A few Indian boxers who have already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics are not really sure whether attending the national camp would be a good idea with the coronavirus cases are still on the rise. But when the federation hosts a video chat to discuss the possibility of a camp, they choose to remain silent and accept whatever view the federation puts forth.
On the other hand, the table tennis players have been called for a national camp. While they understand the need for a collective training regime, they are unsure whether travelling out of Chennai and going to a Sports Authority of India centre is the right choice as that would mean they run the risk of being exposed to coronavirus.
A few hundred kilometres away, a badminton player who is yet to assure a Tokyo Olympic berth but has an outside chance to make the cut has been raring to go and is eagerly waiting for full-fledged training to start.
Three very different scenarios already and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
But the players are who are really in a Catch-22 situation are probably those who are stuck at SAI centres in Patiala and Bengaluru and have now been given a go ahead to start training.
How Sport Inspires
In these tough times, lift yourself up with inspiring stories from the world of sport.
Having been away from the family for almost two months, without any structured activity, can be emotionally taxing and a few had said they wanted to go home for a few days before reporting to the national camps, fresh to prepare for the postponed Tokyo Olympics.
It is difficult to predict how the lockdown would have impacted any of the 100-odd players who have been holed up in various centres since March but the case of weightlifter Jeremy Lalrinunga is enough to highlight the point.
According to a report in Mail Today, the Youth Olympics gold medallist lost almost four kilograms weight during the lockdown period as he felt homesick and lonely. The Weightlifting Federation has now requested SAI to let him go home and return after a month’s break.
But for the other athletes, the choice of whether to stay put and train or seek a break to regroup before getting back to the camp is not an easy one.
Perception is an important aspect of a sportsperson’s life and they like to project themselves as confident, always ready for the challenges. But such a long lockdown and no competition to really look forward to can be an emotionally taxing situation and many could find themselves in a dilemma, unable to decide whether to brazen this out or take a step back and start over again in due course.
And it’s definitely not an easy choice to make in a field that leaves a small margin for error as a slight dip in performance can be a difference between being an also-ran and a potential superstar. More importantly, for many of India’s athletes, boxers and weightlifters, the sport provides the only door to a better life and national camps are the only avenues for quality nutrition and facilities.
Also, there is an issue of peer pressure and expectations from fans, coaches and even federations. Earlier this year when men’s doubles badminton star Satwiksairaj Rankireddy decided to pull out of the All England Open due to the coronavirus threat, it did not go down well with the foreign coach and also left his partner Chirag Shetty stranded.
Even in a cash-rich world of European football, players who are raising a question mark on the need for a quick restart are facing the heat from fans and probably club managements like in the case of Watford’s Troy Deeney and Newcastle’s Danny Rose, forcing the Players’ body FIFPro to warn clubs against taking action on players not wanting to train.
Back home the situation can be a lot more tricky since the player’s funding for training and competition is at the mercy of the federation and the Sports Authority of India and they do not want to be seen going against the will of those in authority.
Then there is also the fear of missing out. A player choosing to take a break could miss out on valuable training sessions and hand over the beginner’s advantage to his/her opponent on the domestic and international stage in case competitions start in the near future.
From an outsider’s perspective, such fears may feel unwarranted but professional sports can be unforgiving.
The problem with the current situation, however, is that there is no clear right or wrong.
The federations which have been advocating quick restart are worried that the Indian players could struggle to regain the same form given the limited sports science support they have while the critics of the policy use the same lack of systems as an excuse to push for a cautious approach as it is very difficult to ensure the safety of all athletes, coaches and support staff at the camps.
A few support staff members Scroll.in spoke to mentioned the lack of infrastructure required to implement the SOP circulated by the government at even the two SAI centres and a mechanism to ensure screening and testing of all players and those coming from outside the campus for work.
These concerns were further highlighted when a senior cook at SAI Bengaluru, who was residing outside the Centre and had only come for a meeting before the start of sporting activities, tested positive for coronavirus and died a couple of days later.
Even former India cricket captain Rahul Dravid had recently raised a similar point when talking about the possibility of playing Test cricket in a bio-bubble as playing by England.
SAI on its part has put the onus on the federations to create the required systems and it is learned that the Task Force formed to figure out ways to eventually start training at these centres have now decided to send back athletes in the development group home so that those who have either qualified for the postponed Tokyo Olympics or have a chance to make the cut can continue to train while following all the norms specified in the Standard Operating Procedure circulated by the sports ministry.
But even such a measure can lead to heartburn for many athletes on the fringe who may believe that they have a chance to make the cut but will have to be left out considering the number of athletes that can be accommodated.
Even those who would continue to be part of the camp will have to find a way to motivate themselves to keep pushing harder within the limited training regiment and cope with the fear of missing out or falling sick.
The Badminton Association of India is also planning to start the training of the top 7-8 players who are either sure of Tokyo berth or have an outside chance and though most of them are keen to restart they cannot overlook the fear. The players are, however, awaiting final instructions.
“I want to play but I am also a bit scared... But let’s see. I will take all the measures what I have to take and rest is rest,” said world championship bronze medallist B Sai Praneeth.
The other obvious question for athletes and players in these camps is how long they can continue to push themselves mentally with no competitions on the horizon, unless things change drastically in the near future.
Sports psychologists have spoken about creating short term and long term goals to tide over this period of uncertainty. But mental fatigue due to continuous training without any relaxation activities being permitted under the SOPs and no competition to look forward to is as realistic a problem as the muscle loss and performance anxiety created due to lack of training during the lockdown period.
Players, administrators, coaches and even the Sports Authority of India are driven by their own compulsions, the finances involved and the urge to ensure that the performance levels do not fall with the Tokyo Olympics now scheduled to be held in July next year.
One way to go about this could be to leave the decision of attending camps to the concerned athlete as in any case the SOP has asked them to fill an undertaking understanding the risk involved in reporting for camps. The only thing that federations and SAI need to ensure is that those athletes who choose to stay away from the camps are not singled out and targeted in the near future when it comes to the selection of national teams.
After all, the safety and security of an individual should be the primary priority at this point.