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Tripping up on the road to Tokyo

For those who have cleared the qualification hurdle, the headache now is to maintain form as sports events are cancelled worldwide with authorities battling to somehow slow the spread of the virus.

other-sports Updated: Mar 16, 2020, 10:06 IST
HT Correspondents
HT Correspondents
Hindustan Times
Lighting ceremony of the Olympic flame for Tokyo 2020
Lighting ceremony of the Olympic flame for Tokyo 2020 (REUTERS)

The modern Olympics, since it began in 1896, has remained such a huge symbol of global camaraderie that only the two World Wars stopped the Games from being held (in 1916, 1940 and 1944). Even tit-for-tat boycotts could not really dim the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Games.

For Indian athletes, Olympic medals used to be a bridge too far. They have raised their standard over the last decade and ditched the unwanted ‘one-medal nation’ tag starting with Beijing 2008, qualifying in numbers as a first step of the steep climb to podium. The Tokyo Olympics (July 24-August 9) though is in serious danger of becoming the first Games to be scrapped in peace time because of the crisis caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

That has left Indian athletes, be it those in peak training after achieving qualification or others hoping to seal their Tokyo berths from designated events, anxious. For those who have cleared the qualification hurdle, the headache now is to maintain form as sports events are cancelled worldwide with authorities battling to somehow slow the spread of the virus.

Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra has faced his share of drama to even make sure he is in shape to take the flight to Tokyo. One of India’s major medal contenders, the former world U-20 champion’s elbow injury that needed surgery threatened to scupper his Tokyo hopes. Having made a comeback and achieved qualification (85m) with a throw of 87.86m in South Africa last month, Chopra is training in Turkey, a country not affected much. However, there is little clarity whether elite international events will be held to tune up.

“I am taking precautions. I’m not going outside; I just do my training and stay indoors as much as possible,” he said from his training base. “Next month, I’m scheduled to take part in the Federation Cup meet in India, and then in the Diamond League in April and some other meets in Europe. I’ve not heard of cancellations, but everything is so doubtful right now. I’m unable to plan anything.

“It’s important to get competitions because I am coming back from injury.”

The Diamond League starts in Doha on April 17, after the Federation Cup in Patiala (April 10-13). The Athletics Federation of India has withdrawn invitation initially sent to five countries for the event due to COVID-19. But it will remain an Olympic qualifying event.

Praying for postponement

Marathon man Thonakal Gopi is desperate. He finished a creditable 25th in the 2016 Rio Games—his best is 2 hrs, 13 min while the qualifying time of 2:11.30 must be met by May 31. Those hopes are fading as major marathons are being cancelled, especially the Seoul race which had promised a fast time due to pleasant weather. “I missed the Tokyo marathon this month as my entry wasn’t sent by AFI. Then I targetted Seoul, but it was cancelled,” armyman said. Switching to 5,000m or 10,000m to qualify will be next to impossible as the training, especially speed work, differs.

“The only way I can live my Tokyo dream is if the Olympics are postponed,” said Gopi.

Middle-distance ace Jinson Johnson’s qualification in 800m and 1,500m too is uncertain, leave aside finding top form in July-August. He is the national record-holder in both events and won the longer distance at the 2018 Asian Games. “At the moment it looks doubtful whether I will get another chance to run a good race in Europe because events are being cancelled at the drop of a hat,” he said.

Evading is the key

India’s main boxing hope, Amit Panghal, the 2019 world championship silver winner in 52kg, knows a lot about evading the opponent. But his first target on achieving an Olympic qualification spot is to place himself on ‘house arrest’ to evade the contagion.

“I’m in my village Mayna in Rohtak (Haryana). After coming from the Asian qualifiers, we came straight to our homes. The federation has given us strict guidelines. We’ve been told not to mix with people and to be mainly confined to our homes,” the Haryana boxer said.

