The Asian Games 2022, scheduled to be held in Hangzhou, China in September this year has been postponed by the Organizing Committee on Friday citing an increased number of COVID-19 cases in the country.
While some sportspersons and federations are able to spot potential silver linings, for the most part, India's athletes will have to adapt not only to the disruption in the schedule but also the uncertainty of planning for the Games in an Olympic qualification year.
Was this expected?
Over the last few weeks, there had been doubts over the viability of conducting the games in September. The host city of Hangzhou is less than 200km away from Shanghai, which is currently fighting a major COVID-19 outbreak and has strict restrictions in place, including a weeks-long lockdown. However, the fact that China had successfully conducted the Winter Olympics in the middle of the worldwide pandemic had led many federation officials to believe the Continental Games too would be held on schedule.
“The postponement has come as a surprise,” says Narinder Batra, the head of the Indian Olympic Association and a member of the advisory committee of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA).
“In our communication with the Organising Committee just 10-15 days ago, we were told that the Games would be happening on schedule,” he says.
What are the new dates?
The organising committee has issued a statement that the new dates for the Asian Games will be announced shortly.
However it is believed that the Games will likely be held next year “From what I know from the Olympic Council of Asia, the Games have been postponed by exactly a year,” says Batra.
Why does the postponement of the Asian Games affect athletes?
India's athletes start their preparation for major tournaments like the Asian Games well in advance.
“Every athlete needs to know exactly what they are preparing for. We had already planned out our schedule for this year a long time back. After the Asian Games a number of our athletes were to move into weight categories which would be part of the Olympic program,” says Vijay Sharma, chief coach of the Indian weightlifting team.
“The fact that the Asian Games have been postponed means that we have to make a new plan for the next year as well. But until we know exactly when the Games will be held, we can't really start making a program,” says Sharma.
Who would this affect?
The postponement of the Games will immediately impact sports in which the Asiad is the most high profile tournament this year or which – as is the case with hockey -- will serve as qualification events for the Paris Olympics.
With archery and shooting not a part of the Commonwealth Games, athletes in the two sports will be without a major multi-game competition following the Tokyo Olympics.
“There are many athletes who are reaching the end of their careers who will be looking to sign off at the Asian Games. Jinson Johnson and Swapna Hembram (gold medalists at the 2018 Asian Games) will find it hard to push themselves for an additional season,” admits Adille Sumariwalla, the president of the Athletics Federation of India.
Who could potentially benefit?
While some athletes towards the end of their career will have to find the motivation to extend their career by a year, for others the postponement will provide some breathing room in an otherwise crowded season.
“We have three big competitions this year – the World Championships (July), the Commonwealth Games (July-August) and the Asian Games (September). There was almost no rest for our athletes between these events. With the Asian Games postponed, our athletes won't have to peak three times,” says Sumariwalla. Other federations like the E-Sports Federation of India have said they would now have more time to prepare for the Games.
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Another sport to benefit could be the Indian hockey team. Previously, with the Asian Games serving as a qualification event for the Paris Olympics, the Federation had planned to send a second string squad for the Commonwealth Games. “One of the difficulties in sending a full strength team to the Commonwealth Games was the fact that our priority had been the Asian Games. Now that's not the case and I don't see anything holding us back from sending a strong team for the Commonwealth Games,” says Batra the former head of Hockey India.
Where could things be complicated?
The postponement of the Games by a year will be further complicated by the fact that 2023 is an Olympic qualification year.
“A lot will depend on when the Games will be held next year,” says Santiago Nieva, high-performance director of the Indian boxing team.
“If the games had been postponed by a few months it would have been beneficial since that would give us enough time to prepare after the Commonwealth Games. However, if it's postponed by a year, it will likely be held in the middle of the Olympic qualification cycle,” says Nieva.
According to Nieva, the International Boxing Federation (IBA) has announced that qualification for the 2024 Olympics will be ensured through multiple competitions in 2023.
“We need to know exactly how the Asian Games will fit into those plans,” says Nieva. The same thoughts are shared by the Wrestling Federation too. Should the Games have been held on schedule this year, the WFI was planning to send a second string team for the World Championships which were to be conducted almost simultaneously. Should the two events clash next year, priorities will be different. “The 2023 World Championships is a qualification event for the Paris Games. If the postponed Asian Games is held at the same time as the Worlds, our first choice team will go to the World Championships only,” says Vinod Tomar, secretary of the Wrestling Federation of India.