Narinder Dhruv Batra has been a sports administrator for more than two decades, but his current stint as president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) would clearly rate among his toughest years yet.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has tested the sporting world like never before, and the postponed Tokyo Olympics have not made things easier. Batra, however, remains an optimist, insisting that India is capable of returning from Tokyo with medals in double digits (the best so far has been six in 2012) and the Games being the perfect showcase to display the human spirit.
Speaking to Sportstar , Batra reiterated his support to the Games going ahead despite uncertainty and local opposition, assured sufficient training for athletes, and confirmed accelerated vaccination for the Tokyo-bound. Excerpts:
How has the last one year been in terms of managing for and adjusting to the delayed Olympics?
All issues actually started from April last year, so it’s actually been more than a year. April-May last year may have been a bit tough for everyone because we were trying to adjust to a totally new situation and totally new protocols that were completely unknown before. But after that, specially in terms of preparations, I don’t think there has been any problem – whether it be training of athletes at home or abroad, whether it was about camps in India, all protocols have been strictly followed by everyone. Yes, things keep developing and it’s our job to keep sorting them out. I don’t now see any problem in training or equipment for the athletes. There has also been a lot of support from the sports federations, the government, SAI (Sports Authority of India) – it’s been good team work.
But these are unprecedented situations and not easy to adjust to, specially with regards to the Olympics, which everyone works for on a four-year cycle. How was it adjusting to the changes?
See, it’s not exactly that. The planning and other things are done by coaches and high-performance directors; they are the experts. Yes, the athletes were being prepared to peak in July last year, so how do you bring that down, manage the training, and then work things around to get them to peak again in July this year, that has been taken care of by the experts. As for scheduling, that keeps on changing all the time – sometimes country A or B has a problem, they cannot come here or we have a problem, we cannot go out – but these are problems that you have to get used to and adjust to. It’s the same for everyone. If someone says they did not get a chance (to participate or qualify), I think it’s a level playing field for all nations and all athletes, everyone’s facing the same problem. I won’t say 100 percent level field, but that never happens. But in terms of match practice or things like that, I would say it’s been an almost level field.
What is the IOA’s official stand as on date regarding the Olympics? Should they happen this year as planned?
I am all for the Olympics happening. I think it is the right event that is going to change the mindset of people. Covid has totally changed the lifestyles of people and I would say now the message has to go to everyone that we have now come out of it and people should say we have moved beyond Covid and life has to go on. On a very positive note, I am 100 percent sure the Games should happen. I don’t see any reason why they should not.
Several athletes, specially the ones already qualified, have taken at least one dose of the Covid vaccine but many remain to do so. What is the IOA’s plan for vaccination?
Vaccination is already going on and it’s for the long list of athletes, not the trimmed final list, so that no one misses out on participation because of this. The second dose has been given to a limited number of people so far; among athletes I think around 20-25 and officials maybe 10. For many the second dose is due, but I think it will happen sometime in June, so that’s not a worry. In fact, athletes outside India are also being taken care of and the Indian embassies and high commissions are coordinating. We want to ensure that every athlete who goes to Tokyo has had their vaccination done – that is also in the overall interest of the team and the squad and the contingent.
Is it something being handled by the individual federations or is the IOA also involved?
It’s a joint effort with all three stakeholders involved – the NSFs (national sports federations), the IOA and the Sports Authority of India. And it has to be a coordinated effort; no one agency can handle it all. The SAI cannot know who the athletes are, the IOA has the long list of athletes, and the NSFs are the ones directly dealing with the athletes and officials. Certain names are already qualified or confirmed for Tokyo, but the final list of 130-140 athletes will be known only by the end of June.
The current travel restrictions have led to some Indian athletes losing chances to qualify and for many others to prepare optimally for the Games. Is there a backup plan?
Let’s not generalise the whole travel thing; let’s take specific examples. In the case of badminton, the Malaysia Open has been postponed, not cancelled, and it was not in our hands in anyway, it wasn’t a travel issue. In athletics (India missed the World Relay Championships), I spoke to the federation immediately. There has never been a delay from our side in terms of handling such issues. I asked them if they wanted us to write to the IOC (International Olympics Committee) or the IAAF (World Athletics) or needed anything else from our end, and they said no. The AFI (Athletics Federation of India) has said it will be holding an event in India to give a chance for qualification. They said they have time till June and will have to invite a few countries. They will hold those events and make sure our athletes get a qualification chance.
What I disagree with is the idea that training may be affected. Even if some are not able to participate in a particular competition, the training of athletes is not getting affected, here or abroad, and it is as good here as anywhere else.
You have always been a firm supporter of sports autonomy. In that respect, how would you describe your relations with the current sports minister and officials?
I think I have very good relations and very good equations with (Union minister of state for youth affairs and sports) Mr (Kiren) Rijiju. He is clearly among the best sports ministers I have dealt with till now; very positive towards sports and totally supportive of athletes in every sense.