Social distancing and new standards of hygiene are likely to change the way India's top athletes practice as they start returning to formal training. The Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) announced by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) on Thursday lists a number of new ways of training in their camps and institutions across the country.
For example, hockey players can't tackle in practice; relay athletes can't practise baton exchanges while jumpers can only train if they have a designated pit for personal use. Javelin throwers and other field athletes can't share equipment in training; weightlifters too must use their own set of weights; badminton players should practice outdoors where possible and, if indoors, only in singles play. Contact sports must make do without sparring partners; and in table tennis, both paddlers must handle or serve using their own set of balls.
The SAI's SOPs came after the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) allowed the opening of sports complexes and stadia in its guidelines for the fourth phase of the nationwide lockdown, which has been extended till May 31, to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. But there has been no clarity on when the training will resume. "We have received the SOPs but those are the guidelines for when sports camps resume. Right now we are still waiting for an order on when the camp(s) will actually resume. We expect the order to come in a day or two," B Sacheti, general secretary of the Boxing Federation of India (BFI), said.
In an online press conference, SAI secretary Rohit Bhardwaj said that while the SOPs will be "applicable with immediate effect", resumption of sports activities across the country will depend entirely on local administrations. "The logistics might take time," Bharadwaj said.
The SOPs have categorised sport into four groups - non-contact, minimal or indirect contact, full contact and water sports. The document assigns a baseline set of precautions to each category depending on the nature of training and competition requirements.
The SOP also categorises athletes into three groups - those who have been staying in a contained environment in SAI facilites, those who have stayed outside and are now looking to rejoin camps, and finally athletes and staff at non-SAI training facilities. While athletes who have stayed inside sports facilities for the duration of a lockdown will be subject to a basic screening for any health ailments, all staff and athletes who have spent the lockdown away from a contained facility will be subject to mandatory Covid-19 tests. Athletes will also be asked to sign a consent form in which they acknowledge the risk associated with resumption of training under the pandemic situation. National Sports Federations are also to submit an undertaking that they understand the risks of resuming training in the current situation.
Other SOPs relate to specific hygiene protocols at all SAI and non-SAI training centres that have been covered by the directives.
The document makes the Aarogya Setu (bridge to health) app mandatory for all athletes and staff and calls for strict social distancing at training venues. Athletes are requested not to share personal equipment like bottles or towels. They are also expected to avoid socialising with other athletes or staff before or after training. The document also requires that athletes use a separate pair of shoes or slippers for use outside the room and any footwear used for walking outside the room should be kept outside the room. Shoes or slippers must get cleaned properly and dried under sunlight. Athletes are encouraged to avoid visiting places other than training facility and hostel within the campus. Should they visit a shop on campus, they are to wear face masks and make digital payments.
Among regular sanitation of facilites, the use of air conditioning is to be avoided with doors and windows kept open at all times during office hours to provide natural ventilation. If used, A/C shall be operated between 24-30 degree centigrade with humidity levels maintained between 40-70%
While these rules won't interfere with regular training sessions, others such as restricting the use of masseurs and physiotherapists certainly will. The document recommends that all physiotherapy and massages be avoided until absolutely necessary. Should it be unavoidable, athletes are expected to shower prior to physiotherapy, while therapists are expected to wear disposable gloves. Both are expected to wear masks. As an interim measure, the document recommends the use of a massage chair or lympha press system, both of which have been sanitised.
However, the document gathers that physiotherapy and massage is most likely needed after high-intensity training, which it recommends be avoided initially. "As most injuries occur early in the season, deconditioned athletes shall not be rushed back to full practice, or competition," the document says.