For Preethi, a weightlifter, the COVID-19 lockdown has created a new challenge. Having won the silver at the state level Weightlifting Championship in 2019 under the 49 kg category, she has to now move to the 55 kg category.
“This is because my body weight has increased during the lockdown,” she says. “Since I lack exercising equipment and due to being inactive, I have put on weight. On normal days, I used to train with a load of 40-50 kg in Chennai’s Jawaharlal Nehru stadium. After the stadiums were closed, I now train at home. Here I have loads upto 20 kg. That keeps me fit but it doesn’t make me a competition-ready.”
Hundreds of sportsmen and women are fighting a physical and mental battle due to the lockdown. Unable to practise and maintain fitness levels, and with uncertainty looming over events, whether state-level, national or international, including the Olympics, they fear a loss of competitiveness, opportunities and other benefits, including jobs.
A lot of estimates have forecast losses in billions of dollars to the industry, coming from ticket sales, media rights and sponsorships.
The Centre has allowed national and international players to start training from June 1 with restrictions. However, with most athletes having gone home before the lockdown, this is not going to be easy, as poor public transport and flight travel would hinder their return. The most affected would be sportspersons who had scheduled their training abroad, as restrictions on flight travel remain in several countries.
Some sportspersons have managed to stay fit and have taken to social media to share their lockdown experiences with fans and interact with fellow sportspersons and also post workout videos.
But this is largely limited to elite sportsmen who have training facilities in their homes and can maintain a proper diet and exercise schedule. Rural sportspersons like Preethi are deprived of these facilities and maintaining their fitness is a struggle.
Fitness, a worry
“We cannot go out for jogging or hit the gym. We can do exercises in our rooms only,” says sprinter Arokia Rajiv, an Olympian from Trichy, who is now in Patiala camp and aims for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which is scheduled for July-August 2021, but faces uncertainty. Although he tries to maintain fitness levels, he says it will not help gain the stamina needed for a big event.
For the likes of B Mariammal, a Namakkal (TN)-based girl who has completed her class 12 exams and was selected last year for the Under-17 FIFA Women’s World Cup 2020, maintaining fitness levels is a difficult task.
“I was selected in July 2019. We have not participated in any event for the last 10 months. We are fully focussed on training sessions. But now, for the past two months I am at home, unable to do the kind of workout or practise we normally do in a camp,” she says.
Thankfully, for her, the tournament, which was to be held in November this year, has been postponed to February-March 2021. This is the first time India is hosting a FIFA event.
Some like coach P Nagarajan, founder of Chennai-based Prime Sports Academy, feel that rural sportspersons are the lucky ones because of the school grounds and agricultural fields they have for training.
“For, a sportsperson in the city finds it difficult since there are restrictions on movement and most of the stadiums are shut,” says the trainer of track and field events.
Nagarajan also feels that wearing masks while training will affect athletes’ physiology.
“For sprinters, if they wear masks and run, their oxygen intake will reduce and this may affect their performance.”
Nutrition is another aspect that has taken a beating during the lockdown. While players in training camps and in sports hostels are assured of a proper diet, it is difficult for sportspersons in rural areas.
“For weightlifters and powerlifters, nutrition is the main thing which helps us to keep fit and gain stamina,” says Tirunelveli-based weightlifter Mohammed Sheik who has been selected for the Asian Championship this year. “We need to eat more protein-rich food. For that, we need to spend anywhere between ₹10,000-₹15,000. For elite sportspersons, who have already made a mark in national and international events, they can manage this with the help of sponsorships and financial assistance from the government. But the champions-in-the-making need to look after themselves.”
Missing the jobs’ bus
Apart from nutrition, athletes also fear losing the option of earning a livelihood, that is, getting a government job under the sports quota. For many, promotions in these jobs are based on their performance in sports every year.
While juniors still have the option in later years to prove their mettle and get a job, for seniors, the lockdown and lack of competitions may become a bane, says Nagarajan.
Concurring with him, Coimbatore-based Tamil Nadu Powerlifting Association secretary Nagaraj, says senior players would lose their chance to get a government job because of the age bar.
