Tough time for India’s Olympic hopefuls

With many countries imposing travel restrictions on India to contain COVID-19, we track how it may have an impact on Indian athletes preparing for the Tokyo Olympics.

Published : May 18, 2021 15:15 IST

Postponement of events hit Saina, Srikanth hard

Hit by the pandemic, the world population is fighting a battle for survival. Economic growth has taken a beating across the globe. Employment issues have cropped up like never before. Life and livelihood continue to suffer.

In these challenging times, sporting activities are in the background. Though there have been some exceptions, like football, golf, motorsports, etc., to name a few, overall the situation is far from normal.

The Olympic Games in Tokyo, pushed back by a year to 2021, continues to be under a cloud of uncertainty. Though the International Olympic Committee has been consistent in its stand of going ahead with the Games with curbs, there has been massive disapproval of the decision within Japan.

The participating nations, in varying degrees, are preparing their athletes for the Games. Several disciplines have completed their qualification process while some others are facing major hurdles.

Badminton is one of the disciplines yet to complete the qualification process. The Badminton World Federation was the first sports body in 2020 to announce an elaborate schedule of events, but cancelled them due to the unrelenting pandemic. It announced a shortened schedule at the end of 2020 and organised a few events in a secure environment in the early part of 2021 in Thailand and Switzerland. It managed to complete the All England Championships before the second wave of the pandemic swept through several nations.

From an Indian perspective, the cancellation of the India Open and the Malaysia Open in quick succession has been the biggest jolt. Now with just one event — the Singapore Open — remaining before the final list of qualified players is arrived at, India is unlikely to add to the names of P. V. Sindhu, B. Sai Praneeth and the men’s duo of Chirag Shetty and Satwik Rankireddy.

Saina Nehwal and K. Srikanth, two former world No. 1 players in their respective sections, are set to miss out. Since there are 38 players each in the singles competition, a maximum of two players from a nation are allowed, provided they are in the top-16 bracket of the race to Tokyo rankings.

Sindhu and Praneeth, ranked 7th and 13th in these rankings, have virtually made the cut. Srikanth and Saina, placed 20th and 22nd, have reasons to feel denied a rightful crack at qualification in the face of cancellation of qualification tournaments.

As things stand, the Singapore Open is the only event left for these players to break into the top-16 rankings and join their compatriots. However, this looks improbable since not enough points are at stake for Saina to make the grade. She needs at least 7,000 points from the Singapore Open to overtake some of the players whereas the title carries only 6,000 points.

Srikanth, too, faces a similar situation. Currently, he has 42,989 points as against 16th-placed Shesar Hiren Rhustavito’s tally of 48,970 points. Now Srikanth needs to catch up with the Indonesian by doing the needful in the Singapore Open. Even that will not be enough if Vietnam’s Lee Chuek Yiu — presently placed 18th — improves his position. Since Japan and Denmark already have two or more players in the top-16, the performances of Kenta Nishmoto (17th) and Jan O Jorgensen (19) do not affect Srikanth. Though the official word is awaited, Saina and Srikanth are well aware that their chances of making it to Tokyo are over, unless there is a change in rules before the qualification window closes on June 15.

“Though four of our players have already qualified, there are few more including Saina and Srikanth who can still make it. I have reached out to BWF secretary Thomas Lund asking for clarity on the future course of action,” was how Badminton Association of India secretary Ajay Singhania reacted to the present scenario after the cancellation of the Malaysian Open.

For the Singapore Open, scheduled from June 1-6, the country’s rules for those travelling from India make it mandatory to either be in quarantine in a country other than India for 14 days before being allowed to enter Singapore.

The other alternative is the players have to be in quarantine for 21 days after entering Singapore. The BAI is exploring all means to let the players be part of the field in the Singapore Open even if it means reaching Singapore via some other country following a 14-day quarantine.

The assurance from Singhania was in place. “We will do whatever best possible can be done to find a better way out so that the shuttlers get the chance to secure the Olympic berths, if there is any scope and opportunity.”

Though Srikanth can still hope to play another Olympic Games, it seems curtains for Saina in the biggest sporting arena. Saina’s career, glittering for the better part of the last 15 years, is fast losing some of its sheen in recent times. Since January 2019, when she won the Indonesia Masters, she has not reached the semifinals in 19 appearances. The breakup reflects just five quarterfinals and 12 first-round exits! No wonder Saina is out of the reckoning for a place in the field for Tokyo.

A hip injury suffered during the recent All England is the latest of the worries for Saina. Clearly, her battered body cannot take the workload of the past.

