Quarantine: An excuse for autocracy?
Why can’t our Olympic athletes, who have been stuck at Sports Authority of India (SAI) centres since the lockdown began in March, even step out of their rooms?
Why is it that Neeraj Chopra, our once-in-a-lifetime track and field star, must endure working out in his room at the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala?
Why can’t our hockey players — both the men’s and women’s squads have been sequestered at the SAI’s Bengaluru centre since before the lockdown — go for a run through the tracks and fields at the campus?
I ask this question only because it seems illogical to put our national athletes through such a draconian quarantine when the SAI centres have maintained that almost no one has gone in or out of their facilities since the beginning of the lockdown, and no one inside has shown any symptoms of being ill.
Considering the immense space available at these institutes, and the very small number of athletes and staff present, I cannot think of a good reason why athletes can’t continue to keep in touch with their sport and / or fitness while maintaining social distancing and other safety measures.
Yet all we have got from the SAI and the sports ministry are vague reassurances, talk of plans being formulated, and a promise to resume activities soon.
How soon is soon?
After almost a month of equivocating, the SAI finally put out a document with new protocols on May 21, derived largely from (and that’s a good thing) an extensive set of guidelines issued by the Australian Institute of Sports towards the end of April. And still they said nothing about resuming training.
Perhaps our sports administrators are unaware that muscles weaken when there is no input from exercise. Muscle memory — another term for the sport-specific skills that athletes work so hard to acquire — begins to fade. Cardiovascular fitness goes even quicker than muscle strength, dropping by as much as a quarter in the space of four weeks, without training.
Nine of our best weightlifters have been stuck at NIS Patiala without access to weights. At the elite level, lifters don’t go a day without doing at least some kind of weight-training. Lifting for them is like prayer for the very religious. The bar is their closest friend. When they take their position in front of the weight, and align themselves, it’s an intensely personal moment.
Would it have taken that much effort to sanitise weights at the huge lifting hall at the SAI for just nine athletes, and give them staggered timings when they could come and do a bit of training?
These restrictions seem illogical, but they are not surprising. Our government sports administration has always worked this way — with very little consideration for sportspeople. Things have become better over the last decade or so, but SAI centres used to be like prisons. Athletes went into them as teenagers, and were not allowed to grow up. You could be 15, 25, or 35 years old, you were still subjected to the same kinds of ‘hostel’ rules, with strictly enforced curfews, gender segregation, and the constant need for ‘permission’.
If you defied or criticised the system in any way — whether you were an athlete or coach — your career was under threat.
A generation of gritty stars fought the system anyway (I am thinking of people like Mary Kom) and forced our sports administrators to treat athletes with more care. With the pandemic, their old, oppressive instincts seem to have lurked back.