In the last week of February 2020, Delhi played host to the Senior Asian Wrestling Championship. There was no China in attendance, denied arrival over health concerns due to the coronavirus crisis in that country, but other than that, it was business as usual.
No one knew then, 10 months ago, that it would be the last major sporting event for India for most of the year or that the virus would end up turning 2020 into a unique experience for the entire world, upending plans and lives and pushing the sporting world into depths of uncertainty never seen before. That included the first-ever peacetime postponement of the Olympics.
As athletes across sports embrace a new normal they, along with the coaches, officials and other stakeholders, are gradually resuming some semblance of activity, looking back at the year gone by and trying to learn from it while insisting on staying focused on the target ahead of them in another six months’ time.
Sport is a sign of life
“It was a tough time initially because no one even knew what was happening or how long it might last. Once the initial period was over, there was a gradual acceptance of the situation. Since everything was closed across the world, it was easier to understand things were out of control for everyone. Now, training is slowly getting back to optimum, competitions are being scheduled from early next year onwards and we have the Olympics as a specific target to work for. It’s become easier,” admitted javelin thrower Shivpal Singh, one of the last Indian sportspersons returning home amidst the pandemic in March 2020.
The throwers, split into two batches and training in South Africa and Turkey, haven’t actually met their families for almost a year now. Attempting to qualify for the Olympics, they had been on road since the end of 2019 and Shivpal was, in fact, the last Indian athlete to qualify before COVID-19 put a brake on international athletics.
“I was in very good rhythm, very consistent when the lockdown happened. If the Olympics had been held as scheduled, I was very confident of crossing 90m there. It was a bad time — staying indoors, even the most basic exercises restricted to our rooms, no throwing, not going home, unable to meet anyone without taking so many precautions even inside the NIS. My younger brother Nand Kishore is also a thrower but he was in Mumbai and remained stuck there. Mentally and emotionally, it was a bad place to be in, even though I come from a sporting family that understands the pressures. Staying positive was the only way out,” Shivpal added.
Positivity was what kept Anjum Moudgil sane and occupied through the year. The first Indian shooter to book an Olympic quota place, way back in 2018, the 26-year old from Chandigarh fell back on her painting skills and admitted it helped her explore herself in this period. “I was happy to use my hobby in a proper way to generate funds for NGOs and campaigns and to help people affected by Covid. When the lockdown started in March, it was actually a good time for us to take a break because we had been shooting continuously for the last couple of years and there were no competitions coming up. With so much happening around the world, we did have an idea that the Olympics might get postponed. It was all about going with the flow. I took the next 7-8 months positively as a way to spend as much time with my family as possible. It was just about getting used to it because no one knew how long it might continue; one had to be flexible,” Anjum said.
Individuals in a team
The Indian hockey teams, on the other hand, had a very different challenge. As much as it was difficult for federations to keep their individual athletes focused, healthy and fit, Hockey India had to manage 64 of them together. For players who live from one camp to another, none longer than a few weeks and always aimed at peaking for a specific competition, it wasn’t easy to stay indoors at the SAI Centre in Bengaluru without training or target.
“Long camps are alien now, most players have no experience of it. This time we had two — for 5 months and 4-1/2 months — and even though the staff at SAI has been very good in terms of support and motivating players and Hockey India has supported a lot, it does get a bit too much. Mentally and emotionally it was very difficult to come to terms initially with the postponement of the Olympics. And personally, for someone like me whose body has seen wear and tear for more than a decade, it was a challenge to keep up the physical levels for another year. But challenges have always made me do better and this year was no different,” said women’s captain Rani Rampal, adding that the team and she were now at fitness levels better than before lockdown!
Shooter Anjum Moudgil fell back on her painting skills and said it helped her explore herself in this period. “I was happy to use my hobby in a proper way to generate funds for NGOs and campaigns and to help people affected by Covid.” – Special Arrangement
The teams stayed put through initial lockdown in Bengaluru, going home in June for a month before six of the men, including captain Manpreet Singh, tested positive for Covid-19 and had to be hospitalised. The teams are again on a short break now and will reassemble in January and Rani is hopeful that the team will get enough competition and match practice before setting out for Tokyo. “The plans are ready, we only hope they materialise because no one knows what is going to happen next,” she admitted.
The lucky ones
Amid all this, the boxers were clearly the lucky ones. Among the first to get back to proper training at the NIS, Patiala and with the BFI chalking out competition and training plans abroad, the boxers had little time or cause for worry or disappointment. With a 67-day long tour of Italy and Germany ending with 16 medals in two tournaments — the Alexis Vastine International in France and the Cologne World Cup — the men and women pugilists are among the very few Indian sportspersons who do not have to worry about exposure.
“It was all so difficult to process because I never thought that something like this could happen. Initially, we were happy to get rest for a good period of time. But once we started training again, there was no let up in intensity. There was a lot of uncertainty. It has been a tough year and a lot of credit goes to the BFI and the coaches so that our preparations remain in top shape and we don’t miss out on exposure,” World No. 1 in 52kg and one of India’s brightest hopes of a medal in Tokyo, Amit Panghal, said.
