How India’s Olympic contenders overcame Covid-19, got back to fitness

Updated on Jan 02, 2021 09:24 AM IST

Just as Lovlina Borgohain, a two-time World Championships medallist, began dreaming about her maiden Olympics, the Games was postponed by a year in Tokyo.

Lovlina Borgohain at SAI centre, Guwahati(HT)
Lovlina Borgohain at SAI centre, Guwahati(HT)
New Delhi | ByAvishek Roy

Hours before she was to board the flight for Italy for the European tour in October - which would have marked the competitive return of Lovlina Borgohain after seven months - the Assamese boxer tested positive for Covid-19. Soon, she was running a high fever, along with a headache, and had to be admitted to a New Delhi hospital.

Borgohain was shattered and surprised, she said, because she believed she had been careful. She always wore a mask, carried extra masks and sanitisers with her and even delayed her plans to begin camp at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala until mid-August. When she collected her Arjuna Award in Chandigarh in August, she was in a full PPE kit. Still, the virus got to her, just at a time when she was to get back into the thick of things after a long period of inaction.

One of India’s most highly rated boxers, Borgohain had qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in the 69kg category. But just as the 23-year-old from Guwahati, a two-time World Championships medallist, began dreaming about her maiden Olympics, the Games was postponed by a year in Tokyo.

“It all started with fever and muscular weakness,” Borgohain said. “The whole period in hospital and the 20 days of isolation after that were very challenging. Being confined to four walls was tough, I was having depressing thoughts about loss in training and performance.”

Borgohain’s story will resonate with several other Olympics-bound athletes from India, who spent the year 2020 shuttling between hospitals and quarantine centres instead of reliving their tryst with Tokyo. When their bodies were meant to peak to the height of their athletic prowess, they were gasping for breath in training instead, their feet unstable and mind cluttered with negative thoughts.

Wrestling was worst affected with nine Olympic hopefuls infected with the virus, followed by six in badminton and hockey respectively. Shooting, archery, weightlifting - there were cases everywhere, including medal contenders like Vinesh Phogat, Deepak Punia, Saina Nehwal, Parupalli Kashyap, Manpreet Singh and Divyansh Panwar, to name only a few.

While some, like Borgohain, needed hospitalization, most had mild or no symptoms at all. Yet one thing was true for each: they were all shaken mentally, and stripped of their supreme fitness levels. Each of them then had to begin a long recovery process.

Return to fitness

Some are now showing signs of a return to their base fitness - like the six hockey players, including captain Manpreet Singh, already recording impressive results in the Yo-Yo tests. Panic first gripped the Indian hockey squad on the night of August 10, when Mandeep Singh’s oxygen level had dropped below normal, and doctors felt he needed to be shifted to a hospital.

When an ambulance arrived in the dead of night to pick up him from the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Bengaluru, Mandeep was nearly hysterical.

“I did not know what was happening. I have never had a serious injury, let alone been inside an ambulance,” said Mandeep. Five other teammates - captain Manpreet, Jaskaran Singh, Surender Kumar, Varun Kumar and KB Pathak - all tested positive and were sent to the same hospital as a pre-cautionary measure.

All of them had lost their taste and smell, which gradually returned after some 10 days.

“The first few days in the hospital were tough for everyone. We had heard so much about the virus that we were stressed out,” said Manpreet. “We were battling negative thoughts, but then our coaches and doctors told us there was no reason to panic and that helped us recover.”

After six days, they hockey players were discharged and were put through another round of isolation at the SAI centre. But Surender Kumar’s right arm now started showing signs of swelling. Tests revealed he had Venous Thrombosis, a Covid complication seen in patients during the recovery phase, leading to the formation of a blood clot in his right upper limb. Kumar was back in the hospital for a longer haul.

“I spent another 10 days in the hospital, this time all alone,” said Kumar. In utter loneliness, he said, he wondered if he would ever return to the field. Movies came as a distraction, so did phone calls with his family. “It was a relief when I was discharged. The other players who had Covid had started training, and I joined the group after another week.”

Unlike the hockey players, wrestler Vinesh Phogat had shown no symptoms. So, she was surprised to see her test return positive a day before she was scheduled to collect the Khel Ratna award in August. When she returned to train after recovering from the virus, her body couldn’t handle the first training session.

“I wasn’t scared but had heard about the post Covid complications. I was hoping there is nothing serious. Everything is so new about this virus that, as an athlete, you are confused as to what to expect,” said Phogat. For the next one month, she restricted her physical activity to cycling. “All the training that I had done at home during the lockdown had gone to waste and I had to start afresh. It took around six weeks for the cough to completely go.”

Phogat, who is now in high-altitude training in Hungary and Poland, was one of the first wrestlers to test positive. Many others soon did because they trained together in local centres. Divya Kakran was among four wrestlers who tested positive before the World Cup in Serbia in December. “It was disturbing to miss out on the World Cup,” said Kakran, who began the year by becoming the second Indian woman to win a gold at the Asian Wrestling Championships. “I was at my best when the pandemic struck. But I have to fight this phase and will look to get some competition at the nationals.”


Quite like the wrestling community, India’s badminton stars also tend to form personal equations with their contemporaries that go beyond the sport. Shortly after Saina Nehwal, Parupalli Kashyap, HS Prannoy, Prannav Jerry Chopra and attended fellow player Guru Saidutt’s wedding, all of them tested positive.

Nehwal and her husband Kashyap are still working towards regaining fitness. While Nehwal, bronze-medallist from the London Games, is close to qualifying for her fourth Olympics, Kashyap too has an outside chance. “My body has become unfit and my muscles feel weak. I have also put on some weight,” said Kashyap. “The anti-viral drug was making us eat a lot. Coming back to fitness is the most important thing now.”

How bad were his symptoms? “Very basic– cold, sneezing, sore throat and low temperature,” said Kashyap. “Saina also developed them and when we went for a re-test on the ninth day, she turned positive. We had started medication by then. After three days we had lost taste and smell which lasted another three days.” They lost two weeks of training and trained separately for a week.

By the time hockey’s Surender Kumar returned to the SAI centre in Bengaluru, the other five players who had been admitted with him the first time around had completed their isolation period and were on their post-recovery protocol. When Kumar went through the grind and finally returned, so did the swelling on his arm.

“But it would subside after a few hours. The doctor told me there was nothing to worry about and that the swelling will remain for some days. It disappeared only after two months,” he said. “As athletes, we are all used to winning over obstacles, injuries. It all boils down to mental strength. We constantly reminded ourselves that the target is Tokyo Olympics. That is our big motivation.”

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