Training centres prepare blueprint for restart amid vague guidelines

File photo: Sathiyan Gnanasekaran in action during the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia. Getty Images

For Indian table tennis player G Sathiyan, the conundrum is not just when he can resume training, but also whom the go-ahead would come from. Two days after the sports ministry gave a nod to re-opening sports complexes and stadia in the country, it's not only the state-run academies and institutes that are yet to open: private training centres and athletes continue to await clarity on the guidelines..

Sathiyan is in talks with both the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDAT) for clearance to train with one sparring partner at coach S Raman's academy, five kilometres away from his home in Chennai. "Right now, it's a wait. Neither the SDAT nor SAI has answers yet. TOPs (Target Olympic Podium) too is in talks with SAI. Additionally, the Tamil Nadu state government has also issued an order that states that national and international athletes can resume training with independent coaches after gaining clearance from district administration chief. As athletes, all we are looking for really is clear direction, which we don't have at the moment."

Coach Raman says once the clearance comes through, he'll re-start training with Sathiyan right away. "Ours is a centre with limited number of players. Practicing social distancing protocols won't be a trouble at all. Of the total 35 trainees, only around 12 are in the city at the moment. Once we get a go-ahead, we'll break them into two batches of six each. We'll have one of our players spar with Sathiyan."

A long wait

It's not only the state-run academies - private centres too continue to wait for clarity on guidelines to reopen. For academies, like the ones run by Davis Cup captain Zeeshan Ali in Bengaluru and former Olympian Joydeep Karmakar in West Bengal, the challenge, in addition to ambiguous guidelines, lies in the environs of their respective facilities too. Both have academies inside school premises, which makes resumption of training complicated. "Mine's a three-way problem," says Karmakar. "Two of my academies are located inside schools, while the third one (10 kms from the state capital Kolkata) falls under the red zone. For me, it's a longer haul before I can get my shooters to train."

Zeeshan is looking for alternative venues to re-start training since his primary facility is located within an educational institution. On May 15, the Karnataka Lawn Tennis Association had requested the state chief minister to allow opening up of tennis academies and coaching centres with social distancing protocols in place. The protocols included a maximum of four players on the court at a time, players carrying their own balls and disinfecting equipment every two hours among others. "The smaller academies in the city are already opening up," says Zeeshan. "But I want to be absolutely sure before I do so myself. My trainees are growing anxious to get back on court."

Easier for residential facilities

For larger centres like JSW's Inspire Institute of Sport (IIS), a privately-funded high performance training facility spread across 42 acres in Vijaynagar, Karnataka with a focus on combat sports like wrestling, boxing and judo, their residential nature works in their favour. "Once the virus situation worsened, athletes who were visiting their homes were asked to stay put. They have been isolated for the better part of two months now. We've been treating this phase as the start of the season and working on physical conditioning instead of technical training. It's a non-sparring environment at the moment and our judokas are training with dummies. We are waiting for the MHA to announce clearer directives so we know how we can go about resuming training," says IIS CEO Rushdee Warley.

To keep athletes insulated, the facility halted services of non-onsite maintenance and cleaning staff. "Athletes have had to clean their own rooms during this period since we have strict protocols in place barring outsider entry. Even food vendors who enter the facility are mandated to wear PPEs and are not allowed to get off their vehicles. To be able to maintain social distancing norms, we're also getting athletes to have their meals in batches."

First steps toward restart

For some others like the Padukone-Dravid Centre for Sports Excellence (CSE) in the outskirts of Bengaluru, which houses training facilities in seven sporting disciplines, training is likely to resume soon. The CSE is home to the SAI-Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance Centre which focuses on injury rehabilitation, conditioning and performance training.

"We are currently discussing internally along with our coaches, trying to figure out the best way to resume training while ensuring a safe environment for athletes. The idea is to start with a very small number of athletes. Swimming, of course, continues to be shut as per government regulations," said operations chief Ved Kumar. Coach Vimal Kumar, director of the Prakash Padukone badminton academy at the facility and a vocal advocate for an earlier start for sports training activities, says he has plans in place for a resumption at any point. Vimal has been tagging the sports minister, PMO and the state administration in his tweets to push for the re-opening of sports centres, especially for elite athletes.

"About 60-70 per cent of our players are at their respective hometowns. Of course, some of the elite athletes, including Lakshya Sen, are in the city. The idea is to have not more than two players on each court and not more than 10-12 players in the playing hall. It also means we can't have physios in the playing hall during training. We are waiting for more clarity on the guidelines, once we have that, we're good to go."

Smaller badminton training academies, like the one run by former national player Arvind Bhat in Bengaluru, are also looking toward centres like Padukone-Dravid for cue. Bhat, who approached the DYES regarding clearance for operations says he is yet to receive a go-ahead. "We don't fall under sports complexes, stadiums or national centres so we may have to wait a little longer. We have been directed to intimate our local police station before we resume operations. Once the national training centres and bigger facilities begin functioning, we'll at least have a starting point."