COVID-19 travel restrictions challenge India's Tokyo Olympics hopefuls

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

Many countries have shut down travel from India to contain the spread of COVID-19.

With many countries imposing travel restrictions on India to contain COVID-19, we track how it may have an impact on the country's sportstpersons. Will it hinder their participation in competitions? Will it hamper their preparations or qualification for Tokyo Olympics?

  • BOXING

Boxing 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.

Ten members of the men’s team tested positive for COVID-19 at the National camp in Patiala in March, including head coach CA Kuttappa. Following that, at least 21 people, including Indian women boxing's high-performance director Raffaele Bergamasco and head coach Mohammed Ali Qamar also tested positive for COVID-19 in the women’s camp at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium in April. The development meant the women pugilists’ Olympic exposure trip to Serbia stood cancelled.

Indian boxing received a 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-19 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 leave the country well in advance to follow the COVID-19 protocols in the UAE prior to the competition.

  • ATHLETICS

The Indian 4x100m women’s and 4x400m men’s teams suffered heartbreak last week as they were barred from travelling to Poland to participate in the World Relay Championships. 

The Indian teams were to take an early morning KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight to Amsterdam from Mumbai on Thursday but the flight authorities said they would not allow the athletes to board the flight following the Netherlands government's ban on passenger flights from India. Muhammed Anas, Arokia Rajiv, Amoj Jacob, Nirmal Noah Tom, Hima Das and Dutee Chand were among the prominent athletes who were supposed to take part in the World Relays, which is a qualifying event for the Tokyo Olympics and World Championships.

Many Indian athletes have been forced to skip foreign exposure trips. A team of elite Indian track and field athletes, including Olympics-bound javelin throwers Neeraj Chopra and Shivpal Singh and the quarter milers, were to go to Turkey for a training-cum-competition tour earlier this month, but that too has been suspended.

Meanwhile Olympic-bound Indian steeplechaser Avinash Sable was to train in Uganda for 100 days, starting from April 10, under foreign coach Addy Ruiter. It was to be a great learning experience for Sable as Ruiter has worked with the likes of Joshua Cheptegei - the current world record holder in men's 5000m and 10,000m. Sable, though, was not able to leave the country and is currently training at the Sports Authority of India’s National Centre for Excellence in Bengaluru. Sable tested positive for the coronavirus last week.

  • WRESTLING

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 Tuesday.

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.

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

  • WEIGHTLIFTING

The Indian weightlifters did not have any issues related to the international travel restrictions. Ace lifter Mirabai Chanu, who is India's strongest medal hope in weightlifting, has received the green light from the Government to train in the USA and treat her shoulder issue.

  • BADMINTON

The Indian shuttlers are in race against time. There are only three Olympic qualification events left -- India Open, Malaysia Open and Indonesia Open. The India Open, which was to be held in New Delhi from May 11 to 16, has been postponed. Considering the current surge in cases, the event could be cancelled or shifted out of the country. 

Olympic bronze medallist Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth will now have to wait to see if they will be allowed to travel for the Malaysia Open that begins on May 25. Malaysia has currently banned travellers from India. The Badminton Association of India said it is trying to see if the Indian shuttlers can leave for Malaysia and Singapore via Doha to participate in the last two Olympic qualifiers next month.

As it stands, only PV Sindhu, Sai Praneeth and the doubles team of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy are expected to make the Olympic cut via their superior rankings. Sindhu is ranked 7th, while Prannoy is ranked 13th and Chirag-Satwiksairaj are placed 8th in their respective categories in the Race to Tokyo rankings. The top 16 shuttlers as per the Race to Tokyo list to be published on June 15 will earn a direct berth at the Olympics.

Saina and Srikanth are placed 22nd and 20th respectively and will need to progress beyond the quarterfinals at both events to rack up points to boost their Olympics qualification chances.

  • SHOOTING

The Shooting World Cup in Baku, which was the Indian team’s last competitive international event before the Tokyo Olympics, was cancelled on April 26. Although there are no Olympic spots to be won, the Baku World Cup was expected to provide India's 15-member  with some much-needed exposure ahead of the Olympics.

( Inputs from Y.B. Sarangi and Shyam Vasudevan)

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