When it comes to being medal prospects, it would be unfair to expect Praneeth and Shetty-Reddy to make it to the podium.

Even Sindhu’s recent form does not offer much hope. For instance, her semifinal appearance at the All England Championships was certainly encouraging, but overall she has been inconsistent since on-court action resumed in January in Bangkok.

Going by the world champion’s reputation of playing big events better, one hopes she is ready to do one better than what she managed in Rio in 2016.

Shooting team takes charter flight for Olympic preparation

It is already nine years since Vijay Kumar and Gagan Narang won silver and bronze medals, respectively, at the London Olympics. After the high of Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal in the air rifle in Beijing in 2008, and the breakthrough performance of Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s silver in Athens in 2004, the Olympic medal chain was broken in Rio in 2016, when India fired a blank.

Working with quiet resolve and overwhelming support from the government, Indian shooting had become a dominant force as it showed by topping the medals table in the four World Cups and the World Cup Finals in 2019.

The pandemic did not dampen spirits and Indian shooting continued to assert itself by winning 30 medals, including 15 gold, out of the overall 82 medals on offer at the World Cup at home in Delhi in March.

With the raging pandemic spreading its tentacles all around the country, there was a big question mark over the final preparation for the Indian team for the Tokyo Games in July.

Difficult situations call for different measures, and the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) came up with the master stroke of chartering a flight and sending the Indian team, of 13 rifle and pistol shooters, to train in Zagreb, Croatia, and also help it compete in the European Championships.

The International Sport Shooting Federation (ISSF) announced that Osijek, the venue for the European championship in May, would also host a World Cup for rifle, pistol and shotgun from June 22 to July 3.

So, from the idea of having a long camp, perhaps at Delhi’s Dr Karni Singh Range in tough weather conditions, the Indian team could get into the best possible final swing in Europe prior to the Olympics.

The NRAI also swiftly arranged vaccination for the shooters, coaches and support staff at their hotel in the National Capital Region near the shooting range to further facilitate a precaution against the virus.

Many shooters like Anjum Moudgil, Abhishek Verma and Apurvi Chandela had already taken their first shot of the vaccine, like the coaches Deepali Deshpande and Suma Shirur.

Even though one month had elapsed making the training plan after the Delhi World Cup, when the Olympics-bound shooters were mostly restricted to home training, the NRAI was able to plan quick to ensure the shooters compete as “guests” at the European Championships after one week of quarantine in Croatia.

“The conditions are much better in Croatia. I have already spent a year with the family. So, I can spend three months away from home, focusing on the Olympic preparation,” said World Championships silver medallist Anjum Moudgil, who will be competing in the women’s rifle 3-positions and the mixed air rifle events in Tokyo.

Not only the national coaches and foreign coaches, but also the personal coaches like Deepak Kumar Dubey, Neha Chavan and Rakesh Manpat were drafted into the squad for Europe, so that the team could have its best preparation.

“The conditions are much better in Croatia. I have already spent a year with the family. So, I can spend three months away from home, focusing on the Olympic preparation,” said world championships silver medallist Anjum Moudgil, who will be competing in the women’s rifle 3-positions and the mixed air rifle events in Tokyos.

Of course, pistol coaches Samaresh Jung, Jaspal Rana and Ronak Pandit were unable to detach themselves from home and families for such a long period, and thus only two pistol coaches, Pavel Smirnov and Ved Prakash Pilaniya, could accompany the seven shooters.

“I have been training with Jaspal sir. I will continue to get guidance from him, through video calls, etc.,” said two-time World Cup gold medallist in air pistol Abhishek Verma.

With four physiotherapists and two physical trainers, apart from a battery of nine coaches, the shooting squad had adequate expertise to tune the shooters for their best performance in the Games.

There was a discordant note as Apurvi returned a positive test for coronavirus, but it was clarified that post-vaccination on April 28, it was normal and that she would take another test soon and join the team.

Among the two shotgun marksmen with Olympic entry, the Asian champion in skeet, Angad Vir Singh Bajwa, had already been training in Italy for about a month after the World Cup in Delhi. Olympian Mairaj Ahmad Khan had lost his father and thus was unable to train for about a fortnight. He was also scheduled to train in Italy, even if he misses the World Cup in Lonato, in the second week of May.

Quite significantly, the shotgun shooters have been able to compete in three World Cups, before the last one in Osijek in 2021, while the rifle and pistol shooters could get only the Delhi World Cup, as two more were cancelled.

It was thus a great initiative by the ISSF to spring one last World Cup for rifle, pistol and shotgun, to get the shooters in their best competitive shape for the Tokyo Olympics.

