100 days to Tokyo: Pandemic takes spotlight off Olympics, which may be good news for Indian athletes

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool Photo via AP

There used to be a general theme to the '100 days to the Olympics' countdowns in the past. A couple or so weeks would have passed since the Olympic torch was lit in that slightly-absurd ceremony in Greece that's meant to link the ancient games to its modern version. Meanwhile, public enthusiasm is usually building up in the host country around this time as the Olympic torch is carried by cheerful runners amid a populace that's anticipating being on the world stage in a few months' time. There's some mutual backslapping between organizers on how very special this particular edition of the games will be.

In India, though the contingent will eventually struggle to win too much, there's a fresh sense of optimism at home too that perhaps this edition will be different. You can count on at least a few functions, ostensibly to honor the athletes but which largely serve as a branding exercise for sponsors, the government and other official bodies. Not that it isn't special for the athletes. For many of them, competing in the Olympics will be the culmination of a lifetime's struggle. With a little over three months to go, they can finally see the finish line and brace themselves for the last push.

As the daily countdown to the Tokyo Games dips into double digits on Wednesday, it's obvious that things are very different this time around. The Olympics aren't really top of the priority list right now as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic. The Olympic flame, which was lit in 2020, went to Japan, where it stayed put for a year. On Monday, the Olympic torch made its way across empty park streets in Osaka. Surveys will tell you that around 70 percent of the Japanese don't even want the Games to be held. Perish the thought of any celebratory functions in India, which is dealing with a second wave of the virus. In what is a sign of the times, the Government will be marking the countdown with a Zoom meeting with journalists.

For athletes, some struggles haven't changed, although the pandemic has provided a few excuses. There are the familiar stories of official ineptitude - it's only been a few days since the Women's wrestling team arrived for the Asian Olympic Qualifiers on the day of their match. Delays over vaccination have led to multiple coaches and Olympics-qualified athletes testing positive in the athletics contingent.

But there is a degree of relief. Last year there were exactly 120 days to go when the IOC and the Japanese government postponed the games owing to the coronavirus pandemic. For them the postponement had been a body blow. They'd been pushing themselves to the limit, hoping against hope that they would still be able to compete. Just when the target had come into view, it had been pulled away from them. A year and a bit later, they'd be more confident. Even if the attendant rituals we've come to associate with the Olympics is missing, at least the competition itself is on.

Perhaps there's a silver lining to this cloud. For almost all of living memory, the Olympics were seen, from an Indian perspective, as an insurmountable challenge. India might do well at the Continental championships, World Cups, or even World Championships but the Olympics were another matter itself - as the country's dismal medal tally would suggest. There's something to this.

For a lot of sports, the Olympics are the only tournament that really matter and it only comes once every four years - five years for this edition. The payoff for a medal is tremendous -- win and you could bask in media attention and gain massive financial rewards. Finish off the podium and you can languish out of the limelight for another four years, at the very least. Understandably there's more than a little pressure on athletes competing. A lot of Indian athletes say they don't believe in a thing like Olympic pressure, but that's not really true. It will get harder and harder to believe as they get closer to the Olympics and the scale of the obstacle they have to summit becomes more apparent with each passing day.

But this time, the pressure might not be as oppressive. It's not just because of the fact that there are so many potential medalists in the Indian contingent that the pressure is spread thinner. It's also just the fact that the Olympics, outside a small cocoon of sports followers, isn't really yet part of the news cycle. Even just a couple of years ago, the Olympics might have been considered the most important event by far of an athletes career, but perhaps living through a pandemic might have given some perspective. Some athletes have recovered from the illness themselves. Weighed against a world-wide scourge, whether a pistol shooter has hit enough inner tens feels less like a matter of life and death.

As the countdown clock ticks away, and even as athletes put in the final touches to their Olympic preparations, the pandemic is unlikely to just disappear, even if one hopes that be the case. Even in 100 days' time, the Olympics may not be the centre of attention. And perhaps it's for the best. Perhaps, this time, India's athletes might finally be able to treat it as just another tournament.