Social distancing and mask wearing norms forgotten at women's wrestling nationals in Agra

While the coronavirus pandemic is yet to be declared a thing of the past, most norms of social distancing and mask wearing seemed to have been forgotten by the spectators at the nationals. Jonathan Selvaraj/ESPN

Even as they clambered over each other and climbed on chairs in order to get a better view of proceedings, spectators at the women's wrestling nationals were mock threatened by Wrestling Federation of India president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. "If there are people standing on chairs, there's a 500 rupees reward for anyone who pushes them off it," he thundered, from the dais alongside the wrestling mats in Agra, where the tournament is being organized.

"Just make sure you don't injure anyone," he added as a caveat. There weren't many takers for the reward though. While the coronavirus pandemic is yet to be declared a thing of the past, most norms of social distancing and mask wearing seemed to have been forgotten by the spectators at the nationals.

It isn't happening for the first time either. Earlier this month, the Sports Ministry sought a report from the WFI following the men's national championships in Noida -- the first national championship of a major Olympic sport since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. That event was marked by few masks, no social distancing and packed stands.

These were clearly in violation of several points of the eight-page Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for organising competitions in the midst of a pandemic released by the sports ministry on December 26 last year. Under the SOPS, the events had to be conducted 'strictly in accordance with the guidelines of the Ministry of Home Affairs'.

The government had said that the organisers should ensure there are specific markings on the floor at gaps of six feet, limit the presence of support staff at the venue, ensure ventilation and make available face covers, masks, gloves and sanitisers at the venue. It had also said that spectators will be allowed up to a maximum of 50 per cent of the capacity of the stadium for outdoor events.

Few of these conditions were met in Noida on the grounds of the Manorama Management Institute in Agra, where hundreds of spectators gathered to watch the women's freestyle championships, in which 240 wrestlers are competing across 10 weight divisions. While competitors had to present coronavirus negative certificates, there was no such requirement for coaches and support staff accompanying them. And while referees officiating the bouts wore face shields, few others wore masks. People roamed around freely within the field of play.

While Singh made periodic requests to the spectators to get down from chairs and clear the area around the mats, he too did not wear a mask and was on the dais, where the dignitaries sat close to each other.

WFI officials said they were doing what they could. "We make sure the referees are wearing protective gear and face shields. We can ensure that the athletes who take part here have a covid free certificate. We even asked policemen to get the crowd seated," said a WFI official. "We had people coming from the surrounding villages. But beyond a point, it isn't possible to enforce these rules everywhere. It's difficult for us and also the local administration," he added.

According to the official, it was hard to control the crowd who came for a tournament like the nationals. "The majority of the crowd will be family or friends of the wrestlers. When we have selection trials, it will be in a closed area with only a limited number of people. it will be possible to maintain some coronavirus restrictions over there," the official said.