Currently on a fortnight’s break from training, the training and competition schedule is not clear. “I can’t tell you by when we will have our next national camp or where we will be travelling to train for the Olympics. As far as training is concerned, I will be following the fitness programme at my village. There wouldn’t be any issue peaking in time for the Games.”

Wrestler Deepak Punia, the 2019 world championships silver medallist in 86kg freestyle has the Olympic spot sealed. He is now dealing with restrictions placed at his training base—Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium. The venue has been effectively shut on the Delhi government’s order as part of its measures to combat the coronavirus spread. Junior campers, who also serve as sparring partners, have been barred entry which means the elite wrestlers will have to spar with each other.

“I will be joining the national camp in Sonepat from Monday,” Punia said. “We’ve guidelines form the federation to maintain strict hygiene. Wrestling is a close contact sport and there is no way we can avoid (contact with other wrestlers) if we train in full flow. With the Olympics so close, we can’t let the intensity drop.”

Other top wrestlers, including 65kg medal hopeful Bajrang Punia will also join the camp on Monday. “I’m not sure about exposure trips,” Punia said. “So far, training has been on in full flow.”

American Andrew Cook, the women’s national coach based in their camp in Lucknow, is more confident about his wards than his family based in the US. “It is not the feeling of being stranded, but I definitely feel uneasy,” he said.

It is understandable. His wife, a nurse, recently dealt with two coronavirus patients. “Over 40 people have died within a 30km radius of where my old parents, aged 76 and 81, live” he said.

“There is no chance for me to return for any emergencies, so I’m stranded. Nobody can come here either.” Cook though is not losing focus on the Asian qualifying championships. “We are looking for five slots at the Olympics by qualifying in categories 50, 57, 62, 68, 76,” he said.

Divya Kakran, 2018 Asian Games and Commonwealth Games bronze medallist, is not sure when the qualifiers (scheduled in China from March 27) will be held. “We aren’t allowed to go outside the SAI centre, and outsiders are not coming into the campus. Even at practice, we are cautious not to meet everyone on the mat. We’re taking all precautionary measures to stop the spread of the virus.”

The crisis has also hit tennis. The suspension of the ATP and ITF Tours for six weeks because of coronavirus has disrupted the Indian tennis players’ Olympic plans. The closest to qualification is the doubles pair of Rohan Bopanna and Divij Sharan, the 2018 Asian Games champions.

Expected to pair up again in Tokyo, they have been playing with different partners on the Tour to boost individual rankings before the cut-off date to qualify, June 8. Top 10 players and one from the host nation qualify directly while a combined ranking is taken into account to fill the rest of the 32-team field.

Bopanna, world No. 37 in doubles, and Sharan, who is No. 56, had hoped to use the next two months to play and boost their combined ranking. “Rohan and I had planned to play three tournaments together before the Olympics, and some of them fall in this six-week period. Everything is up in the air. We are in constant touch. Hopefully, it’s not a longer break,” Sharan said. The scenario is the same in mixed doubles where Bopanna could partner Sania Mirza.

Badminton fetched India one of only two medals won in Rio, but the Badminton World Federation cancelling all events due to the contagion has raised doubts about sending a strong squad. PV Sindhu, who won silver four years ago in Brazil, will qualify but many others will have to be within the ranking cut-off by the deadline.

“My ranking is fine, whether the tournaments take place or not, most likely I will qualify, that is if the Olympics happen,” B Sai Praneeth said. “But for those who are still looking to make it, they could have problems. Whether BWF will hold these tournaments at a later date or extend the qualification date, we do not know. We just have to train as of now. Our training will not be affected much. All these 4-5 main tournaments (cancelled/postponed) will be held later. May be they will cancel Thomas and Uber Cup and hold them during that time. BWF can confirm something only after the Tokyo organisers confirm whether the Games will go ahead or not.

