How Indian athletes plan to cope with cramped 2022 CWG and Asiad
- The Asian Games next year will begin a month after the end of the Commonwealth Games. For Indian athletes, major events coming so close to each other will be a unique challenge.
Early last month, while hinting about the country’s hockey teams pulling out of the 2022 Commonwealth Games (CWG), Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president Narinder Batra had left no ambiguity about the volume of the Indian participation for the edition in Birmingham compared to Gold Coast in 2018.
“The size of Indian contingent to Commonwealth Games 2022 will be much less than which went in 2018… And the medals tally will also be proportionately less for India,” Batra had said.
A large part of the statement was down to the one sport that has been left out of the 2022 edition. Shooting, which had the largest individual representation and contributed 16 of the country’s 66 medals in 2018, has been excluded in Birmingham, a move that triggered Batra to label the Games without “standard” and “a waste of time and money” a couple of years ago. Last week, Hockey India—with IOA’s support and a day after Great Britain withdrew from the Junior World Cup in India amid the quarantine tussle between the two countries—conveyed its decision to withdraw from the CWG citing the short gap before the Asian Games that doubles up as qualifying event for the 2024 Paris Olympics. The last word on that, however, appears yet to be spoken with Sports Minister Anurag Thakur objecting to the federation’s move.
Be that as it may, the two multi-nation events next year almost sandwiched together a year after the Tokyo Games does indeed present a tricky situation for federations and athletes in various sport.
There was a four-month gap between the two events in 2018. Next year, the CWG runs from July 28 to August 8, while the Asian Games begin in Hangzhou, China, begins September 10. That’s a little over a month’s time for athletes to rest, recuperate and peak again for the continental event that traditionally—and largely across sport—holds more significance for India than the one between the so-called Commonwealth nations (countries that were formerly under British rule, although it sees a few more countries participate as “dependent or associated territories”).
The Commonwealth Games Federation (CFG) has also been forced to revamp its structure to remain relevant, keeping only athletics and swimming mandatary from the next edition while allowing the host cities to include disciplines of their choice from a core list to fill up the other slots. "Our Games need to adapt, evolve and modernise to ensure we continue to maintain our relevance and prestige across the Commonwealth," CGF president Dame Louise Martin said.
For athletics, on a high in India after Neeraj Chopra’s Tokyo gold, the complexity is accentuated next year with the World Championships slated from July 15-24 in Oregon. The select few Indian athletes who will be in Oregon will have around a week between competing in what will also be a qualifying event for Paris and flying to Birmingham for the CWG.
“There will be a lot of permutations and combinations that we will have to look at closely,” said Athletics Federation of India (AFI) president Adille Sumariwalla. “It might be that different sets of people go for the Worlds, CWG and the Asian Games. Yes, it’s a challenge, and ideally, we would like our athletes to go to all three. But if we find that we may have to miss one, then we will have a detailed discussion with the coaches and selection committee once we get closer to it.”
It could also vary from event to event. For example, Chopra, who won the javelin gold in both CWG and Asiad five years ago, might not fret too much about competing in three events over two months, but for the middle- and long- distance runners, it would be a stretch (unless, of course, you’re Sifan Hassan).
“Both events are important, but the Asian Games a bit more crucial,” said two-time Asian Games medallist Sudha Singh, who is aiming to compete in the 3,000m steeplechase in both. “The CWG is not that easy as well in athletics, especially with the Kenyans being there.”
Sumariwalla, the 1980 Moscow Olympic sprinter, attached greater significance to the continental games from an Indian viewpoint. “Traditionally, India has always focused on the Asian Games. A lot of times we send our second stringers to the CWG, so that’s a decision the selection committee and the others will have to take. But I would think we will have a very large contingent for the Asian Games, a medium one for the CWG and a select few for the Worlds,” he said.
Using the CWG to provide exposure to its second line of challengers is an idea the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) also doesn’t seem averse to at the moment.
“In some categories we have a good second line of wrestlers, so we can give them exposure there (CWG). But it all depends on what the selection committee decides when the time comes for it,” said Vinod Tomar, WFI’s assistant secretary. “For Indian wrestling, winning a medal at the Asian Games is more challenging and a bigger achievement than CWG. The focus will be on that.”
Historically, India is placed better in the all-time medals tally in the CWG (4th with 181 gold medals) than the Asian Games (5th with 155 gold); the overall medal count however stands higher at the Asiad (672 compared to 503). Five years ago, India pocketed 66 medals from the Gold Coast CWG and 70 from the Jakarta Asian Games.
In overlapping sport like hockey where there is direct Olympic qualification on offer for the winners or those like badminton and table tennis in which Asian powerhouses provide sterner tests, the Asian Games have great value. G Sathiyan, India’s rising table tennis star who made his Olympic debut in Tokyo, believes the entire process of competing in a two-week multi-nation event, resting, recovering and peaking again for another more intense tournament within a month will be a unique challenge for most participating Indians.
“Most athletes would have never faced it, so it’s going to be a huge challenge. I’ll have to work with my coach and trainer and formulate a plan on how to get the body ready. In TT, we’re used to playing back-to-back tournaments, but to play two big ones and be mentally there in both is not going to be easy,” Sathiyan said.
However, the 28-year-old who won three medals in the watershed 2018 CWG for Indian table tennis and a team bronze at the Asiad, isn’t ready to pick and choose. “It’s different for different sport, but for us, CWG has been a stronghold. In CWG, there are more events so it will be more tiring, whereas in the Asian Games there is tougher competition so it will be more intense. We’ll have to plan accordingly,” the 28-year-old added.
In a sport like squash, it’s the other way around. The presence of Australia, England and New Zealand gives the CWG a more competitive touch. Plus, with squash not part of the Olympic charter, the four-year cycle featuring the two events is all squash players have to look forward to in terms of representing the country away from the professional tour.
Like athletics, squash has a World Championships scheduled in May-June next year, leaving the three most prestigious events in the calendar cramped in three-and-a-half months.
“We’ll be walking a tight rope,” Saurav Ghosal, India’s top male squash pro who has seven Asiad medals and one CWG mixed doubles silver, said. “It’s going to take some good peaking, periodization, training and smart scheduling. I’m 35 and will be 36 by the time the Asian Games happen, so I’ll have to save myself to have enough in the tank when the big ones come around. It’s going to be hectic, no doubt about that.”