 37.

Fanchini, the 2005 World downhill silver medalist at age 19, passed away Wednesday at her home in Solato, near Brescia, the Italian Winter Sports Federation announced.

Fanchini died on the same day that fellow Italian Marta Bassino won the super-G at the world championships in Meribel, France; and two days after Federica Brignone — another former teammate — claimed gold in the combined.

Sofia Goggia, who is the favorite for Saturday’s downhill, dedicated her World Cup win in Cortina d’Ampezzo last month to Fanchini.

Fanchini last raced in December 2017. She was cleared to return to train nearly a year later but never made it fully back, and her condition grew worse in recent months.

Fanchini won her world downhill silver medal in Italy in 2005, exactly one month after her World Cup debut, an astonishing breakout.

Ten months later, she won a World Cup downhill in Canada with “Ciao Mamma” scribbled on face tape to guard against 1-degree temperatures. She was 20. Nobody younger than 21 has won a World Cup downhill since. Her second and final World Cup win, also a downhill, came more than nine years later.

In between her two World Cup wins, Fanchini raced at three Olympics with a best finish of 12th in the downhill in 2014. She missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics because of her condition.

Fanchini’s younger sisters Nadia and Sabrina were also World Cup racers.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

USA Boxing to skip world championships

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USA Boxing will not send boxers to this year’s men’s and women’s world championships, citing “the ongoing failures” of the IBA, the sport’s international governing body, that put boxing’s place on the Olympic program at risk.

The Washington Post first reported the decision.

In a letter to its members, USA Boxing Executive Director Mike McAtee listed many factors that led to the decision, including IBA governance issues, financial irregularities and transparency and that Russian and Belarusian boxers are allowed to compete with their flags.

IBA lifted its ban on Russian and Belarusian boxers in October and said it would allow their flags and anthems to return, too.

The IOC has not shifted from its recommendation to international sports federations last February that Russian and Belarusian athletes be barred, though the IOC and Olympic sports officials have been exploring whether those athletes could return without national symbols.

USA Boxing said that Russian boxers have competed at an IBA event in Morocco this month with their flags and are expected to compete at this year’s world championships under their flags.

“While sport is intended to be politically neutral, many boxers, coaches and other representatives of the Ukrainian boxing community were killed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, including coach Mykhaylo Korenovsky who was killed when a Russian missile hit an apartment block in January 2023,” according to the USA Boxing letter. “Ukraine’s sports infrastructure, including numerous boxing gyms, has been devastated by Russian aggression.”

McAtee added later that USA Boxing would still not send athletes to worlds even if Russians and Belarusians were competing as neutrals and without their flags.

“USA Boxing’s decision is based on the ‘totality of all of the factors,'” he said in an emailed response. “Third party oversite and fairness in the field of play is the most important factor.”

A message has been sent to the IBA seeking comment on USA Boxing’s decision.

The women’s world championships are in March in India. The men’s world championships are in May in Uzbekistan. They do not count toward 2024 Olympic qualifying.

In December, the IOC said recent IBA decisions could lead to “the cancellation of boxing” for the 2024 Paris Games.

Some of the already reported governance issues led to the IOC stripping IBA — then known as AIBA — of its Olympic recognition in 2019. AIBA had suspended all 36 referees and judges used at the 2016 Rio Olympics pending an investigation into a possible judging scandal, one that found that some medal bouts were fixed by “complicit and compliant” referees and judges.

The IOC ran the Tokyo Olympic boxing competition.

Boxing was not included on the initial program for the 2028 Los Angeles Games announced in December 2021, though it could still be added. The IBA must address concerns “around its governance, its financial transparency and sustainability and the integrity of its refereeing and judging processes,” IOC President Thomas Bach said then.

This past June, the IOC said IBA would not run qualifying competitions for the 2024 Paris Games.

In September, the IOC said it was “extremely concerned” about the Olympic future of boxing after an IBA extraordinary congress overwhelmingly backed Russian Umar Kremlev to remain as its president rather than hold an election.

Kremlev was re-elected in May after an opponent, Boris van der Vorst of the Netherlands, was barred from running against him. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in June that van der Vorst should have been eligible to run against Kremlev, but the IBA group still decided not to hold a new election.

Last May, Rashida Ellis became the first U.S. woman to win a world boxing title at an Olympic weight since Claressa Shields in 2016, taking the 60kg lightweight crown in Istanbul. In Tokyo, Ellis lost 3-0 in her opening bout in her Olympic debut.

At the last men’s worlds in 2021, Robby Gonzales and Jahmal Harvey became the first U.S. men to win an Olympic or world title since 2007, ending the longest American men’s drought since World War II.

The Associated Press and NBC Olympic research contributed to this report.

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