Handling the mind
Athletics chief coach Radhakrishnan Nair admitted everyone struggled initially, more with the uncertainty than any particular cancellation. “Specifics you can prepare for; how does one plan for something that has no solution or, worse, no visible end in sight?
“It took a while to get things under control. We had to ensure our athletes were all back in the country, tested and cleared and then provided complete support amid total isolation, for safety. It wasn’t easy but we managed to do it,” he said, clearly proud of having managed the almost impossible despite taking charge from long-term coach Bahadur Singh in the midst of the pandemic.
Nair added that while the services of a sports psychologist was used occasionally, the coaches and senior AFI officials including president Adille Sumariwalla and Lalit Bhanot also held regular virtual interactions to ensure athletes did not drift or lose hope. “It was a team effort, no one could have handled 2020 alone,” he said.
“Challenges have always made me do better and this year was no different,” said Indian women’s hockey team captain Rani Rampal, adding that the team and she were now at fitness levels better than before lockdown! – K. Murali Kumar
The original Olympic months of July-August were also the most difficult for most athletes. Anjum did the next best thing — she competed at home under almost identical conditions.
“Back then, everything we were doing, it would feel like ‘we should have been in Tokyo at the time.’ So I made a proper routine and followed it, the way I might have done at the Olympics. I also played a match on the same day and time when I was supposed to compete in Tokyo and shared the result with everyone,” she revealed.
Panghal had a similar view. “Our life revolves around Olympics and it was hard not to think about how we should have been there and how things would have been in Tokyo if everything was normal and if we were there and how and where we would have been training in Tokyo. It is natural and it was a difficult time.”
With little to no action on field, events off it largely dominated any sporting discussion around the year. Not all of it was good. AFI lost its High Performance Director Volker Herrmann, as did Hockey India with David John.
The men’s hockey team, in fact, is continuing with skeletal staff at the moment, without an analytical coach or a physiotherapist — both Chris Ciriello and Andrew McDonald quitting. Skeet shooting coach Ennio Falco bid adieu as well.
Badminton saw doubles coach Flandy Limpele leaving. Women’s wrestling coach Andrew Cook was sacked. And while all of them cited ‘personal reasons’ amid speculations of clashes with the respective federations, it meant the Indian sportspersons were left facing even more uncertainty at a time when there was no certainty to begin with.
The road ahead
In 2021 Indian sports and its practitioners are hoping there is a positive reset to their plans, training and future as well. Despite the chaos that 2020 has wrought on their hopes and dreams, Indian athletes are gearing up to take on the challenge of the next six months, in the run-up to Tokyo Olympics.
A confident Rani said, “As a senior player, you have to set the benchmark for everything including managing your pain. Even the slightest drop in your levels will be picked up by the youngsters and the expectation levels from coaches is always sky-high. And I am ready to hold myself up to scrutiny. The awards I was honoured with this year were the result of 10 years of blood and sweat and the perfect boost to do it again.
“In Rio, we honestly didn’t expect much from ourselves. In Tokyo, we are determined to prove ourselves. It may be the last chance for many of us and right now, every player is confident we are at par in terms of fitness with any team in the world. All we need to do is maintain that for another six months and play as many matches as we can. The confidence that one gets from that realisation is amazing.”
“A lot of credit goes to the BFI and the coaches so that our preparations remain in top shape and we don’t miss out on exposure,” World No. 1 boxer in 52kg and one of India’s brightest hopes of a medal in Tokyo, Amit Panghal, said. – PTI
Shivpal, who admitted fitness went for a toss early on, insisted he was in the best form of his life right now. “Moving to Bhubaneswar has meant ideal training conditions. Fitness is optimum, throwing is consistent. There are plans for training in South Africa in January, then moving to Poland later on and participating in some European competitions. My main target will be the Diamond League because you get the best competitors there and it will be the best way to assess myself before Tokyo,” he added.
Anjum too is hopeful of actual competitions. “I hope we have some international competition but at least the domestic events are confirmed, as of now. One good thing this year was the two-month long camp we recently had with all Olympic probables, all the coaches, ammunition etc. The only thing in our control is to train well instead of stressing about competitions.”
Panghal is not too worried. “We will keep on working hard and doing the basics right. Winning gold recently was a confidence booster and reassured that we are on the right track. Personally, I feel that I need to work on a lot of things to establish myself in the 52 kg category and I will keep doing that,” he said.
Nair remained optimistic. “With new cases in Europe recently, all our plans are subject to government clearance and safety requirements. But it’s a different life we are all leading now and we are prepared for a different Olympics as well, with whatever restrictions might be in place. Will the Olympics happen? It’s five years of sacrificing everything for one dream. I am optimistic that dream won’t be broken.”