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Death of cook at SAI Bengaluru puts restart plans on hold

Most of the Indian women's senior hockey team is currently lodged at the SAI Bengaluru centre. PTI Photo/Swapan Mahapatra

A cook employed at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Bengaluru centre died of a cardiac arrest on Monday, and subsequently was found to have tested positive for Covid-19. The death and its implications have put on hold plans to resume outdoor training at the centre, which currently houses elite national athletes, including most of the men's and women's senior hockey teams and eight top track and field athletes. The centre is now under a strict 14-day lockdown.

It is understood the cook visited the campus on May 15 for a meeting with other MTS (multi-tasking staff) and senior officials to work out the modalities of their rejoining kitchen duty to coincide with athletes' training resumption. He underwent thermal scanning before entry into the centre, which had gone into lockdown on March 10, and was asymptomatic. He left soon after the meeting and none of the athletes came into contact with him.

SAI has denied reports suggesting that the women's hockey team had attended a meeting in the same room soon after the meeting in question. The players, SAI said, attended an online development session conducted by Hockey India in the conference hall while senior SAI functionaries met the kitchen staff in a 300-seater auditorium inside the campus.

The death and its Covid-19 link have set back the centre's restart plans. "A plan was being firmed to resume training but now after this incident the facility has gone into strict lockdown mode for 14 days. It's more a precautionary move even though none of the athletes had come into contact with him. There is no change in protocols for athletes since training hadn't resumed anyway. Since the cooks were Grade C and D employees with no smartphones they were called for a meeting in person.

Including four SAI officials, five cooks and MTS staff, 16 people had attended the meeting. The officials were seated on the stage while the cooks who had come in occupied the second row. Everyone was wearing masks and the auditorium was sanitised after the meeting. Everyone who was part of the meeting, including the senior director of SAI, have now quarantined themselves," said a source.

After the news broke on Wednesday morning, officials of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) conducted a Zoom meeting with its athletes lodged in the facility, which includes Tokyo-bound KT Irfan and marathon hopeful T Gopi, among others.

In the meeting convened by AFI chief Adile Sumariwala, it is learnt that athletes were directed to remain restricted to their rooms, apart from the mess visit during meal times. A few of them who'd slowly begun light physical training on the lawns recently have been asked to not step out anymore. Since the SAI centre went under lockdown in March, athletes had not been allowed access to the gym, though they were allowed to use the running track for workouts. Now, permission for the latter too has been suspended.

Earlier in the day, HI CEO Elena Norman ruled out any immediate possibility of shifting the hockey teams out of the facility. "The question of moving the teams out doesn't arise because it's the best facility in the country. Even if we think of such a move it's practically impossible because of the nationwide lockdown," Norman told PTI.

It is learnt that the meeting with the cooks ended on the agreement that keeping their age into account they stay away from duty until further intimation. "Most of them were above 50 years of age so it was decided to not risk a chance. The option of hiring young kitchen staff for this period on contract-basis was being considered. Now that plan has been abandoned."

Since March 10, the centre, which also houses 15 SAI staff members and their families in addition to athletes, has been functioning with one chef, an assistant chef and two MTS. SAI officials and coaches living in the facility have been on roster duty, chipping in with the cooking while players have been helping with making rotis and salads of their choice.