Olympics a few months away, but are Indian athletes prepared?

The 91-member Indian contingent faces an uphill task of keeping itself ready for the grand sporting event in Tokyo in the wake of a devastating second COVID wave

The Indian women's hockey team visited Argentina in January to train and practice ahead of Tokyo Olympics. This was the team's first overseas tour since COVID-19 pandemic. Pic: Twitter

Amid hullabaloo over suspension of IPL 2021 and the subsequent talk of rescheduling the remainder of the tournament, India’s preparations for the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled to start on July 23 this year, seem to have got badly affected.

The 91-member Indian contingent faces an uphill task of keeping itself ready for the finale while the Olympic hopefuls, who are looking for ways to secure a quota place, find their hopes of making the cut dashed in the wake of a devastating second COVID wave that has swept the nation since April this year.

Practice sessions have become irregular and participation in international events is impossible due to travel ban on Indians the world over.

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This time the Indian contingent is good enough to win a whopping 17 medals, including four gold, a feat the country has never achieved since Indian athletes first competed in the Olympics independently in the 1920 Antwerp Games.

The month of March was full of hope for the athletes as the pandemic showed a downward curve, with the country reporting around 10,000 positive cases a day compared to 87,000 last September. They were gearing up to participate in as many international tournaments as possible to make the best use of the little time left in the run-up to the Games after most of 2020 was lost in fear, anxiety and uncertainty.

Come April and the horror of 2020 returned with more infectious variants of the coronavirus entangling the entire nation. Athletes suffered a blow too.

Athletes down with COVID

Jinson Johnson, the 2018 Asian Games gold medallist in 1500m running, is now nowhere close to his best. He got infected last month during his stay at Sports Authority of India (SAI) Bengaluru centre. Since then the 30-year-old track and field athlete from Kerala has lost all the gains that he made over the last four years. He is now not ready for Olympics. “I feel very tired, my muscles are weak and I still have problems breathing,” said Johnson, who had secured his Tokyo berth in August 2019, breaking his own 1,500m national record (3:37.62).

“If I am fit, I’ll do the Grand Prix in June,” he said.

The Kerala athlete is not the only one who has been suffering from the pandemic blues. Women’s boxing medal hopeful Simranjit Kaur, shooters Saurabh Chaudhary, Rahi Sarnobat and Apurvi Chandela and several other members of the Indian women’s hockey team, including captain Rani Rampal, recently tested positive while training at the national camp in Sports Authority of India (SAI) centres.

Though these athletes recovered successfully, they couldn’t return to intense training as they still suffer from fatigue and muscle weakness, not to speak of the mental blockade after missing out on several practice sessions at a time when the Olympics is just two and half months away.

Travel ban hurt Indian athletes’ preparations too

Fear of getting infected is not the only problem that has bogged down India’s Olympics-bound athletes. International travel ban, just months before the mercurial sporting event in Tokyo, has also left Indian athletes in a shamble.

The National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) is the only exception among all national sports federations as the Association officials sent the 13-member shooting contingent to Europe on a charter plane because training in India was impossible. The shooters have since set up their training base in Zagreb (Croatia). From there, they will move to Osijek (Croatia) to play the European Championship starting May 20, followed by a full-fledged World Cup, which will begin on June 22 at the same venue, before directly proceeding to Tokyo for the Olympics.

This proactive move of NRAI came as a boost for the shooters, who are tipped to make podium finishes in Tokyo after their fantastic performances in the recent World Cup in March in Delhi, where they won 30 medals, including 15 gold.

Besides shooters, wrestlers are the only other Olympics-bound athletes who are in the competition-mode at present. The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) had to face many hurdles to participate in World Olympic Qualifiers in Sofia (Bulgaria). With the Netherlands not allowing Indians into Amsterdam, wrestlers’ tickets were cancelled at the last moment, but the WFI managed to send the 10-member team to Sofia via Paris. In the Bulgarian capital, two Indians –  Seema Bisla and Sumit Malik – earned their tickets to Tokyo, bolstering the eight-member wrestling team’s chances of winning the country’s sixth Olympic medal, possibly a gold.

Shooters are at present India’s best medal hopes. It will be surprising if they don’t return home with more than one medal, given their dominating show in the ISSF World Cups in the last couple of years. Their emergence as a mighty force in international shooting sport may be the reason why the Croatian Embassy in New Delhi provided visa to the Indian shooters as their presence will raise the standard of the competition.

India’s athletes in track and field, badminton, archery and boxing still see no light at the end of the tunnel.

The Indian track and field athletes are not seen as very strong medal hopefuls. Therefore, the Athletics Federation of India’s (AFI) bid for a Schengen visa (a short-stay visa that allows a person to travel to any member of the European Union) has received a cold response. India’s 4×100 women’s and men’s relay teams were not allowed to board the KLM flight to Amsterdam from where they would have travelled to Chorzów in Poland, the venue for the World Athletics Relay. Therefore, AFI couldn’t make any last-minute arrangement, resulting in a loss of opportunity for the women’s relay team which had a fair chance of qualifying for the Olympics.

Also read: Training of Olympic-bound athletes to resume once lockdown ends: Rijiju

India’s summer a hindrance in training?