While the rest of the sporting disciplines were struggling to find a ray of hope with cancelled events, flight restrictions in different countries, Indian shooting was able to get the jigsaw puzzle right, for best preparation, to reach the Land of the Rising Sun, for the Olympics.

Hockey players remain motivated

The Indian men’s hockey team restarted its international assignments after more than a year with a preparatory tour in Europe in February and an extended tour of Argentina for the Pro League games last month. The women went to Argentina and Germany.

But their competitive international assignments are effectively over with both teams likely to stay put at the SAI Centre right till the Tokyo Olympics. While the men’s upcoming FIH Hockey Pro League away matches against Spain and Germany, scheduled on May 15-16 and May 22-23, respectively, have been officially postponed due to the Covid-induced travel restrictions, home matches against New Zealand on May 29-30 are also off as per the FIH website.

“We are extremely disappointed that we can’t travel for the FIH Pro League matches due to the ensuing conditions due to Covid-19. However, this has not affected our focus or determination to improve. The players remain as motivated in their pursuit to do well at the Olympic Games,” men’s chief coach Graham Reid told Sportstar .

If these ties are not rescheduled before Tokyo, which looks highly unlikely at the moment given the massive surge in Covid cases in the country, the men are likely to be confined to training at home till their departure for Tokyo. Officials said Hockey India is in touch with the FIH to work out alternative dates for the Pro League games before the Olympics. That, though, would depend on how the Covid situation develops.

“We are extremely disappointed that we can’t travel for the FIH Pro League matches due to the ensuing conditions due to Covid-19,” said men’s hockey coach Graham Reid.

The women are no better. With no Pro League for them, there were plans to travel to the Netherlands for practice matches and training, but that too seems off and is not listed any more on Hockey India’s website. The half-a-dozen positive cases in the team recently haven’t helped. Those affected, however, remained asymptomatic and have recovered well before resuming training. Last year, seven from the men’s team had tested positive.

Women’s coach Sjoerd Marijne, though, remains hopeful the team will be able to travel to Netherlands for the planned preparatory tour although there is no confirmation yet. More than 30 countries have paused flights from India as a consequence of the second wave of the pandemic, Germany and the Netherlands among them.

Hockey India, however, has ruled out any break for the players to go home till the Olympics, unwilling to take any risk with the health of the players.

Anxious athletes and an uncertain future

They had packed their bags and were ready, waiting for their flight from Chandigarh to Mumbai and from there to Amsterdam. But with the Netherlands banning all flights from India, the Indian relay team members who were supposed to go to the World Relays at Silesia in Poland were left with very few options.

“I think we will be going but I don’t know the flight details,” said Muhammed Anas, the national record holder in the 400m, that night.

Frantic calls were made, desperate messages and emails sent too. But with very little time left, the Indians were left stranded.

“Only one day before, we got the news. They were supposed to leave on April 27th night and on the 26th night the travel ban happened. We were talking to the consulate, talking to World Athletics, talking to Poland, the consulate in Amsterdam, the consulate in Germany...can they go via Frankfurt, can they go via Dubai, can they go via Doha, can they go via Kuwait, can they go via Sri Lanka? Everywhere we tried,” Adille Sumariwalla, the president of the Athletics Federation of India, told Sportstar .

“For some 48 hours, everybody at my level was making calls, half the calls nobody was picking up, half the emails nobody was replying to.”

With that, the Indian women’s 4x100m relay team’s hopes of making the cut for the Tokyo Olympics virtually disappeared. The sprint relay team included top names like Hima Das and Dutee Chand. And the men’s 4x400m team was also looking to improve its chances of going to Tokyo through the world ranking route by clocking a good timing. Currently, India has only one confirmed spot — in the mixed 4x400m — for the Olympics in the relays.

Shotputter Tajinderpal Singh Toor is another athlete who is desperately searching for competitions to qualify for Tokyo. He has a personal best of 20.92m and the Olympic qualification standard of 21.10s is within his reach, but with flights to many countries banned because of India's rising COVID-19 cases, he is unable to travel for meets abroad.

Tajinderpal was denied a visa to fly to Iran for a competition in early April because of the worrying coronavirus situation in India.

Will the flight suspension hurt our athletes' chances of qualifying since the June 29 deadline of making the cut for Tokyo is not very far?

“I don't have an answer to that. The important question is how safe is my athlete,” said Sumariwalla.

“So what are the competitions I can give them to qualify? We have the GP, we have the (inter-state) national championship. If things are better, if it opens up, we will send them to Europe for competitions. And by June, if it doesn’t open up, then end of June we will have our Grand Prix and national championship.

