Sathiyan Gnanasekaran of India. File(Getty Images)
Sathiyan Gnanasekaran of India. File(Getty Images)

In race against time to qualify for the Olympics

This fresh wave of uncertainty has meant even more anxiety for the already-stressed athletes.
By Avishek Roy, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON FEB 23, 2021 07:05 AM IST

In a couple of days G Sathiyan, along with the Indian table tennis team, will be on board a flight to Doha for the much-awaited Olympic qualifiers. Both World and Asian qualifiers are scheduled one after the other, from March 14, with the players confined to a bio-bubble for six-weeks, including for two Pro tour events preceding the qualifiers.

Sathiyan will not rest easy till he has played the qualifiers—not just because the tournament will be his last chance to book a place for Tokyo, but also because of a fear that the event itself may be cancelled.

In the last week, there’s been a spate of cancellations and postponements of Olympic qualification events across various disciplines. Indian boxers, for example, will not have another opportunity to qualify for Tokyo with the world qualifiers in Paris now cancelled. The international badminton qualification window, scheduled to reopen with the Swiss Open in March, has been hit yet again with organising nations calling for postponement of tournaments due to rising Covid-19 cases.

The situation bears an ominous resemblance to roughly this time last year, when qualification events for the yet-to-be postponed Tokyo Olympics were cancelled one after the other, before the Olympics itself was pushed back by a year.

This fresh wave of uncertainty has meant even more anxiety for the already-stressed athletes.

“We are living in uncertainty for more than a year,” said world no 37 Sathiyan. “We don’t know what will happen after this event, or whether we will get any more tournaments before the Olympics. It’s very tough as an athlete to take all these things into account and keep preparing.”

Doha was also supposed to host the Apparatus World Cup, an Olympic qualifying event for gymnasts from March 10—that has now been postponed indefinitely.

“Fortunately, the TT qualification event is still on. There has been a rise of cases leading to cancellation of some events in Doha, but the international federation has confirmed that they are going ahead,” Sathiyan said.

With the Tokyo Games less than six months away, nearly 40 per cent of the athlete quota places (across disciplines) for the event are yet to be earned. Of this, 25 per cent will be decided during the qualification period which runs till June 29. The rest of the athletes are selected through rankings.

However, the way things are going, international sporting federations may have no option but to allocate more slots through the ranking route.

Indian boxers encountered that unwelcome news on Feb 17, when the Boxing Task Force decided to cancel the world qualifying event in Paris in June and allocate 53 quota places through world rankings. Nine Indian boxers made the cut for Tokyo through the Asian qualification in March. The remaining four (men - 51 Kg, 81 Kg and 91 Kg and women’s 57 kg) are unlikely to be filled as none of the Indian boxers are high enough in the rankings.

“It is a big blow for the boxers who have been preparing for the qualifier,” said Santiago Nieva, Indian boxing team’s high performance director.

India's hopes were high in 57kg men and women categories. The likes of Commonwealth Games gold medalist Gaurav Solanki, Asian Championships silver medallist Kavinder Bisht and world silver medallist Sonia Chahal were in great form.

“The whole purpose of starting the camp early in August was to prepare the boxers in these categories. We went to Italy and France because we wanted to qualify for all the berths.”

India’s top badminton players are a worried lot too with the international calendar in complete disarray.

The Badminton World Federation plans to reopen the qualification window with the Swiss Open from March 2.

While that is still on track, the next series of events—German Open (March 9-14) and Malaysia Masters (April 6-11) have been postponed. Malaysia Open and Singapore Open dates have been delayed. Fresh dates are yet to be announced for Indonesia Masters and Indonesia Open too. The India Open was slated to be the last qualification event in the calendar from May 11-16, but now the window has been extended till June 15.

“It does affect our mental preparation. The best way to counter is to just tell ourselves that times are difficult and see the positive that there are some tournaments happening, while in many sports things are yet to start,” said doubles specialist Chirag Shetty.

Shetty and his doubles partner Satwiksairaj Rankireddy had to change their schedule a number of times in the last few weeks.

“First the German Open got cancelled so now we have decided to play All England. Earlier we were not sure about All England because it was not a qualification event. So, we were going for Swiss, German and Malaysian Open. It is really not in our hands with the uncertain times,” said Chirag.

Chirag and Satwik are ranked world No. 10 and look set to achieve the qualification. Besides, PV Sindhu and Sai Praneeth are on good ground as far as singles are concerned. But Kidambi Srikanth and Saina Nehwal in singles, and the mixed doubles combination of Satwik and Ashwini Ponappa, who performed very well in Thailand Open in January, raising expectations for Tokyo, are sitting on the periphery.

“It is very disturbing for the players and nothing is clear as far as qualification is concerned. From players to organisers, all are helpless,” said national selector and former international Vimal Kumar. “But many players are on the same boat. The situation keeps changing every day.”

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