Tokyo 2021 FAQs: What next for India's Olympic hopefuls?

A possible rejig of the Olympic qualification process might hurt the chances of athletes like Sai Praneeth. TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images

India's Tokyo hopefuls finally have some clarity on their fate with the official postponement of the 2020 Olympics to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the decision raises fresh questions about the rescheduling, qualification process and the future course of action, with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach on Wednesday saying that the new challenges would require sacrifices and compromises by all the stakeholders.

Here are some key questions.

When will the next Olympics be held?

The athletes will not be able to prepare for next year's competition without knowing the exact dates, which haven't yet been specified by the IOC. On Wednesday, IOC president Thomas Bach, emphasised that the rescheduling isn't restricted just to the summer months. "All the options are on the table, before and including the summer of 2021," he said. He added that the new dates will have to consider the scheduled calendar for 2021 - which already features two blue riband events in the World Athletics Championships and the World Swimming Championships. The Athletics world championships are due to be held in Eugene, Oregon on August 6-15 next year, with the swimming worlds at Fukuoka in Japan between July 16 and August 1.

"The first step, we have to see with them, to see what the options are. We also have to take into account the sports calendar around the Olympic Games," Bach said. However, both World Athletics and the International Swimming Federation say they are prepared to move their 2021 world championships to accommodate the rescheduled Games. This means that it is possible the Olympics could be held between July and August next year.

What happens to existing qualification norms?

The major task for sports federations and the IOC is to decide what qualification for the 2021 edition will look like. As per the IOC, 43% of Olympic quotas are yet to be allotted. A total of 74 Indians had qualified so far, compared to 117 overall at the 2016 edition. However, qualification in sports including archery, athletics, badminton, basketball, boxing, fencing, golf, rowing, sailing, shooting, table tennis, tennis, weightlifting and wrestling had been affected after multiple tournaments were called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While it may seem unfair, the IOC president's statement that sacrifices would have to be made by all stakeholders - was a hint that some qualifying standards would be affected. With the qualification window for some tournaments, starting as early as 2018 (in the case of shooting), it remains to be seen how qualification would take place for the 2021 edition. It is possible that some sports might see qualification start afresh as the best athletes in 2020 might not be the best in 2021. The scheduling of fresh Olympic qualification tournaments will also have to be planned out, especially since there is no certainty when the pandemic might be arrested.

"There are a lot of pieces in this huge and very difficult jigsaw puzzle. The Olympic Games are maybe the most complex event on this planet," Bach said on Tuesday. "Getting everything together cannot be done in just a phone call between the two of us (Bach and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe). We have to rely on the work of the Coordination Commission in cooperation with the international federations in particular, but also with many other partners. This is really a big challenge," he said. The rejig of qualification might create both opportunities and challenges for athletes who were on the margins of qualification. In badminton, additional chances of qualification might hurt Sai Praneeth (who was struggling towards the end of the qualification period) but serve as a boon to the likes of Lakshya Sen.

How has the postponement affected the athletes' training schedule?

With athletes looking to peak toward July 2020, the change of dates has thrown their preparation schedule out of sync. "We have to change our mindset altogether. The tempo and momentum of preparation will change completely," says Vijay Sharma, coach of the Indian weightlifting team.

However, many athletes and coaches were already preparing for a change of dates. According to former hockey captain Viren Rasquinha, who also heads the Olympic Gold Quest, a non-profit that supports high performance athletes, most Olympic hopefuls were scarcely training at the expected intensity. "In the last two weeks, because it was so uncertain, it was leading to a lot of loss of focus. You are going to training without your mind in it. You can't bring yourself to train with 100 percent intensity. Training levels had come to 30-40 percent of that in a camp, since most of the camps had been shut. Within the four walls of your home, what fitness can you do?" he said.

How are athletes planning to deal with the situation?

Indian weightlifter Mirabai Chanu was a medal hopeful in the women's 49kg division, looked almost certain to qualify. However, after the postponement, her coach's main concern is whether the qualification criteria has changed as well. "The main thing would be to see how the qualification rules change. We are waiting for the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) to come up with their new rules," says Sharma. "The announcement of fresh dates would also be critical. Right now we start deloading our weightlifters. But we need to keep an eye out for when the Olympics are conducted again," he says.

Other athletes are looking at the bright side. With another year at hand, some athletes would come into the peak of their career - such as 16-year-old Youth Olympic weightlifting champion Jeremy Lalrinnunga. "He's going to be much stronger next year. So it's an advantage for him," says Sharma.

While the disappointment of missing out on the Olympics will be massive, athletes have been told to stay focussed. "You can use this extra time as an advantage if you train well. But if you rest too much it will very quickly become a disadvantage," says Santiago Nieva, the high performance director of the Indian boxing team. The challenge of staying focussed is particularly severe for athletes in physical sports. "They have to ensure they keep training at a high intensity. If they slack up even a little bit at this stage, they will have to put in a lot more effort when they eventually return to training," says Rasquinha.

Would athletes and their support teams be able to sustain themselves for another year?

For some Indian athletes - like 37-year-old Achanta Sharath Kamal, the 2020 Olympics were expected to be the last major competition of their career. Sharath has already suggested that it would be challenging for him to be able to compete at an elite level so late in his career. The situation is likely the same for 38-year-old Mary Kom. Experts however, believe the very elite athletes will be able to find the drive to push themselves another year. "This is the Olympics. Of course you will motivate yourself," says Rasquinha.

Nieva feels the same. "I've heard Mary Kom is too old ever since I first started working with the Indian team. Another year isn't going to make such a big difference," he says. It isn't just athletes who have to stick around for another year though. There are challenges for the support staff as well. Most coaches and physiotherapists are hired over the course of an Olympic cycle. The contracts of all foreign coaches employed by the Sports Authority of India run out at the end of the presumed 2020 Olympic cycle. As such new contracts would likely have to be drawn out as well.