The Hyderabad-based player senses the concerns around him. “Everything in Telangana—all stadiums, camps, grounds, gyms—has been shut till March 31. We can start (practice) only after that. I will rest till then, there is no other option. There is nothing else to do.

“This way we are getting a break from the packed calendar. The next 2-3 months, if coronavirus gets controlled, only then we will have some clarity.”

India’s biggest hopes are in shooting and boxing, a record 15 and nine respectively having qualified. But everyone involved is fretting over keeping the athletes in shape.

Indian boxers (five men, four women) qualified from the Olympic qualifier held recently in Amman, Jordan after the Asian qualifier planned in virus epicentre Wuhan last month was called off. Boxers will get another chance to qualify in four remaining weight divisions at the world qualification event in Paris (May 13-24), provided it is held.

A training stint at the high altitude base in Colorado Springs, US this month was called off. India had also planned to invite boxers from eight-nine countries in June to train, but that too looks unlikely. Indian boxing’s High Performance Director Santiago Nieva said: “It is difficult to say anything concrete now but we are looking at options. The only positive thing is nine boxers have qualified.”

Indian shooting has evolved to an extent where shooters plan their training with personal coaches besides being part of the national programme. However, former international Mansher Singh, the chief national coach for shotgun events, said it would be tough to keep shooters in top form till the Games.

“Things like these (postponement/cancellation of World Cups in Cyprus and Delhi) impact shooting a lot because you plan for the entire calendar year. There are only 2-3 World Cups before the Olympics, so everyone bases his/her training and competition around them in such a way they can attain an optimum level and peak at the Olympics. The World Cups are basically tournaments to establish your build-up to the Olympics,” he said.

“We’ve (shotgun squad) had a very, very long camp. Since our World Cup at Cyprus was cancelled, we’ve had a series of camps non-stop, which ended on Saturday. From tomorrow (Monday), we’ll be having selection trials. These will be a sort of placement trials for the shooters who did not get to compete in the World Cups in Cyprus and Delhi. The first trial would be an ‘Olympic qualifying recognised score’ and the second would qualify as the ‘Olympic team selection trial’.”

Amid the wait for major events, shooters find a way to stay competition-ready. “There is a move by some of our top shotgun shooters, they have a league in between the camp every two-three weeks where they can have a comparative experience throughout this lean phase where they are neither able to travel for training or to competitive destinations abroad.

“It’s important you keep competing because training by yourself is not sufficient.”

Rowers in a fix

The qualification process has also been thrown into disarray in rowing because of the coronavirus outbreak. India had made a mark in the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games, winning three medals—one gold and two bronze. Now, they are looking at uncertainty.

Indian rowers at the training camp in the Army Rowing Node, Pune are worried and unsure of their qualification chances after world rowing body FISA cancelled the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta—it had also incorporated the Asia and Oceania Olympic Qualification Regatta—scheduled to be held at Lucerne, Switzerland, from May 17-19.

“(It) is cancelled and will not be postponed or relocated,” FISA said in a statement on Saturday.

FISA will work out a new Olympic qualifying system in consultation with International Olympic Committee. The rowers have been stationed in Pune for the last couple of months, first preparing for the Asia and Oceania Olympic Qualification Regatta. It was scheduled at Chungju, South Korea on March 5, but was cancelled before the event was shifted to Switzerland.

Five rowers, two support staff and an attendant for para rowers were to take part in the Olympic qualification regatta.

“The camp will continue till March end. We are waiting for a decision from the federation regarding the camp. As the Olympics have not been cancelled, we will have to continue with our preparations in the hope that our rowers will get a chance to participate,” chief national coach Ismail Baig said on Sunday.

He said the Indian rowers will now wait for the new qualification system to be announced in the next couple of days. “We are not sure how they will go about allocating Olympic berths—for Asia whether they will take the Asian Games results as the criteria or decide on something else. So there is no other option but to wait for the decision and go on with our preparations as we have been doing for the last couple of weeks,” Baig added.

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