Life comes first, sport can wait. This was the collective view of India’s top Olympic-bound athletes, including stalwarts such as MC Mary Kom and Saina Nehwal, as they lauded the Tokyo Games’ postponement amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has pushed the world into chaos.
The quadrennial showpiece, scheduled from July 24 to August 9 in Tokyo, was postponed to no later than summer of 2021 after a telephonic conversation between Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach on Tuesday.
“The situation right now is not good. Life always comes first, everything else can wait. Players’ safety is paramount. Everyone who took this decision factored this in. I think it’s good for everyone,” Mary Kom, a bronze-medallist at London 2012 who was gearing up for her second Olympic appearance, told PTI.
“Now I get more time to prepare, our training plans can be extended. And it’s not just for me, it is true for everyone around the world,” she added.
Saina, also a bronze-winner at the 2012 Games, held a similar view. She was racing against time to qualify for Tokyo after all the qualifying events stood cancelled due to the deadly coronavirus outbreak, which has caused more than 16,000 deaths worldwide. India has close to 500 COVID-19 positive cases and has recorded 11 deaths so far.
“Happy that it’s postponed even though some of us haven’t qualified. We are eager to know what the qualification (process) would be like going ahead,” she said.
“As an athlete who’s played Olympics before I would say it’s good as everyone can chill now and not worry about preparations amid a lockdown. We all have to be safe first and then we can think about preparations,” she added, referring to the lockdown in India to contain the pandemic.
His much-awaited Olympic debut has been delayed by a year but star Indian javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra is unfazed as he feels humanity needs to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic more than anything else right now.
Chopra qualified for the Olympics at the Athletics Central North East Meeting League meeting in Potchefstroom, South Africa earlier this month, making an impressive return to the circuit after recovering from an elbow injury.
“I think this was a welcome decision for us athletes in the circumstances and not something that came as a surprise. While we were looking forward to Tokyo 2020, the environment wouldn’t have been appropriate for the event to be celebrated the way it should be,” the Commonwealth and Asian Games champion said in a statement.
“I would say we should look at this positively as it would allow us a year more to plan and train for the Olympics, which is the biggest sporting event for many athletes.
“There will be some impact on preparations over the next few months till the situation is brought under control, but that is something that all athletes are facing equally,” he added.
Two-time Olympian boxer Vikas Krishan Yadav (69kg), who is also an Asian Games and Commonwealth Games gold-medallist, also felt the same. Yadav has returned to amateur boxing after an unbeaten stint in the pro circuit.
“At the end of the day, humanity has to trump sport, so I’m happy that the decision was made to postpone the Olympics amidst the coronavirus situation,” he said referring to the outbreak which has claimed close to 19,000 deaths the world over.
“Obviously, the postponement will affect our preparation, but I think the extra time can help me prepare even better for my goal to win an Olympic Gold for India,” he added.
For Vinesh Phogat, who was looking to overcome the heartbreak of Rio 2016, the decision has come as something of a downer. “Khalipan sa ho gaya (there is a feeling of emptiness),” she is quoted as saying by the Indian Express.
But the star wrestler understands the need for postponement.
“The decision is understandable and a fair one too. I have been able to train because there is a facility in my house. But there are so many who aren’t able to do it, athletes from India as well as other countries. And think of those who have not qualified yet. They must be under so much stress. So, it is good that they will get enough time to start training again and then aim for the Olympics,” she told the daily.
‘Health is paramount’
Wrestler Bajrang Punia, who is eyeing an Olympic medal on debut, said training had been thrown haywire by the pandemic and the postponement is welcome.
“It’s a good decision because everyone was disturbed. Athletes’ health is paramount. No one is training properly. It’s not just about India, it’s also about the entire world. We first have to save people from this epidemic,” Punia told PTI.
Former world champion weightlifter Mirabai Chanu also felt that the decision is good for athletes.
“Whatever happens, happens for a good reason. Now we have more time to prepare. It’s good for my performance. I will continue training,” Chanu said.
