As Covid-19 cases surge, India's Olympic preparation feels the squeeze

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, who is all but certain to qualify for Tokyo, had said after recovering from COVID-19 that the virus had taught him a few lessons, including prioritising his fitness Anusak Laowilas/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic raging across India -- over 200,000 people tested positive for the virus on Friday -- is threatening to disrupt the preparations of India's Olympic contenders. With less than 100 days to go for the start of the Tokyo Olympics, those in or around the squads have contracted the virus, preparatory camps and tournaments are being rescheduled and the officials in charge of logistics are looking at tweaking their biosecurity protocols.

The worst-hit places include Delhi, Bengaluru and Pune, where Olympic hopefuls or those who've already qualified are based or in training camps. With the virus expected to peak only a month or so later, it has added to the fear that some of India's best prospects could be affected. Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president Narinder Batra has already spelled out one possible scenario: "We are not sure what the correct Covid protocols will be but, say, in hockey, if we have four positive cases, we would likely have to withdraw our team from the Olympics," he said at a meeting with the Sports Minister and other officials on Thursday.

Just two days after Batra made that statement, Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju announced that he too had tested positive for the virus. Neither Rijiju nor other members present at the meeting were wearing masks. It is unclear whether other members of the meeting have tested positive.

Rising cases

Of the 90 Indians who have qualified for the Olympics so far, 10 (six in the men's hockey team, two in boxing and two in wrestling) tested positive for the virus last year. As did badminton doubles player Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, who's all but certain to qualify for Tokyo.

Read: 'I started imagining every small thing to be Coronavirus'

Others on the periphery of qualification have tested positive in India's ongoing second wave of infections. At the Sports Authority of India (SAI) facility in Bengaluru, at least four track and field athletes -- Asian Games 1500m gold medallist Jinson Johnson, steeplechaser Chinta Yadav, long-distance runner Parul Chaudhury and race walker Eknath -- as well as Russian racewalking coach Alexander Artsybashev had tested positive earlier this week.

While it was widely reported that Tokyo-bound race walker Priyanka Goswami too was part of that list, the athlete herself has denied the news and clarified that it was another athlete by her name who has contracted the virus. In Lucknow, six members of the Indian women's wrestling camp, including 2018 World bronze medallist Pooja Dhanda, tested positive this week.

CA Kuttappa, the chief coach of the Indian men's boxing team, and 11 other members of the Indian boxing contingent, including Asian silver medallist Deepak Kumar, tested positive in the last week of March. They'd been in quarantine at the National Institute of Sport (NIS) in Patiala. Although the positive test had resulted in him being unable to travel with other members of the national squad to Moscow for a training competition, Kuttappa was just glad his bout with the coronavirus was over. "It's just a relief for the team that we can restart our work for the Olympics," Kuttappa had said.

And, as Kuttappa was recovering, news emerged on Thursday of 22 members of the women's boxing camp at New Delhi's Indira Gandhi stadium testing positive. The positive cases included chief coaches Mohammad Ali Qamar and Rafael Bergamasco, and the women's team, which subsequently had to withdraw from a tournament in Serbia.

Earlier this month, the Indian judo team had to be pulled out of the Asia Oceania Judo Championships -- an important Olympic qualification tournament -- in Kyrgyzstan after two members of the team tested positive for the virus.

Read: Sushila's Olympic dream on hold after judo team withdraws from qualifiers due to Covid-19

Curbing activities

With cases rising, athletes, coaches and officials have had to modify or even curtail training activities.

After Dhanda and others tested positive, the national wrestling camp in both Sonepat and Lucknow have been halted. Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) officials say the camps will be restarted towards the end of the month.

In badminton, where the qualification process is not yet complete, the status of next month's India Open -- a key qualifying event -- has been impacted following the withdrawal of multiple top players like Carolina Marin, Ratchanok Intanon and Anders Antonsen -- likely due to strict quarantine rules ahead of the tournament in New Delhi.

Some Indian players are also wary about travelling from their base in Hyderabad to New Delhi, which recorded over 19,000 cases of Covid-19 on Friday. "The kind of situation Delhi is in right now, how are we going to organise this tournament?" asks a top Indian player. "It doesn't seem like the brightest idea to be travelling to a place which is worse off than where we are."

The Badminton Association of India (BAI), though, is bullish. "We will be hosting the tournament in a bio bubble and we are completely in preparation mode," said a senior BAI official. The IPL being presently held across six cities in India, despite the virus, lends hope.

New protocols

Sports officials meanwhile say they are doing what they can. In response to a question on what was being done to maintain the safety of athletes, the SAI issued a statement saying they had issued new Standard Operating Protocols (SOPs). "The SOP includes regular RT-PCR tests of athletes on a weekly basis... SAI centres where Olympic-bound athletes are training have been colour coded in a way that Olympic-bound athletes and trainers are not in any physical contact with other people on the campus like administrative staff. Further, staggered training timings have been drawn up to ensure physical distancing of athletes..." SAI said in their statement.

"Getting vaccinated gives you a sort of mental relief. We still wear our masks and have to follow protocols wherever we travel." Archer Tarundeep Rai

Within individual SAI centres, administrators are going a step further. "We've provided thermometers and pulse oximeters to all athletes who are isolated. Every four hours, they are required to post a 30-second reading of their temperature and oxygen saturation levels on the WhatsApp group which also has our doctors on it. Almost all National Centre of Excellence (NCOE) athletes have gone back to their respective homes, and we have only national campers at the moment. The idea is to have a thin number of athletes here, so it's easier to control and monitor," says an SAI Bengaluru official.


The surest solution to dealing with the current crisis is, of course, to vaccinate at least the athletes and coaches who have qualified for the Olympics. The plan to vaccinate Olympic-bound athletes -- or give them top priority -- was first mooted by Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju in November last year but there has been no progress on the matter, with the Health Ministry apparently unwilling to budge on the matter.

A few athletes and coaches, though, have managed to get vaccinated either by being part of the priority list for vaccination, through their own means, as was the case of wrestler Bajrang Punia, if they were part of the armed forces -- as with national pistol coach Samresh Jung -- or training at a military facility.

All four Olympic-bound archers -- Tarundeep Rai, Atanu Das, Pravin Jadhav and Deepika Kumari -- based at the Army Sports Institute SAI centre, Pune, have already received both doses of the vaccine. Maharashtra is among the worst-hit Covid states presently. Although a couple of national campers had been infected by the virus last year, there are no reported active cases among athletes at the centre currently. "Getting vaccinated gives you a sort of mental relief. We still wear our masks and have to follow protocols wherever we travel," says Rai.

Kuttappa and others like him will have to rely on following protocols as well. "We only have around three months to go to the Olympics. We will follow all safety standards as strictly as we can but we have to continue training as effectively as we can. We have the pressure of expectations on us for the Olympics. That's important as well," he says.