“We will invite some foreign teams to come (for the relays). We are working on various permutations and combinations. But I can’t make any comment just now because all the goalposts are moving.”

Shotputter Tajinderpal Singh Toor is desperately searching for competitions to qualify for Tokyo. He has a personal best of 20.92m and the Olympic qualification standard of 21.10s is within his reach but with flights to many countries banned because of India's rising COVID-19 cases, he is unable to travel for meets abroad.

Even athletes who have qualified are anxious.

Javelin throwers Neeraj Chopra and Shivpal Singh, who have already qualified for Tokyo, along with Annu Rani, who should make the Tokyo cut based on her world ranking, were supposed to travel to Turkey along with the quartermilers for training and competitions in April. But the trip to Turkey had to be suspended as the athletes would have had to undergo a 14-day quarantine on arrival there. And Hima Das, the world under-20 400m champion, and Dutee Chand, the World University Games 100m gold medallist, are also hunting for competitions to make the cut for Tokyo in the 100 and 200m. A few others, who have made stunning progress this season, are also anxiously waiting for competitions to resume in the country in the hope of making the Tokyo cut.

A long break in training, with the Olympics less than three months away, would have played havoc with their preparations for Tokyo.

With Germany’s 2017 world champion and current world leader Johannes Vetter, hitting a massive 91.50m in a competition at home in Offenburg recently, Chopra must be hungry to try out against some big names and gain experience and confidence before going to Tokyo. But that looks very difficult under the current situation.

Like the javelin throwers, long jumper M. Sreeshankar was also planning to go abroad for training and competition.

“We were planning to go to France and applied for visas. We don’t know what stage the process is in now. And since our teams could not go for the Relay Worlds, we know there will be a problem for our travel too,” said former international S. Murali, Sreeshankar’s father who is also his coach.

“It will be super if we can get some three to four good competitions after June 15, even if it is a good domestic competition, it will be good. The chances of going abroad are very slim now, and it is risky too. But the biggest worry is the long quarantine,” explained Sreeshankar, who had five jumps over eight metres and a best of 8.26m in the Federation Cup in March which helped him to qualify for the Olympics.

“If countries insist on a 14-day quarantine, it will affect our health badly and training is very crucial now since we are close to the Olympics. If they remove the restrictions, I would definitely like to compete outside,” said the national record holder, who took his first dose of COVID vaccine recently.

“We are certainly at a big disadvantage. In Europe and everywhere, competitions are going on. The US Olympic trials will be held in June. But right now, it is safe for us to train at home (at Palakkad in Kerala).”

And with the coronavirus situation only getting worse each day, Sreeshankar and his dad feel that they could be going to Tokyo straight from India without competing in any foreign meets.

Meanwhile, the focus is now on the Olympic probables at the national camps. “We have had our COVID vaccine recently and we are training with the Olympics in mind,” said Anas from Patiala.

Impact of young boxers

Boxing is one of the disciplines which has borne the brunt of international travel restrictions due to the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in India.

The first taste of such restrictions and flight cancellation impacted the Indian youth boxers’ travel to Montenegro for the Adriatic Pearl tournament in March.

The Boxing Federation of India (BFI) had to book the tickets several times and arrange visas accordingly before the young boxers took a circuitous route to reach Montenegro just in time.

Indian boxing received the biggest blow when it lost the Asian boxing championships, which would have been an ideal competition for the home boxers in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics.

As the country experienced a crisis in April due to sharp increase in COVID positive cases, the Asian Boxing Confederation (ASBC) — which had earlier postponed the event due to the pandemic — shifted the Asian championships from Delhi to Dubai on April 27.

The continental event was scheduled to happen at the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex in Delhi from May 21 to 31.

With the home advantage gone, the Indian boxers may have to be prepared to follow the COVID protocols in the UAE prior to the competition.

WFI officials work overtime

The international travel issues had its impact on the wrestlers as well. A 12-member Indian wrestling squad was supposed to fly to Sofia, Bulgaria, via Amsterdam to participate in the World Olympic Games Qualifier (from May 6 to 9) on April 27.

However, they had to go through an anxious 48 hours as the Netherlands reportedly imposed a travel ban on Indians flying out of that country, resulting in the cancellation of tickets.

Wrestling Federation of India officials worked overtime to get clearance from the Dutch government as well as the France government before the wrestlers finally boarded a flight to Sofia via Paris on April 29 night.

No major issue for weightlifting

The Indian weightlifters did not have any major issue related to international travel restrictions.

