What is safe in the times of COVID-19?

Every sport must look to have a test event at the local level before even thinking of visualising larger participation at an elite level.

Safety concerns: In this picture taken on April 21, children play cricket in a street in Madurai despite a nationwide lockdown.   -  R. Ashok

When is the best time to resume sport? No one knows! No one can say with authority the best time to resume sport – locally, nationally or internationally. Coaches are apprehensive. So are the players. There is a concerted drive to keep the debate going if athletes, those aiming to seek glory on platforms like Olympics and other prestigious world events, should be allowed to train. But then what do they train for when nothing in the near future is certain to happen in the sporting fraternity? Olympics? T20 World Cup? Football Leagues?

But then a sportsman can’t be shackled. Especially those who had trained for the Olympics which got postponed or the Indian Premier League (IPL) which also stares at the possibility of being termed a non-starter this season at least.

The discussions in cricket circles have been related mostly on how would COVID-19 impact the game whenever it resumes? Would it be prudent to permit the use of saliva on the ball? What would be the new playing conditions keeping in mind the social distancing norms in force? In times when the safest place on earth is your home, how would you rate the safety at a ground or a track or a pool?

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The tennis authorities are working on a protocol to revive activities. Football is aiming to become the first sport to have on-field action even if in-camera. Competitions involving individual opponents, like tennis, table tennis, shooting, golf, are considered to be ‘safe’ for resuming action. Chess has already launched an online competition involving some top stars. But what is safe in times of COVID-19?

‘Fear factor’

According to some sportsmen, preferring to remain anonymous, it would be a humongous task for sport to see action on the field. The common concern was “safety of the players.” Gloves, mask, sanitizers might well become an integral part of the playing gear for sportsmen but the “fear factor” would make the majority think twice before plunging into sporting activity.

Many observed that every sport must look to have a test event at the local level before even thinking of visualising larger participation at an elite level. Cricket, for example, can look at a contest at a local level involving two teams from the top division. “A committee should be formed of medical experts, bureaucrat, police, officials and coaches to plan a realistic process of how to resume sports. In any case, sports can’t be the top priority in these testing times but then we can’t just sit back inactive,” said a former India cricketer.

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Efforts could be made at tennis courts in municipal sporting facilities. “Under strict scrutiny obviously,” emphasised a former India player. “We can start with a restricted number of trainees and see how it goes. It would also give some work for the support staff working at such centres – small in number but never mind. Based on the experience at the local level we can have a long-term plan even if the actual competitions could be far away in the future.”

‘Practice sessions’

To begin with the authorities, a cricketer suggested, should look at introducing a protocol for training. “They should look at practice sessions with a small number of players. You can choose five grounds in a city and see the response. How many parents allow their kids to venture out? If they come, how are you going to organise the training under strict norms of social distancing? Each player would have to be handed a ball which only he can use. To me the most important is what kind of confidence building measures we would take.”

Among the team events, cricket and football rank as the most popular in India. “At any given time, we are going to have 30 players, 10 support staff, 10 organising officials, say for a cricket or a football match. We can have a contest to test the conditions. Ideally, players may need to travel not more than 10 kilometres. Instead of looking at the bigger picture of cricket or football involving international teams, let us try and see what kind of process works locally. Let us first see if we can have a secure process for the players to come and train. Competitions can wait,” said a footballer who also runs a coaching academy.

In the opinion of Divya Jain, a sports psychologist with Fortis Health Care, it can be “demotivating” for a sportsman to remain inactive. “This current situation has created anxiety for the sportspersons because no one knows what lies ahead. They need to focus on daily goals because it may take a while for sports to resume on a bigger scale. Whatever be the case, they need to follow the medical advice to stay in a positive frame of mind,” she said.

Yuvraj Singh accepted the ground reality when he remarked that cricket should be the last priority when the world is fighting a deadly virus. It is for the authorities in higher places to decide on the process, date and place of staging an event. Is it worth the risk, a huge one at that? One positive case coming out of a tournament would leave the sporting fraternity bleeding for a long, long time.

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