Uncertainty continues to cloud athletics restart

The Athletics Federation of India has announced a provisional mid-September start to the season but with a spike in COVID-19 cases there is uncertainty over meets happening this year.

India’s national long jump record holder M. Sreeshankar with his father S. Murali during a training session. “After tennis stars Novak Djokovic and Grigor Dimitrov, two of the fittest athletes in the world, tested positive it’s clear that all of us have to take a lot of precautions to stay safe,” says the youngster.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Despite being tied down with a three-month lockdown, the number of coronavirus cases in the country is rising alarmingly each day. But one thing many have noticed is that the fear of the virus is long gone.

“It’s all about being responsible but that’s missing here,” said N. Annavi, the former high jump national record holder from Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu.

“Everyone is taking it casually. Some of my friends even wanted to go on a trip. I keep telling them, only the fear has gone but the virus is still around,” said long jump national record holder M. Sreeshankar from Palakkad in Kerala.

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“We were really overconfident that we are athletes, that we are fit, that the virus wouldn’t hit us but after tennis stars (world No. 1 Novak) Djokovic and (Grigor) Dimitrov, two of the fittest athletes in the world, tested positive, it’s clear that all of us have to take a lot of precautions to stay safe.”

The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) has announced a provisional mid-September start to the season, but with the COVID-19 cases increasing in a big way and the restrictions on travel, there is a cloud of uncertainty over meets happening this year.

“I don’t think it will. If you look at the way the coronavirus numbers are going up in states like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Delhi, national meets happening this year is very much doubtful,” said S. Murali, Sreeshankar’s father and coach.

Sreeshankar has resumed training and he’s fortunate too since he virtually has the long jump pit all for himself at Palakkad’s Medical College ground.

“We do our normal training. He is in good form. The rain is the only hitch. If they have a competition in September or October, he will compete,” said Murali.

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The AFI has decided to stick to its September 12 start for the season and its president Adille Sumariwalla explained that there was no reason to change things now.

“As far as competition goes, our first event is in September. We have five or six competitions in September and October and we plan to have them if things are fine and safe for our athletes,” said Sumariwalla.

“If we can’t, we will have to move the start slightly to October. It’s very important that our athletes have some competition before they move into pre-season for the Olympic year. But if doesn’t happen and if the whole world is under threat, we will have to take a call at that time.

“If it worsens, we may not be able to have the Olympics, then everything changes. Whatever we are doing today is keeping the Olympics in mind. If the Olympic Games are not happening, the indoor Worlds are not happening, then naturally everything changes. We will have to rethink our whole strategy. Then we have to prepare for the 2022 Worlds.”

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Grass greener on the other side!

With athletes training behind closed doors at national camps, there is a feeling in some quarters that campers will do very well when competitions resume.

“I feel whoever is in the national camp will do better. They have started training. For others, I think it will be difficult, we don’t have the basic amenities to train,” said Annavi, from Railways, who also coaches high jumpers. “The main thing is, we need some 16 weeks of training before the start of the season since we are coming from a three-month lockdown. Otherwise, it could lead to injuries.”

“We have five or six competitions in September and October and we plan to have them if things are fine and safe for our athletes,” said AFI president Adille Sumariwalla.   -  FILE PHOTO/ GETTY IMAGES

 

M. Riaz, a prominent sprints coach in Chennai, agrees with Annavi. “I don’t know how much athletes at the national camp are training but for our athletes, it is zero training,” he said.

But Sumariwalla feels the non-campers have an advantage. “Actually, people outside are training better than in national camps. At the national camp, there are a lot of restrictions. Those who are outside the national camp have no restrictions,” he said.

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European model

So, how will the nationals look in the new world? Will there be a lane’s gap in the 100m? Will relay runners be wearing gloves? How will the long distance events be managed?

“Regarding the changes that could happen, I don’t have the answer today. We will follow World Athletics and in Europe, competitions have already started. We will follow the same model,” said Sumariwalla.

But P. I. Babu, the secretary of the Kerala State Athletics Association, feels that this year could be an empty one.

“If you look at the current coronavirus trend, I see very little chance of anything happening this year. If you want to organise a football tournament in a closed stadium, you just need some 22 to 30 people, but in athletics the number of athletes could be around 1000, so it will not be easy,” said Babu.

“Conducting a competition may not be very difficult, but the accommodation for athletes... that is often miserable. In senior championships, some four or five athletes stay in a room, and in junior national meets, we have even had 10 to 15 in a room. So you can imagine the risks involved.

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“It’s not like any international meet where you stay in quality hotels and enjoy good transportation.” Kashinath Naik, a former Commonwealth Games javelin throw bronze medallist, feels that the nationals could have a smaller field this time.

“I don’t think the competitions will be open to everybody, they may have the top 10 in each event. All states fielding two entries may not be possible in the new situation,” said Naik who coached women’s national record holder Annu Rani a few years ago.

With so many possibilities, this season could offer a new experience.