“In Indian Railways, the eligible age for a weightlifter to join the job is 25. For players who are 25 now, they may miss the bus if competitions are not conducted this year. Last year, only in Tamil Nadu, we gave age relaxation for SC/ST and OBCs. Because of that, around 15 weightlifters got placed in the state forest department. But this year, the state government has decided not to take any new recruitment. So this year, even in Tamil Nadu, a weightlifter has no chance to get a government job,” says Nagaraj, who is also a member of the recruitment committee in Indian Railways.
Arokia Rajiv says worrying about missed opportunities will not get you anywhere.
“I am in the Army. It gave me full freedom to train and take part in the events. But it is difficult to expect the same kind of freedom in other government jobs. In most cases, promotions and increments are based on the performance of a sportsperson. Due to this lockdown, many have lost the chances of taking part in events. The government can change their policies according to the situation,” he says.
How women and students are affected
While male sportspersons can continue with their sports career irrespective of job or achievements, it’s not the same for female players, says Shanthi, an athlete-turned-coach based in Pudukkottai, who was embroiled in a gender controversy a few years ago.
After a certain age, rural sportswomen are pushed by their families to marry. “If at all, women prove their mettle at state or national levels, they are not allowed to pursue their career further. So, many girls aim higher and hope that this year they will achieve something. But the lockdown has shattered their dreams,” she says.
Also affected by the pandemic are school children of classes 7 to 11, especially from rural areas, who in these months of April and May get an opportunity to get into sports hostels run by Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu or even private sports academies.
On the other hand, students who have done well in sports also get fee concessions and scholarships when joining college. But now, even though the government has decided to open colleges in August, most of these young athletes will have to bear the fee burden as they were not able to prove their mettle in any competition that used to be held in April-May.
Social distancing in sports?
Many feel that the resumption of training will benefit players of individual games as social distancing will be difficult to maintain in team games.
Coach Shanthi says once the lockdown is lifted, at least individual sporting events can be conducted.
“Sports like track and field, throwing games like shot put, javelin, disc can be easily conducted with proper social distancing,” she says.
But in team sports, this is going to take a hit.
“Forget social distancing, we cannot even go to training as far as sailing is concerned,” says Varsha Gautam, a sailor based in Chennai. “All our boats are in Mumbai. The training camp is also there. But Maharashtra is not allowing outsiders now. Even if we managed to go there, we won’t have any public transport to reach our camps. However, if the training resumes, we will be comparatively safer in the ocean than on the mainland.”
Nagaraj feels even individual sports are at risk.
When gyms are opened, he says, an attendant needs to clean the tools once an athlete has done his workout. The gym must be properly sanitised. This will increase maintenance charges for gym owners. That will reflect in the fees they charge. “Suppose, if there are 100 gyms in a city, only a handful will strictly follow these procedures. So, all players will throng those gyms. This will affect the players,” he says.
Kokila, coach of Mariammal, says since the latter is the only girl from the state who has been selected for the Under-17 Women’s World Cup, it’s not going to be a problem to train her.
“Only the two of us will be on the ground. Most of the time, I coach her using videos and apps. I will make sure that she is mentally prepared,” she says.
Vaishnav, a state volleyball player, says there are many drills that do not require human contact which can be practised. “Players can treat the lockdown as an off season and work out accordingly.”
“The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” goes a saying in the Bible. But for sportspersons, it’s the other way round: The body is strong, but the spirit is weak. Most of the players have gone through some form of mental issues during the lockdown.
“Earlier, we had a sound sleep. But now, we go to bed only at 2 am or 3 am. The sleep is disturbed,” said Arokia Rajiv.
Pramila, a Grade-1 officer in the police department, too finds herself in a disturbed state. Despite attending duty and keeping up practice, she says the lockdown has shaken confidence levels.
“The ambiguity about whether the events would be conducted, about my performance, the time to regain my form, are all running in my mind constantly,” she says.
This happens not only for sportspersons but also for coaches like Shanthi. “Yes it’s depressing. My students call me over the phone to get suggestions for workouts.”
But she has found ways to manage the stress. “Besides doing other household chores, I have started to plant trees surrounding my house and plucking nails from the trees in my village. That keeps me going,” says Shanthi.
Preethi, the weightlifter, hopes she can get back in form soon. “If I restart my training in June, it will take at least 3-4 weeks to settle in the 40-50 kg category.”