As Covid-19 cases surge, Indian athletes grow wary of national camps

PV Sindhu's father PV Ramana says she is being extremely careful as she has continued to train through the pandemic. AP Photo/Vincent Thian

A couple of days ago, towards the end of a morning training session at the Gopichand Academy, PV Sindhu joined N Sikki Reddy for some doubles practice. During the course of their drills, the pair, who are old friends, stopped to chat. That's when PV Ramana, Sindhu's father, sounded a warning.

"I told them to maintain an eight-foot gap if they are going to talk. It's not possible to maintain social distancing if you are playing doubles but if you are just going to talk, you need to keep a gap," he says.

It might seem a tad too demanding, but Ramana insists there isn't going to be any compromise on protecting his Olympic silver medallist daughter from the coronavirus. It's this entirely understandable fastidiousness that goes some way in explaining the eventual cancellation of the national badminton camp for next month's Thomas and Uber Cup. While the Sports Authority of India (SAI) insisted that players had to stay at the Gopichand Academy for the duration of the camp, it is learned that several of the Hyderabad-based players didn't want to cede control of safety precautions they were themselves taking.

This isn't the first time in recent months that national camps have had to be postponed or cancelled. Last month, the women's wrestling national camp was called off after top wrestlers, including World championships bronze medallist Vinesh Phogat, said they would not be attending. Earlier in August, the national camp for shooters was also postponed indefinitely. Vinesh cited health risks owing to the coronavirus, making it clear that she was worried about her safety. "I am not going to attend the camp. The situation is not good to travel to Lucknow," Vinesh had said then.

In such a situation, there are rightful concerns on what the actual purpose of the camps are. On the one hand, following India's first lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic that has infected over 4.5 million in the country, organised training of India's elite athletes has largely ground to a halt. This is especially so for those who are not residential athletes at SAI centres. As the months tick on, there is an argument to be made that athletes need to resume training.

"Everybody must follow the guidelines and stay safe," says Olympic bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt. "Only a few months are left for the Tokyo Olympics to start and wrestlers need to work very hard for that. In my opinion, the camp must go on. Wrestlers need to take up the challenge and focus."

That point, though, has to be seen in light of the fact that there have been hiccups even where the camps have gone ahead. Six members of the Indian men's hockey team were found to have tested positive prior to the start of the men's hockey national camp while four wrestlers, including World Championship medallists Rahul Aware and Deepak Punia, tested positive following tests conducted as part of the men's wrestling national camp in Sonepat.

Far from restarting training, athletes who have tested positive have to spend additional time on recovery. Punia, who had resumed training at New Delhi's Chhatrasal Stadium prior to the start of the national camp, has now returned to his village in order to complete his recovery.

This isn't to say that athletes who don't travel to camps are assured to be safe from contracting the coronavirus. Shortly after she said she wouldn't travel to the women's wrestling camp in Lucknow, Vinesh, who had been training at the sports school in Kharkhoda, Haryana, herself tested positive for Covid-19.

What is also true is that in the case of team sports like hockey, practice at a national camp provides a training environment that athletes would be unable to get if they were training by themselves.

But as Ramana says, this doesn't mean that athletes - especially those in individual events -- should be absolved of the responsibility for their own safety. "Athletes are generally quite conscious of their health requirements. If they are unlucky, yes they might still get corona. But by and large, they will not be reckless with their health. But if you force (it) on athletes (that) they have to do this or that, it ends up creating a lot of confusion in players," he says.

"There are only a few players who have a shot of going to the Olympics. At least for these players there can be a little extra consideration when it comes to their preparation." PV Ramana

Indeed, just because a national camp isn't being conducted doesn't mean that training has stopped. "There is a sense of responsibility that every athlete has. This is especially so for elite athletes, who have a sense of their own prestige. After Sindhu won the Olympic medal, she's understood that. Even when the pandemic happened, she's never stopped working. Sindhu is ready to compete in Denmark. Of course, she will take a coronavirus test before she travels. But she has requirements about the conditions she trains in," says Ramana.

Sindhu, he says, travels to the Gopichand Academy each morning at 6AM for a two-hour individual training session with coach Park Tae Sung. Sindhu arrives early, only so that she doesn't have to share the courts with players, the larger proportion of whom arrive later in the day. She then travels in the evening for another two-hour strength training session. Through it all, Ramana makes sure she takes as many precautions as possible. "Even when she travels in the car, she'll be wearing a mask," he says.

Ramana doesn't think any of this is unreasonable. "Everyone understands that the main goal for Sindhu is the Olympics. Every preparation is done with that in mind. Even her supplements are procured specifically for her by me," he says. While he admits this level of perfectionism might not work for everyone, it has its purpose. "There are only a few players who have a shot of going to the Olympics. At least for these players there can be a little extra consideration when it comes to their preparation," he says.