As Covid-19 cases rise, India’s Olympic readiness feels the pressure

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The coronavirus pandemic sweeping across India – more than 200,000 people tested positive for the virus on Friday – threatens to disrupt preparations for India’s Olympic contenders. With less than 100 days of the start of the Tokyo Olympics, those in or around teams have contracted the virus, preschools and tournaments are being rescheduled, and logistics officials are considering fine-tuning their biosecurity protocols.

The most affected places are Delhi, Bengaluru and Pune, where Olympic hopefuls or those who have already qualified are based or in training camps. The virus is only expected to peak a month or so later, which has added to fears that some of India’s best prospects may be affected. Indian Olympic Association (IOA) President Narinder Batra has already laid out a possible scenario: “We don’t know what the correct Covid protocols will be but, say, in hockey, if we have four positive cases, we probably will have to withdraw our team from the Olympics, ”he said in a meeting with the sports minister and other officials on Thursday.

Rising cases

Of the 90 Indians who have qualified for the Olympics so far, 10 (six in the men’s hockey team, two in boxing and two in wrestling) have tested positive for the virus last year. As is doubles badminton player Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, who is almost certain to qualify for Tokyo.

Read: “I began to imagine that every little thing was a coronavirus”

Others on the outskirts of qualifying have tested positive in India’s ongoing second wave of infections. At the Sports Authority of India (SAI) facilities in Bengaluru, at least four track and field athletes – Asian Games gold medalist in the 1500m Jinson Johnson, steeplechaser Chinta Yadav, long-distance runner Parul Chaudhury and walker Eknath – as well as running trainer Alexander Artsybashev had tested positive earlier this week.

Although it was widely reported that Priyanka Goswami, a runner to run to Tokyo, was also on this list, the athlete herself denied the news and made it clear that it was another athlete by her name. who had contracted the virus. In Lucknow, six members of the Indian Women’s Wrestling Camp, including 2018 world bronze medalist Pooja Dhanda, tested positive this week.

CA Kuttappa, the head coach of the Indian men’s boxing team, and 11 other members of the Indian boxing contingent, including Asian silver medalist Deepak Kumar, tested positive the last week of March. They were in quarantine at the National Sports Institute (NIS) in Patiala. Although the positive test prevented him from traveling with other members of the national team to Moscow for a training competition, Kuttappa was just happy his battle with the coronavirus was over. “It’s just a relief for the team that we can resume our work for the Olympics,” said Kuttappa.

And, as Kuttappa recovered, news broke on Thursday that 22 members of the women’s boxing camp at Indira Gandhi Stadium in New Delhi tested positive. Positive cases include head coaches Mohammad Ali Qamar and Rafael Bergamasco, as well as the women’s team, which subsequently had to withdraw from a tournament in Serbia.

Earlier this month, the Indian judo team had to be pulled from the Asia Oceania Judo Championships – a major Olympic qualifying tournament – in Kyrgyzstan after two team members tested positive for the virus.

Read: Sushila’s Olympic dream on hold after judo team withdraws from qualifying due to Covid-19

Limiting activities

As cases increased, athletes, coaches and officials had to modify or even reduce training activities.

After Dhanda and others tested positive, the national wrestling camp in Sonepat and Lucknow was shut down. Officials from the Indian Wrestling Federation (WFI) said the camps would restart towards the end of the month.

In badminton, where the qualifying process is not yet complete, the status of next month’s Indian Open – a key qualifying event – has been impacted following the withdrawal of several top players like Carolina Marin, Ratchanok Intanon and Anders Antonsen – likely due to strict quarantine rules ahead of the New Delhi tournament.

Some Indian players are also reluctant to travel from their base in Hyderabad to New Delhi, which recorded more than 19,000 cases of Covid-19 on Friday. “The kind of situation Delhi is in right now, how are we going to organize this tournament?” »Asks a top Indian player. “It doesn’t seem like the best idea to travel to a place that’s worse than where we are. “

The Badminton Association of India (BAI), however, is optimistic. “We are going to host the tournament in a bio bubble and we are completely in preparation mode,” said a senior BAI official. The IPL currently taking place in six cities in India despite the virus gives hope.

New protocols

Sports officials say they are doing what they can. In response to a question about what was being done to keep athletes safe, the ISC issued a statement indicating that it had issued new Standard Operating Protocols (SOPs). “The SOP includes regular RT-PCR testing of athletes on a weekly basis… ISC centers where Olympic athletes train have been color coded so that Olympic athletes and coaches have no physical contact with other people. on campus as administrative staff. In addition, staggered training schedules have been established to ensure athletes’ physical distance… ”SAI said in its statement.

“Getting the vaccine gives you a kind of mental relief. We always wear our masks and must follow protocols wherever we travel. “

Archer Tarundeep Rai

Within individual ISC centers, administrators go further. “We have provided thermometers and pulse oximeters to all of the athletes who are in isolation. Every four hours, they are required to post a 30-second reading of their temperature and oxygen saturation level on the WhatsApp group which also includes our doctors. Almost all of the National Center of Excellence (NCOE) athletes have returned to their respective homes, and we only have National Campers at this time. The idea is to have a small number of athletes here so it’s easier to control and monitor, ”says an official from ISC Bengaluru.

Vaccination

The surest solution to face the current crisis is, of course, to vaccinate at least the athletes and coaches qualified for the Olympic Games. The plan to vaccinate Olympic athletes – or give them top priority – was first proposed by Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju in November last year, but there has been no progress on the issue. , the Department of Health apparently reluctant to move on the issue. .

A few athletes and coaches, however, managed to get vaccinated either by being on the priority list for vaccination, on their own, as was the case with wrestler Bajrang Punia, if they were in the armed forces – such as with national pistol trainer Samresh Jung – or training in a military installation.

The four Olympic archers – Tarundeep Rai, Atanu Das, Pravin Jadhav and Deepika Kumari – based at the SAI Center of the Army Sports Institute in Pune have already received both doses of the vaccine. Maharashtra is currently among the most affected Covid states. Although a few national campers were infected with the virus last year, no active cases have been reported among athletes at the center currently. “Getting the vaccine gives you a kind of mental relief. We always wear our masks and have to follow protocols wherever we travel, ”says Rai.

Kuttappa and others like him will also need to rely on the following protocols. “We only have about three months to go to the Olympics. We will adhere to all safety standards as strictly as possible, but we must continue to train as effectively as possible. We have the pressure of expectations on us for the Olympics. It is important. too, ”he says.

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