Last-minute Nationals venue change leaves India's para athletes in the lurch

File photo: India's Monu Ghangas competes in the Shot Put during the World Para Athletics Grand Prix in March 2018. Francois Nel/Getty Images

The 19th National Para-Athletics Championship 2021 was to be held in Chennai from March 24-27. On the evening of March 20, the Paralympic Committee of India (PCI) sent participating athletes a WhatsApp message (and put up a notice on their website) that the venue had shifted to Bengaluru. All this while many competitors were already en-route Chennai.

A last-minute change in venue would have proved challenging for able-bodied athletes; it is exponentially harder for para-athletes. The earlier venue in Chennai had been fixed and finalised in February, giving athletes -- visually impaired, wheelchair-bound -- time to identify accommodation with the infrastructure to support them, to map out a route to the stadium and the means to get there. Now, on very short notice, they have to figure out a new plan in a strange city.

And all this in the middle of a pandemic.

It doesn't help that as per the reworked schedule, the meet will be spread across two stadiums, 25 kms apart. Add to that the communication, or lack thereof from the organisers.

"For para-athletes, it's difficult to travel around, especially when you're from another city," says Delhi-based Asian Games bronze medallist Nidhi Mishra.

While the PCI had told ESPN that a survey of the best hotels had been communicated to the state bodies, Mishra states that no one has yet gotten in touch with her.

"As an athlete, I want this event to take place. This is about my professional career. One event happens in a year, and that's important for us financially, as well as a sportsperson, but surely there's a better way to deal with this? To communicate with us?" she asks.

No one has contacted Karamjyoti Dalal, a bronze medallist at the World Para Athletics, either. While she is cancelling and rebooking tickets and accommodation herself, she feels not every competitor will be in a position to do so. "If an athlete has a little money with them, they can still manage. Otherwise the pressure will remain ... there are athletes who have booked tickets to Chennai with great difficulty, and now on top of that they have to make added arrangements," she says.

ESPN understands that some athletes arrived in Chennai late at night on March 22, waited at the station and booked themselves on early morning trains, or buses, to Bengaluru.

An athlete from UP, whose mother's employer financed her tickets and accommodation, is already worried. On arriving in Chennai, she spent the night at the station -- likening her situation to livestock sleeping outside -- before arranging alternate transport to Bengaluru. She now worried how she would meet all the expenses required.

The PCI is yet to provide the athletes any clarity on any possible financial compensation.

How did this happen?

Deepa Malik, president of the Paralympic Committee of India, says it was because permission was withheld by the Chennai municipal corporation's public health department. "Everything else was decided. The decision was made. We had permission from the government of India, the governor [of Tamil Nadu] had agreed to be the chief guest. Then this happened at the last minute."

"IPL to ho hi raha hain (the IPL is on schedule). So we don't know why this [can't take place]. One bit of permission was withheld, otherwise everything else we had."

Gursharan Singh, the PCI's secretary-general, says it was not the corporation but the principal secretary of the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu that denied them permission for the use of Chennai's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. "He has [cited] the model code of conduct and COVID-19, but we have got an NOC for the former from the Election Commission and permission for the latter from the municipal corporation."

Singh says that the PCI has gone to court against the Tamil Nadu Sports Development Authority, and lodged a complaint with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport.

Why Bengaluru, and why immediately?

Malik - silver medalist at the 2016 Rio Paralympics - said the decision to shift was made due to a combination of factors: the proximity of Bengaluru to Chennai, the Karnataka Government's support, and the desire of athletes to participate in the first para national games to be held in the country since 2018.

"There were two options -- cancel the event or give athletes a Nationals," says Malik, who was elected President in 2020. "In 2019, I don't know why Nationals weren't held. Then 2020 was a total lockdown. So for two years the athletes have been starved of a Nationals. It is very important. A lot of things depend on it, like their gradation, their employment, their cash awards, their state and national awards. So if we are not able to give them a national meet, they will not be able to [make it up]. Two years is not good for any sporting culture."

"We have taken a consensus and [the athletes] are they willing to come and take this [risk]," she says. "See, it was very easy for us to cancel. Nobody can question because these are pandemic rules. But on a strong appeal of athletes, and athletes alone, we have come forward to take the challenge."

"If we don't conduct it before the end of this financial year, March 31, these athletes will lose heavily -- as everything is based on their performance in the Nationals," says Singh.

Malik said that another reason it couldn't be postponed was because teams coming from Assam, from J&K etc. were already on the way to Chennai.

Mailk says it's only an additional "four and a half hours of journey", but the fact is that only one train from Chennai reaches Bengaluru in that time and that leaves in the morning. Subsequent trains take more than five hours, and that's without factoring in how disability-friendly train journeys are.

What is being done now?

The schedule has been made, and was uploaded on the website late on Monday, for the events to be conducted between two stadiums - the Kanteerava stadium and the Vidyanagar stadium on Bellary Road.

How does this affect the athletes?

Malik says that for the 1500-odd athletes expected to attend the meet, the PCI had already stated (for the Chennai event) that accommodation and travel would be the sole responsibility of the athlete. As per general practice, the hosting state association usually covers accommodation and local transport.

Mishra will be taking part in the shot put, the discus and the 100m -- and it is likely that she will have to travel to both stadia. Separated by 25 kms, the question in her mind is how she can pick a hotel that provides proximity to both.

"My escort is my sister. So that's two women travelling alone to a strange city, and that becomes difficult," she says. "We were already stressed, travelling in the middle of a pandemic, but now..."

As of the evening of March 22, she had not been able to get through to PCI officials to seek clarifications.

PCI's Gursharan Singh, meanwhile, has told ESPN that 10 mini-buses will be made available for the athletes, and that events have been split in such a way as to ensure maximum ease of participation. "We will also be providing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner," says Singh. "We are trying to give them boarding and lodging also."

Neither Dalal nor Mishra, meanwhile, have received any information from the organisers about the COVID-19 protocols to be followed -- whether tests are required or will be conducted locally, what the local government bodies demand in travellers coming from other states. The only COVID-19 related guidelines that have been shared with them is the standard Sports Authority of India (SAI) SOP on conduct of events -- re: wearing a mask, maintaining social distance with other competitors, etc.

What about the extra cost burden?

A wheelchair-bound athlete, Dalal knows that accommodation will be expensive. "Only big hotels are really wheelchair accessible. If you have a ramp that needs someone to push you, you can't call it accessible, can you?" The last-minute need to cancel/change bookings makes it an even costlier proposition.

It is to be noted here that most para-athletes travel with a companion, hence cost-per-athlete is doubled immediately.

There has been no communication regarding the reimbursement of these expenses, especially the additional charges incurred by the last-minute change in host city.

"State bodies should take that onus," says Malik about any possible compensation. "Right now the focus is on conducting the events. These are questions that will eventually come up. The TN govt. was spending money and making arrangements, now the entire arrangement we have to undertake as PCI overnight. The Karnataka govt. has been very helpful," she says. As per this report in the Times of India, GoK will clear a grant of Rs. 30 lakhs for the meet.

As for the state bodies, several states and Union Territories, including Karamjyoti's Haryana, do not have associations. The full list can be perused here.

Singh, meanwhile, says that they have told the athletes who have gone/are going to Chennai "you take a bus or whatever, the distance is not much. We will reimburse the fare... The PCI has also suffered huge losses due to this change."