Shooter Rahi Sarnobat, who qualified in the 25m air pistol event, said with her training hampered by a nationwide lockdown, she is feeling relieved.
“...since training had stopped, we would have needed another three-four months time to prepare. So, we wanted postponement. Now we can refresh ourselves and restart the competitions (training),” she said.
Wrestler Ravi Dahiya, who qualified in the 57kg category with a bronze medal winning performance at the 2019 World Championship, said he would use the time to toughen up a bit more for his debut at the big stage.
“We were prepared for this year’s Olympics. We were ready but what do you do when something like this happens. It’s beyond everyone’s control. We will again prepare for 2021,” Dahiya told PTI.
“I would have fought well this year also, but now I have more time to toughen up,” he added.
The doubles badminton pair of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, who were also set for their first appearance at the Games, echoed the majority sentiment.
“At the moment it’s the right decision to take,” Shetty said.
“It’s sad but at the moment it is a sensible decision to take...there’s disappointment obviously but well things are not really in your hand,” he added.
Archer Deepika Kumari, on the other hand, heaved a sigh of relief. She said: “Like they say, ‘Jaan hai toh jahaan hai’ (if there’s life, then there’s world). Firstly, I just pray that everything returns to normal and the world is safe from coronavirus soon.
“Not only me, all athletes are affected because of the pandemic. So we will just have to wait and watch and hope to sail through the phase,” she said.
Rifle shooter Anjum Moudgil said, “[postponement] was really required as no athlete is able to train all over the world...it’s good that the Olympic is postponed and now we have proper time to train and prepare and plan.”
PCI welcomes move
Paralympics Committee of India has welcomed the decision of the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee to postpone the Games, saying that “it is a big relief for athletes who were in a dilemma for their competitive preparation for the Paralympics”.
“PCI will also now be in a better position of planning the next step once this current lockdown in India in the wake of Covid-19 is finally lifted. NPC India along with NOC India welcomes the IOC and Tokyo 2020 LOC‘s decision for one year postponement of the said Games,” Paralympic Committee of India secretary general Gursharan Singh said.
President and Rio 2016 medallist Deepa Malik has said that “health of the athletes will always be our top priority.”
“We, as the apex body of para-sports in India, will abide by the international committee as well as in accordance with our government directives on the situation of COVID-19 in our country.”
The decision on Tokyo 2020 was made on Tuesday evening by the IOC Executive Board and Japanese government with the full support of the International Paralympic Committee.
Indian para athletes including World champion javelin thrower Sandeep Chaudhary too welcomed the decision.
“Though we have been training for the last four years for this summer’s Games but the recent developments in regard to the Covid-19 outbreak has made it necessary to make a decision like this. There are so many athletes who are not able to train at this difficult time, and there should be a fair competition at the biggest Games – the Olympics or the Paralympics,” Chaudhary told PCI.
Club thrower Ekta Bhyan said the step was unavoidable considering the epidemic outbreak in every part of the world.
“I hope the whole world will come out of it very soon. I request everyone to stay at home, practice society distancing and hygienic habits. We, the athletes are ready to co-operate every decision taken by authorities and associations. Together we will overcome this and will participate in Olympic with full preparation,” said Bhyan.
Arjuna Awardee para badminton star Pramod Bhagat strongly supported the decision saying, “Nothing is more important than the safety and health of athletes and the world community. The 2021 Olympics and Paralympics will be real which would be healthy and fair for everyone.”
For Sukant Kadam, he will eagerly be awaiting to compete in his dream Games. “We need to wait for our dream of Tokyo, but as far as health is concerned, this is really a good decision.”
Coach Gaurav Khanna felt that it was a relief for the players in terms of preparations for now, but the concern will remain over their qualification and classification. “It remains to be seen how IPC decides on the qualification status of the players who have already qualified or in the verge of qualification. But this was an obvious decision looking at the global concern. It is a fair decision.”