No overseas fans in Tokyo: Indian Olympic support staff become collateral damage

Vinesh Phogat poses with coach Woller Akos. Photo courtesy of Vinesh Phogat

Four days ago, just before long jumper M Sreeshankar made his first attempt in the Federation Cup Athletics Tournament, his father Murali felt there was something wrong. Watching from the spectators bleachers alongside the track at the National Institute of Sport, Murali, who also doubles as his son's coach, reckoned Sreeshankar's runup was too short -- costing him speed at take-off. The routine fix in such a situation was to pull his starting mark a few inches back. Murali advised a more radical step. "I made him start nearly a foot and a half back," he says. The change worked. Sreeshankar leaped a massive 8.26m -- a new national record and a mark enough to meet the entry standard for the Tokyo Olympics.

Murali's last-minute adjustments from trackside may have seen his son qualify for the Tokyo Olympics but he might not be in a position to give similar advice at the Games themselves, where he reckons an improvement of another 10 cm might be enough for a podium finish. Although Murali has coached Sreeshankar throughout his career, he isn't an official coach of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI). He won't even be in a position to replicate his actions in Patiala -- source tickets as a regular fan and pass on instructions to his son from the spectators gallery -- in Tokyo's Olympic Stadium.

That's because on Saturday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) confirmed earlier news reports and announced that owing to concerns over the spread of COVID-19, no overseas fans would be permitted to attend the Tokyo Olympics. "Based on the present situation of the pandemic, it is highly unlikely that entry into Japan will be guaranteed this summer for people from overseas," the IOC statement read.

This would mean that the only support staff who will be able to work with qualified athletes are those who receive the accreditation that will make them official members of a country's Olympic delegation. However, they are only a small minority of the total -- doctors, physiotherapists, masseurs, coaches -- who work to prepare an athlete for elite competition in the Olympics. This is because unlike at other events, accreditation at the Olympics is highly restricted, and especially so in this edition as it's heavily impacted by COVID. Currently, Olympic accreditation is pooled out to countries based on their total number of Olympic qualifiers.

"The total support staff that can travel with the team is limited to 33 percent of the number that has qualified for the Olympics. So if we have three athletes going to the games, we can recommend one support staff," says Vinod Tomar, the secretary general of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI).

Sreeshankar isn't the only high-profile Indian qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics whose coach is unlikely to travel to Tokyo. Wrestler Vinesh Phogat, who is considered one of the best prospects to medal in Tokyo, is another. For the last two years, Phogat has been coached by Woller Akos. She won her maiden World Championship bronze medal in 2019 while training under him. Akos, though, isn't an official coach of WFI. "There are restrictions on how many coaches we can send. We can't send four different coaches for four different wrestlers. The first priority for accreditation will have to go to our own coaches who are working in the national camp," Tomar says.

This wasn't always an issue. In the past, if unaccredited support staff had to work with athletes they'd make use of day passes, under which outsiders are permitted -- after taking prior permission to enter the Games Village. They would work with athletes and then leave the venue.

The alternate was for support staff to set up a workstation in hotel rooms near the Olympic Games Village, which athletes would visit as needed. Viren Rasquinha, the CEO of Olympic Gold Quest, an organisation that helps athletes with preparation, recalls how the Japanese Olympic team booked nearly an entire hotel for their support staff. "Every day, Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsumoto (Olympic gold medallists in the badminton women's doubles) would be coming in. They'd be getting massages and eating Japanese food. This wasn't unusual. Nearly every top Olympic country would do the same," he recalls.

While such home-style food could be considered a forgo-able luxury, the absence of coaches and physiotherapists could have a serious impact on medal prospects. While the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) will send the ultimate list of coaches and support staff, it is learned that there is already plenty of work being done behind the scenes in order to ensure accreditation goes where it is most needed. "There are already Excel sheets being compiled on which athletes are most likely to medal. They are likely to be given priority with respect to accreditation," says an individual who works with athletes preparing for the Olympics.

While he is hopeful as well, Rasquinha admits athletes might have to accept that the support staff they are used to working with might not be accompanying them to the Olympics. "We are going to have to be prepared in advance," says Rahi Sarnobat, who won an Olympic quota for India in the women's 25m pistol event. "One of the most important requirements for us is the physiotherapist. Normally, you would just say which part of your body is hurting and because the physio has worked with you for a long time, they'd know immediately what has to be done. Now we'll have to understand our body, especially if we will have to work with someone who we might be unfamiliar with. We'll need to be able to say exactly what issue it is that we are having," she says.

As someone who is travelling to her second Olympics (she competed once before in 2012), Sarnobat has a bit of experience in this regard. "I've been competing for so long, I find it very easy to tell the physio exactly what I need but it's still going to be hard. It will probably be harder for the younger athletes who are going for the first time," she says.

In a worst case scenario, athletes might just deal with the cards handed to them. Sometimes this works out. At the 2018 Asian Games, Akos had been unable to travel from Hungary to coach Vinesh Phogat. He instead relayed instructions and tactics to her over the phone -- she implemented them perfectly en route to winning her first Asian Games gold. But there isn't always a happy ending.

"I always try to ensure that I travel with Sreeshankar and coach him from the sidelines. But at the Asian Games, I wasn't able to travel because of official duty in my job. I tried to watch his matches and send him instructions over the phone but it didn't work out. I fear it will be the same in Tokyo too. I'm still hopeful I'll be included as a coach in the accredited list," says Murali.