Thursday, 21 April 2011

Ethnicity of the UK rock climbing community

(Originally written 13/04/2008)

Mountaineering and bowls; the two sporting activities with the least in common? Maybe. But there is a trait shared by both.

Could it be the adrenaline fueled, death defying, and physically demanding nature of the two sports? Rolling the jack out at the start of a lawn bowls game can be as dramatic and exciting as scaling, say, Everest, for example.

The strategic placement, the subtle movement, the anticipation of the game that lays ahead, could easily be compared with the unknown, deathly dangerous, conquering of the tallest peak in the world. 

Or, on a smaller scale, climbing Indian Face - the classic E9 6c in North Wales - could be compared with the exhilarating, overwhelming rush of rolling the wood to within an inch of the jack and winning the World Indoor Bowls Championship.

The buzz, the thrill, the excitement.

Granted, one requires meticulous preparation, practice and conditioning of the human body and the others only requirement is that you’re aged over 75 and have an overwhelming love of custard creams, but, at a stretch, there could be a tenuous commonality between the two there.

However, there is another common factor shared by both mountaineering and bowls; they are two of the most ethnically un-diverse sporting activities in the UK.

Looking around a climbing gym, or at the crag, you may have noticed a lack of ethnic minority climbers and if you’ve ever wondered why, well, you’re not the only one.

The under-representation within mountaineering is a staggering ninety-eight per cent (98%) white to two per cent (2%) for all other ethnicities combined.

A BMC equity survey undertaken during 2006/2007 - sent to members, staff, volunteers, officials, coaches, elite performers and the national council - found that the figure did not change from the previous survey, which was run in 2000.

Sport England, “the government agency responsible for advising, investing in and promoting community sport”, also found - in their Active People Survey, which ran between October 2005 and October 2006 - that ninety-eight per cent (98%) of mountaineering participants are white.

According to the same survey, the activities that stand closest to mountaineering on these figures are bowls, at ninety-eight point four per cent (98.4%), and Golf, which has a ninety-seven point five per cent (97.5%) white majority participation.

Kamala Sen, a member of the BMC Equity Steering Group, analyzed the results from the Sport England Active People Survey and reported that “both sets of data – the BMC's and the Active People dataset – show significant differences from the general population [so] we can dismiss the idea that ethnic minorities are not interested in sport in general, but confirm the impression that they are less attracted to the sorts of outdoor sports represented by the BMC.”

So why is this the case?

The arguments for bowls and golf could be that they are regarded as very middle-class, older generation, activities, which don’t exactly inspire active participation among anyone under a certain age. There may also be psychological or socio-economic barriers to participation.

Could this same argument be used for mountaineering? The inspiring nature of climbing DVD’s and magazines, the adventure and danger involved, would surely only get the younger generation’s hearts pounding for a chance to give-it-a-go.

There is an argument saying that the dangerous uncertainty that comes with a day at the crag, the windy and cold weather, the uncomfortable surroundings, could all contribute to the slow uptake of rock climbing but this would affect all ethnicities and not just those in the minority category in the UK.

BMC membership numbers have almost doubled in the last ten years, to 63,000, and the explosion of indoor climbing walls (the BMC listed 40 public access climbing walls in 1988 and 254 in 2003), which allows people to take up climbing in a safer, warmer, more comfortable environment, surely only points to increasing participation levels.

A separate BMC survey, which looked at participation levels between 1993 and 2003, found that rock climbing went from 150,000 participants in 1993 to 1.27 million in 2003 - a trend that has surely continued over the last five years.

So, overall numbers of ethnic minority climbers must have increased between the 2000 and 2007 equity surveys in order to maintain the ninety-eight per cent (98%) to two per cent (2%) ratio but with the country as a whole becoming more diverse why hasn’t climbing followed the same trend? Why has ethnic minority participation remained much lower than national ethnic diversity figures?

The Home Office Census in 1991 stated that the population was ninety-four point three per cent (94.3%) white whereas in 2001 this dropped to ninety-two point one per cent (92.1%).

So, by these figures and following the trends, surely rock climbing should have become more diverse over the seven years between the two BMC equity surveys?

However, it hasn’t. So what barriers do ethnic minorities face within rock climbing and why have participation ratios remained the same?

It is a complex and difficult question to answer but one the BMC is trying to tackle and find solutions to.

The conclusion to the BMC’s Equity Survey Report in 2007 stated: “It is clear, throughout all the surveys, that people from non-white ethnic backgrounds are underrepresented. Addressing this imbalance must be a priority for the BMC. The next step is to consider whether there are any barriers to participation that we can work towards removing.”

Nick Colton, Deputy CEO and leader on equity at the BMC, said: “We just don’t know why this is the case because there aren’t any barriers that we can see. Maybe it’s a cultural thing that we can’t see because the BMC is not really set up for that sort of thing. It really is something we’re interested in looking into and something we’d like to see changes in but it will take some time.”

As a means of trying to address this issue the BMC has set up the Equity Steering group, which reviews their Equal Opportunities Policy and looks at barriers faced by underrepresented groups before suggesting strategies for removing those barriers.

The Chair of the Equity Steering group and recently elected Vice President of the BMC, Rehan Siddiqui, has been attempting to find answers to the issue. He said: “The survey is saying, and certainly suggesting to me, that climbing is underrepresented. It’s probably the most accurate survey of its kind but the top and bottom of it is that climbing is underrepresented by ethnic minorities.”

Rehan has been climbing for over 35 years and his recent election to VC is the highest position ever attained by an ethnic minority climber within the BMC.

Vice President of the BMC Rehan Siddiqui in the Alps
He said: “Personally, I’ve mainly noticed it on the crag as opposed to the indoor wall. That’s one of the things that we, the steering group, want to target and try to get more involvement in. This is something the BMC is being very proactive in trying to achieve.