Ace lifter Mirabai Chanu’s request to the government to let her train in the USA to treat a shoulder issue took some time to get approval amid rising COVID cases. The government officials’ proactive approach finally helped the lifter travel to the USA for her treatment and training.

Ace lifter Mirabai Chanu’s request to the government to let her train in the USA to treat a shoulder issue took some time to get approval amid rising COVID cases. The government officials’ proactive approach finally helped the lifter travel for her treatment and training.

AAI pulls team out of World Cup Stage-2

The Indian archers had a tough time as there was some uncertainty surrounding their trip to Guatemala City to take part in the World Cup Stage-1 in April.

After the completion of the event, the archers waited for a day in Guatemala City due to cancellation of their flight. On their way back, they spent 23 hours in Paris in order to catch a flight back to India.

Learning from the experience, the Archery Association of India (AAI) pulled the team out from the second stage of the World Cup scheduled to be held in Lausanne in mid-May. Even though the visa issue is said to be the primary reason for the cancellation of the tour, it is learnt that uncertainty over international flights due to rising COVID cases also made the AAI take such a decision.

Bhavani Devi continues training

C. A. Bhavani Devi, the first-ever fencer to qualify for the Olympics, is training in Italy ahead of the Tokyo Games. Bhavani is training a the Italian port city of Livorno with her coach Nicola Zanotti. The 27-year-old had left for Italy in the last week of March and will be training alongside the Italian national team as there are no major competitions in the pipeline.

Sailors on course

India has four sailors who have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics — Vishnu Saravanan (laser standard), Nethra Kumanan (laser radial), KC Ganapathy and Varun Thakkar (skiff 49er). Vishnu has left the country to train with his coach in Malta. He will also train in Vilamoura, Portugal, for a fortnight and compete in the Medemblik Regatta in the Netherlands. The 23-year-old Nethra, who became the first Indian woman sailor to seal an Olympic berth, will train in Gran Canaria for close to a month and then join Vishnu to compete in the Medemblik Regatta. Following this, she will train and compete in Hungary in the lead-up to the Games.

The 49er duo of Ganapathy and Varun are scheduled to train in Cascais, Portugal for four weeks and then participate in the Medemblik Regatta in the first week of June.

Swimming has been the biggest sufferer

Swimming Federation of India executive director Virendra Nanavati said the lockdown and ban on swimming pools meant India’s preparation for the Tokyo Olympics was already severely hit. Six Indians — Srihari Nataraj (100m backstroke), Sajan Prakash (200m butterfly), Advait Page (800m freestyle), Virdhawal Khade (50m freestyle), Aryan Makhija (800m freestyle) and Kushagara Rawat (400m, 800m and 1,500m freestyle — had secured the B-standard timings before the pandemic-enforced restrictions came into force last year.

Swimmers who have attained the ‘B’ standard can compete in Tokyo only if the total quota is not filled at the end of the qualification period on June 27.

The Indian swimmers competed in their first international meet in over a year at the Uzbekistan Open Swimming Championships last month. Despite limited avenues to prepare, Indians fared well, winning 29 medals (18 gold, seven silver and four bronze) in the meet.

Srihari Nataraj broke the national record twice in the 100m backstroke and came close to securing the A qualification mark. He fell short by just 0.22s.

But with most countries now banning commercial flight operations from India to contain COVID-19, opportunities have dwindled further for Srihari Nataraj.

Srihari Nataraj broke the national record twice in the 100m backstroke and came close to securing the A qualification mark at the Uzbekistan Open Swimming Championships last month. He fell short by just 0.22s. But with most countries now banning commercial flight operations from India to contain COVID-19, his opportunities have dwindled further.

The SFI had plans to host a FINA-accredited competition in June to give the Indians an opportunity to secure the A-cut, but the plan has been shelved due to Covid-19 surge in the country.

The federation is now trying to get the swimmers to compete in at least two or three international meets before the qualification cycle ends on June 27 — the Mare Nostrum Swim series in Monaco and France, and the final qualification meet in Italy in the third week of June.

Virendra Nanavati is not very hopeful. The Indians had to cancel a trip to South Africa due to visa restrictions.

“We are hoping they get at least one more opportunity to compete, but even if they grant visas and allow the swimmers to fly, they will be asked to quarantine without access to pools and that is not a viable option before a competition,” the SFI executive director said.

The last option for the SFI is to send one swimmer through the Universality places quota.

Rakesh Rao, Kamesh Srinivasan, Uthra Ganesan, Stan Rayan, Y. B. Sarangi, Shyam Vasudevan and Anjana Senthil.

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