Published: 11:42, May 24, 2024
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Delivering a gripping performance
By Sun Xiaochen
Veddriq Leonardo (right) of Indonesia and Wu Peng of China compete during the big final of the men's speed of sport climbing at the Olympic Qualifier Series Shanghai in East China's Shanghai, May 18, 2024. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Don't blink or you will miss it! That's the number one rule the new fans of speed climbing learned quickly, as they watched the gravity-defying action — described as "a sprint race gone vertical" — at the Huangpu Riverside in Shanghai during the Olympic Qualifier Series' first leg last week. Sixty-four elite climbers, across both men's and women's events, vied one-on-one for ranking points at the penultimate qualifier for Paris 2024.

In particular, it was the blockbuster men's final between China's world No 1 Wu Peng and Indonesian legend Veddriq Leonardo on Saturday that left the crowd in awe, as both climbers sprinted up the hold-studded 15-meter-high wall in under five seconds — even faster than many could run that distance on the track.

As a former world record holder, Leonardo cemented his leading position en route to Paris, as he outdid the host's surging world No 1 by tapping first in the final in a personal best time of 4.83 seconds, edging out Wu by 0.05 seconds.

China's world No 1 Wu Peng and Indonesian legend Veddriq Leonardo will be expected to challenge reigning world record holder Samuel Watson of the United States, who has secured a direct Olympic berth by winning last year's Pan American Games title, in Paris should they maintain their scintillating form at the final OQS event, which takes place in Budapest, Hungary, from June 20-23

Despite missing out on first place, Team China proved its golden credentials in the discipline for Paris 2024, where speed climbing will make its debut as a stand-alone medal event, with podium finishes for Wu and third-placed Wang Xinshang, and rising star Zhou Yafei dominating the women's race.

As the only two athletes consistently breaking the five-second mark in Shanghai, Wu and Leonardo will be expected to challenge reigning world record holder Samuel Watson of the United States, who has secured a direct Olympic berth by winning last year's Pan American Games title, in Paris should they maintain their scintillating form at the final OQS event, which takes place in Budapest, Hungary, from June 20-23.

Watson set the new men's speed climbing world record at 4.79 sec in a qualification run at the World Cup series meet in Wujiang, Jiangsu province, last month.

Wu hailed the Indonesian veteran's consistency as an inspiration for him to push harder to fulfill his own Olympic goals.

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Gold medalist Veddriq Leonardo (center) of Indonesia, silver medalist Wu Peng (left) of China and bronze medalist Wang Xinshang of China pose for photos during the awarding ceremony of the men's speed of sport climbing at the Olympic Qualifier Series Shanghai in East China's Shanghai, May 18, 2024. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

"He is calm and he is competitive. And he is very self-disciplined, working very hard in training," said Wu, who beat Watson in the big final in Wujiang, winning his second career World Cup title.

"My body condition is not as good as yesterday (during qualification). I don't know why. I just feel a bit tired. I thought I could climb faster, though. I didn't perform as I wanted. It makes me a little bit frustrated, but, at the same time, motivates me to do better in the next event," said Wu.

The women's race in Shanghai also bore witness to the collective strength of Team China, as all four home athletes made it to the round-of-16 battles, before Zhou stole the show by winning her first major international title.

Racing against Indonesia's world No 5 Rajiah Sallsabillah in the final, Zhou, who edged out her senior teammate Niu Di in the semis as the underdog, continued her odds-defying run by reaching the top of the wall first with a PB of 6.54 sec — drawing thunderous cheers from the Shanghai crowd.

Zhou Yafei of China celebrates after the big final of the women's speed of sport climbing at the Olympic Qualifier Series Shanghai in East China's Shanghai, May 18, 2024. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

The home win has put Zhou on top of the qualification standings, capping a perfect birthday week for the Zhejiang native, who turned 20 on May 15.

"This is the first time in my career that I finished on top of the podium at an international event. I am over the moon now," said Zhou, who was only called up to the national team last year after winning her first national title.

"I just did what the coaches asked me to do in the winter training camp. I worked as hard as I could. I actually had better results in training. I just need to be more relaxed when I climb in official competitions to be faster," Zhou said.

Gold medalist Zhou Yafei (center) of China, silver medalist Rajiah Sallsabillah (left) of Indonesia and bronze medalist Natalia Kalucka of Poland celebrate during the awarding ceremony of the women's speed of sport climbing at the Olympic Qualifier Series Shanghai in East China's Shanghai, May 18, 2024. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

At sport climbing's Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020, the event only offered a single gold medal and required athletes to compete in all three disciplines — boulder, lead and speed — being ranked from a combined score.

The Paris Games will see speed singled out as a separate medal discipline alongside boulder and lead combined, doubling the total medals on offer.

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As a fast-emerging contender in the speed discipline, Team China has already seen men's climber Long Jinbao and women's star Deng Lijuan qualify for Paris via their 2023 world championships runner-up finish and Asian Qualifier win, respectively.

The final qualifier in the Hungarian capital will see Chinese climbers go against not just international rivals, but also their own teammates, to vie for the remaining two quota places, one each for the men and women.