“As part of the equity steering group, we’re trying to get to the bottom of why this is the case and what we can do to change it. That is the objective of the group. Of course, not just for the ethnic under-representation but all underrepresented groups.

“We’ve got to achieve this by action. I would like to see the change within ethnic minority climbers but that will take a lot of hard work and time to go from less than two per cent.”

However, when asked just why ethnic minority climbers are underrepresented and what barriers they face, Rehan said that he wasn’t sure but that’s what the steering group has been set up to find out.

He added: “I’ve not got fixed views on why and what can be done to change the situation. We are currently looking towards this with regards to the reasons that push ethnic minority climbers towards other sports.”

As a way of trying to discover the reasons behind the lack of diversity in rock climbing the BMC has drawn up an Equity Action Plan for 2007 to 2009, which has set objectives to identify and remove the barriers to participation.

“In terms of how to change this, there are all sorts of things the group has been looking at. One idea is role models for ethnic minority climbers, which could really help. If you go to a climbing wall in the inner cities, I’ve increasingly seen Asians climbing which is a step in the right direction. Dalvinder [Sodhi], for example, has achieved great things in climbing,” added Rehan.

Sodhi is one of only a handful of highly achieving ethnic minority climbers in the UK - having climbed F8a+, onsighted F7c and bouldered up to V10.

Role models, such as Sodhi, and “a greater representation of people from ethnic minority backgrounds in elite teams” is just one idea the steering group has outlined in its action plan. The group also plans to review recruitment policy, target selection criteria, train staff involved in recruitment, change the format and content of BMC application material, as well as ensure that grievance, disciplinary, and complaints procedures are in place.

Another highly achieving ethnic minority climber, Trevor Massiah, has his own ideas as to why climbing is so underrepresented by ethnic minorities and what can be done to change this.

He said: “If you think back to about 50 years ago and the working classes getting into climbing; it took time. Now if you look at the immigrants coming into the UK and this two per cent figure, it may just take a lot longer for that to change.

“I’m not sure how much difference role models will make in the sport, if any. But I’m convinced that over time participation among ethnic minorities will increase.”

Trevor has been climbing for over 25 years and has established routes all over the world, including China, India, Thailand and Australia. He is one of the most accomplished afro-Caribbean climbers in the UK and has been working as a mountaineering instructor for almost twenty years.

Trevor Massiah
“I’m not sure I ever felt it was underrepresented,” said Trevor, who believes the two per cent figure might not be an accurate representation. “The BMC figures were the lowest I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure how massively underrepresented, compared with the national figures, climbing is – I don’t think it is really.”

Originally from Bristol, Trevor said that it also depends on the area you’re from as to how many ethnic minority climbers you will see at the wall. He added: “The Bristol climbing wall is a classic example as it’s in an ethnically diverse area and it’s probably more of a five per cent representation in that area. If you have a wall that’s in an ethnic area then obviously the diversity will be different.”

At the beginning of his climbing career, however, the lack of diversity among climbers was quite noticeable Trevor said.

“When I started climbing about twenty-five years ago, in 1984, it was especially noticeable that there weren’t many black climbers that I’d heard of. I guess when the Bristol climbing wall opened there were about three or four black climbers.”

Claiming that participation increases are relatively slow for rock climbing, Trevor said this may also affect any changes in diversity.

“Because climbing is an extreme sport the uptake is going to be slower because it takes a certain person to get into it, which is why climbing is different from other sports.

“It doesn’t necessarily explain why more people don’t actually take up climbing and follow it up though. I think that, again, lots of poor and immigrant kids see sports as a way out of their environment. If we look at sport that’s going to allow you to escape from that environment and break away then they will choose football or some other sport. Boxing for example – there are way more black boxers and again it’s something that helps them escape that inner city area.

“It’s just escaping the working class by being astute - it was lucky for me to get a job that allowed me to escape my own environment - but this cant always be the case and if the rest of the world doesn’t have that, well they choose other things.

“The outdoor life is really good from an exciting point of view but it isn’t going to make you rich.”

When asked how he would go about increasing participation levels, Trevor said: “I don’t think there’s any way of doing that really unless we go into schools. The only way to do that is to get them into indoor climbing. If schools had cheap, affordable access to climbing walls I could see that increasing participation - kids taking part would thrive at that level. You’ve got to get people when they’re young.

“I’ve had long conversations with students on this subject and it’s a difficult one but they’re just my ideas,” added Trevor.

One way of unlocking this issue could lay with the kids; in targeting the younger generation rather than changing the ingrained habits of the older.

The barriers standing in the way of participation among ethnic minorities seem to be largely due to social backgrounds rather than any racial prejudices or lack of opportunities.

A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in April 2007 stated that “the poverty rate for Britain’s minority ethnic groups stands at 40%, double the 20% found amongst white British people”.

So, as Trevor claimed, as a means of escaping their “environment”, ethnic minorities may be more inclined to choose sports that will allow them to do that.

Maybe the issue is not one of ethnicity but of socio-economic status and overcoming those barriers by one of the most readily available means – sport. Of which, rock climbing might not be especially useful.

Increasing ethnic minority participation in rock climbing could require changing its perception among the younger generation so that it’s seen as a means to improve fitness and as a catalyst for social interaction.

As a way of escaping social boundaries rock climbing might not be the answer, but as a way of spanning those boundaries and helping different classes, ethnicities, people, interact in a sociable, friendly environment, then few sports could do better.

Showing them that, while rock climbing won’t take you from rags-to-riches, it can still be an escape, a freedom, from their environment.

The only thing left to do is get more people from ethnic minorities on the wall – and that may just be a matter of time and patience than anything else.