There's a sense of anxiety at the Karni Singh Shooting range during the ongoing ISSF Shooting World Cup after two more Indian competitors in the pistol events tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday night. Two other Indians, including a multiple World Cup medallist, had already tested positive for the virus earlier in the competition.
As news of the fresh cases spread in the national camp on Saturday night, restrictions were further tightened in a tournament already operating in a bio-bubble. "We usually have our meals in a common area in the team hotel but today morning, we received our breakfast at the door," says Samresh Jung, the chief coach of the Indian pistol team.
In addition, organisers say that Indian competitors have now been allotted separate buses. "They are only supposed to travel from their hotel to the competition venue in those buses," says an NRAI official in charge of arrangements.
The ISSF World Cup in New Delhi is one of the first major international competitions held (the shotgun World Cup was held in Cairo last month) since the entire shooting calendar in 2020 was wiped out owing to the coronavirus pandemic. It is seen as a crucial preparatory competition for Indian shooters ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. It might also serve as a way for Indian pistol shooter Anish Bhanwala to qualify for the Olympics. His strategy is to perform strongly in the rapid-fire pistol event and improve his world ranking enough to qualify via a ranking quota.
With COVID-19 cases currently rising in India, organisers said the tournament would be organised in a bio-bubble. There are temperature checks at the entrance to every competition venue, masks are mandatory and no spectators are allowed. Competitors themselves were only allowed to travel from their hotel to the range. Shooters from the UK and Brazil were required to stay in a week-long hard quarantine in their hotel. All of them were required to take multiple RT PCR tests - one on the day of their arrival in India, another when they entered the venue and a third before their event.
There have been sporadic accounts of violation of the bubble. Hungary's Istvan Peni posted a picture of himself in Humayun's Tomb, a monument in New Delhi. Peni, who would win a silver medal in the 10m air rifle event on Saturday, claimed he had a valid excuse though. He - along with the rest of Hungary's Olympic qualifiers - had already been vaccinated for the Coronavirus a month before the event. He'd also cleared the three RT PCR tests he was subject to.
Following the alleged violations, the sports ministry announced on Saturday that they had asked the federation to submit a report. "SAI has been made aware that ... Standard Operating Procedures are not being adhered to at the Games hotel and also some international players (had been) breaching the bio bubble. SAI has written to the NRAI and asked the federation to submit a report on the same," said the SAI statement.
However, the bigger concern for the NRAI is that although Indian shooters comprise just 57 of the 300 odd participants in the World Cup, four of the six shooters tested positive so far are Indians.
"It's definitely concerning. We really aren't sure how either shooter contracted the virus. Neither of them two (pistol) shooters are roommates either," Jung said. Both shooters have been hospitalised, and Jung says they are more shocked than unwell. "None of the shooters, either from the pistol or other teams have any symptom of the virus. They are genuinely surprised they have contracted the virus," says Jung, who himself suffered a bout with the coronavirus last year, and has now been vaccinated. While the teams were hoping the tests were false positives, further tests have confirmed the presence of the virus.
One coach said it was possible that the players might have contracted the virus not during the World Cup but during the preparatory camp for the tournament. The Indian team has had a total of four camps beginning in October last year. The general perception is that while the first three camps, which were limited to athletes in the Olympic core group (shooters who had won Olympic quotas or were in contention to travel to Tokyo) followed the COVID safety precautions rigorously, the final camp in which outside shooters participating in the World Cup were permitted to train wasn't as fastidious.
As things stand, coaches and officials can only hope no further Indians test positive for the coronavirus. While there were fears that the roommates of the two pistol shooters might have contracted the virus, it is learned that both have tested negative. The biggest concern remains the status of 18-year-old Anish Bhanwala. Although Bhanwala hasn't tested positive for the virus in any of his tests, the two pistol shooters who tested positive were his teammates and he was observed working closely with one of them just a day before the start of the World Cup.
"Right now we only hope not just Anish but no other shooter catches the virus. At this stage all we can do is follow the safety precautions," says Jung.