Hot and humid weather also makes it difficult for athletes to maintain high-intensity training.

Athletes fear that training in India in summer can cause burnout. Sports medicine physician Dr Sudeep Satpathy, however, doesn’t agree with them. “In Tokyo, the temperature will be more than 30 degrees Celsius and humidity level will be around 70 per cent. So training in India is a not bad idea. There will be no favourites. Anybody in his or her best physical shape can win a medal. All depends on fitness,” said Dr Sapathy, who is working with the Indian men’s national hockey team.

India’s prospects in Tokyo 

Lack of intense training and competition time may not help our athletes fair well in Tokyo. “What we need is to build up to peak. We run a competition, we build up, train, and then run another competition. But we have not been able to get Schengen visas so far,” said AFI President Adille Sumariwalla.

Fear of infection high

Athletes are afraid of contracting the virus all the time. Therefore, AFI resisted from making them travel from one city to another to prevent exposure to the infection. So, the need of the hour is to find practice locations for our athletes in cooler climate of Europe. But the AFI has failed to make the provision.

The AFI’s bid to send athletes to South Africa, Turkey, Poland and the Czech Republic in recent time has not materialised in the wake of travel ban on Indians in Europe and the detection of a new variant of the virus in South Africa.

Javelin throwers, Neeraj Chopra and Shivpal Singh, were desperately looking for ways to get out of India, because they are not getting enough training at NIS Patiala.

For veteran table tennis player Sharath Kamal, who will be playing his fourth Olympics, and his doubles partner Manika Batra, travelling inside the country has become difficult. While 38-year-old Sharath lives in Chennai, Batra trains in Pune, Maharashtra, one of the worst-hit states of India. Hence travelling is not advisable for them. They are not sure of sharing enough table time together ahead of the Olympics.

For the 11-member boxing contingent, which tested positive for COVID-19 in the last week of March, the scene is no different. Boxers have been stuck at NIS Patiala since participating in the Moscow World Cup. Because boxing is a contact sport, most countries are afraid of hosting Indian boxers.

Also read: It’s official: IPL can’t happen in India this year

Among all the athletes, shuttlers have possibly suffered the worst blow. Three key Olympic qualifying tournaments – India Open, Malaysia Open and Singapore Open – got postponed.

Saina Nehwal, who is ranked 22nd, and her compatriot Kidambi Srikanth, ranked 20th, had chances of qualifying, but not anymore. This will be the first time Saina will not play in the Olympics since the 2008 Beijing Games. In their absence, PV Sindhu, B Sai Praneeth and the men’s doubles pairing of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty will lead India’s smallest badminton contingent since London and Rio Olympics.

Meanwhile, the Indian men’s and women’s hockey teams’ tours of Europe also got cancelled. The Indian teams were scheduled to play top teams like the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany and Spain this month, but as these countries red-flagged India due to the threat of infectious, both teams have been stranded in SAI Bengaluru now.

With New Zealand’s tour of India (scheduled for May end) uncertain now, the only series which is remaining for the Indian men’s team is Malaysia in June. But the tournament will happen only if the situation improves in both the countries. Otherwise, India will have to fly to Tokyo without match practice.

Slow vaccination  

Another important thing that has gone against Indian athletes is the slow pace of COVID vaccination. As it stands now, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has made it mandatory for all participating athletes, their coaches and support staff, to get vaccinated to ensure a hassle-free Olympics in Tokyo.

Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju had raised the demand to keep Olympics-bound athletes on the priority list of vaccination process last November. The Ministry of Health, however, didn’t consider Rijiu’s request.

In contrast, countries like the US, UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Canada, South Korea and Russia took IOC’s order seriously and accelerated the inoculation process of their athletes. These nations realize the value of athletes’ hard work.

So far, only the hockey teams and shooters have got their first jabs. A few coaches and athletes either received the vaccine because they were based in army training camps or they made efforts on their own. Six Olympics-bound athletes –  archers Tarundeep Rai, Atanu Das, Pravin Jadhav and Deepika Kumari and boxers Mary Kom and Lovlina Borgohain –received the vaccines because they have been training at Army Sports Institute, Pune, while wrestler Bajrang Punia and national pistol shooting coach Samaresh Jung got the jabs because they are employed with the Army.

Scattered vaccination of a few athletes will not ensure the safety of the entire contingent. The Indian track and field athletes were not allowed to enter Poland because they did not get the jabs. Besides, the sports administrators need to understand that vaccination causes temporary exhaustion, which could hamper their training.

The truth is India and its government cares little for its athletes in particular and and Olympics in general. It will not be wrong to say that India is still far behind when it comes to rearing the culture of Olympism compared to their QUAD partners – Australia, Japan and the United States.

The second COVID wave has already exposed India’s broken medical system. Hence, a poor show in the Olympics will further dent India’s global image.

Putting up a good performance in the Olympics is of utmost importance for any nation. It symbolises a progressive outlook of the government towards its citizens.

The grand show at Tokyo, to be held in a bio-secure bubble in front of empty stadiums, will go on as scheduled. What remains to be seen is will India be able to make its presence felt on such a big platform?

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