More than 90 athletes across 11 disciplines have made the cut to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, but many are still waiting in the fringes. However, with the cancellation of events and travel restrictions still in place owing to the pandemic, the athletes are experiencing mayhem ahead of the mega-event.
One year down the line, many Indian athletes are facing the same conundrum that they faced during the first lockdown, that started in March 2020. Within a span of 12 months, the consolation of ‘we got more preparation time for the Olympics’ to their situation now which screams ‘less preparation ahead of Olympics’, we have seen it all. However, the question arises - even after a one-year postponement, will the Indian athletes find themselves in a better place when they reach Tokyo?
For instance, Badminton, one of the more popular sports in India and a medal earner in the last two Olympics, has suffered consistent bumps along the way due to the pandemic. While Indian shuttler Kidambi Srikanth was left with a bleeding nose during the Thailand Open last year, false Covid-19 reports forced Sai Praneeth to skip the tournament altogether. It might not sound like a big hassle, but these petty incidents amalgamate to form disturbing outcomes.
Multiple Covid-19 tests and mandatory Covid-19 protocols including bio-bubble are the new normal ahead of any tournaments. While it ensures the players’ safety, the cramped schedule has left no space for the athletes to breathe in their own space. Quite justifiably, Srikanth blamed the Covid-19 pandemic for robbing the athletes’ freedom to train as per their convenience. From a neutral standpoint, players across the globe had to do with similar snags, but with the monstrous second wave in India hitting hard and less than 100 days to go for the Olympics, there’s no way that things are becoming even easier anytime soon for the contingent.
For instance, PV Sindhu and Sai Praneeth are assured of Tokyo berths, while compatriots Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth are expected to contest for the same in the upcoming tournaments in Malaysia and Singapore. But, with the travel restrictions in place owing to the surge in cases, direct flights to the venues are scrapped for the time being, which has forced the players to reach the destination via Qatar. Not only are they travelling more, which exponentially increases the prospect of contracting the virus, but the supplementary protocols again circles back to the problems mentioned above, with no convenience whatsoever.
Wrestling, one of golden ducks for India at multi-sport events in the recent past, promises dearer returns in Tokyo – if all of them qualify for the meet. Apart from the six confirmed entrants, nine other grapplers were summoned by the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) for the World Olympic Qualifier, to be held in Bulgaria. With all of them set to travel to the European nation via Amsterdam, the plans had to be changed at the 11th hour, owing to the Netherlands government imposing a ban on Indian flights. The WFI huffed and puffed to arrange for tickets via Paris.
The women’s 4*100m relay team missed their opportunity to qualify for the mega-event at the World Relays, in Poland, after their ride was cancelled owing to similar reasons. With the windows to get through to the main event diminishing each day, there are high probabilities many might not make it to the Games, leave aside winning medals. The situation could well turn India’s campaign into a weak one, flushing the hopes of a double-digit medals tally in Tokyo, as expected by Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju.
The shooting contingent, another strong area for India at the Games, find themselves in a race against time to get in their best shape ahead of the showdown. Several shooters have tested positive for the deadly virus, while the others have been devoid of action with the national training camps cancelled. It is logically impossible to have the camp at the Dr. Karni Singh Shooting Range, in New Delhi, with the burning situation in India’s capital region. The NRAI have wisely opted to shift the base for the shooters to Croatia, where the Tokyo-bound athletes can train without any external infringement.
The BFI (Boxing Federation of India) are also reconsidering their decision to send pugilists to the Asian Championships in Dubai, later this month citing health concerns. On the other hand, the Indian women’s archery team, which is set to play their best trick up the sleeve to secure a quota for the Games, at the World Cup Stage 3 in Paris in June, are still unsure about what will happen next, while the kayaking and canoeing team have missed the chance to secure berths, with them failing to turn up for the Asian qualifiers after Thailand government imposed a travel ban. The optimistic AAI (Archery Association of India) are ‘hoping’ that the travel restrictions will be lifted by the time the event arises. But that’s a bet no one would dare to put their money on.
In most of the above cases, a solution has been worked out, but to what extent the athletes are going to be benefitted is only for the future to say. It's a national emergency and there’s no way that the National Sports Federations (NSF’s) could have done more within their capacity. More than 3000 people are succumbing to the virus each day, which is why we cannot ponder why our athletes’ are not enjoying the facilities that they should be given. Parallelly, the troublesome schedule in the build-up to the Games, coupled with stringent rules is undoubtedly going to take a toll on the body.
Moreover, India is suffering the most right now, which coincides with the last lap of the preparations ahead of the quadrennial event. Now, while the Tokyo Olympics is very likely to take place, it does put the contingent in a slightly disadvantageous position when the show begins. Moreover, nothing beyond an immediate slump in Covid-19 cases, which is highly unlikely, can even out the situation, but we should be prepared for the ongoing trend. Even though there’s no excuse for underperforming at the Japanese capital, India might have to keep certain aspects in consideration before scrutinising final results.
India might have to view the final medals’ tally through tinted glasses specially created by fabled inventors with this particular situation in mind.