All not well with India’s Tokyo preparationDecember 12, 2020
It was a sight emblematic of this pandemic-shattered sporting year: Norway’s Karsten Warholm, running all alone, with no competitors or spectators, clearing one hurdle after another with those long strides, powering through the distance of 300m in a record time (33.78 seconds). That was on June 11 at the Impossible Games Exhibition in Oslo, an event that kick-started international track and field competition after all sports came to a three-month halt due to the pandemic.
Warholm has raced several times since, including at the Rome leg of the Diamond League in September where he broke the meet record in 400m hurdles. As far as preparations for the postponed Tokyo Olympics (beginning 23 July 2021) goes, Warholm is in a good place. So is javelin thrower Johannes Vetter. The German, returning from an ankle injury, competed in seven events with competitions opening up in Europe. He hurled the spear to 97.76—the second best throw in history—at the World Athletics Continental Tour Gold meeting in Silesia on September 6.
In stark contrast, Neeraj Chopra, Vetter’s rival and India’s only realistic track & field medal hope in Tokyo, has spent most of this year either training in a small group at the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) Patiala centre or in quarantine. He has seen no competition, not even a domestic meet since a small national camp for elite athletes began in May post a three-month lockdown.
While the cricket season kicked off with IPL and top tier football with the ISL, for the country’s Olympic hopefuls, it has been a year filled with disappointments—delayed starts to national camps, disagreements over quarantine rules, poor planning and attendance at training camps, and no competition. In each discipline where India has medal hopes—badminton, wrestling, shooting, at a stretch, even hockey—the story is the same (the only exception is boxing). Add to that an exodus of top coaches from all these disciplines with just eight months left to the Games—coaches who were appointed for a four-year cycle with the Olympics in mind—and it feels like India’s Olympic dreams may be slipping away.
“Where do we stand? I don’t think anyone in the world can answer that question right now,” said Viren Rasquinha, former India hockey captain and CEO of Olympic Gold Quest. “Because the brutal fact is that no one in the world has played consistent competitive tournaments in the past nine months. This is going to be the most unpredictable and open Olympics ever.”
Yet, leading sporting nations–the US, Canada, China, most European countries—managed to bring their Olympic programme back on track in the last 3-4 months by restarting domestic tournaments and in some cases, international competitions as well.
“Those who have not secured the Olympic qualification face a very critical period ahead. They have to get fit and sharp, because the first few tournaments that they take part in might be an Olympic qualifier,” said Rasquinha.
That will put Indian athletes under more pressure. The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) revised the domestic calendar thrice since March, but has failed to hold any competitive meets. The Indian Grand Prix in Patiala on September 12 followed by the National Open in Chennai (September 20-25) and the Federation Cup (Patiala, from October 6) were all eventually cancelled. Even plans of holding internal competitions didn’t not take off. Finally, the season came to a close with the cancellation of the national throwing competition in Patiala on October 26-27.
“The conditions were not conducive to hold a competition due to the pandemic. For us the well-being of our athletes is of utmost importance and competitions will be held only when the situation is conducive. We don’t want to risk the health of our athletes by rushing them into competition,” said AFI president Adille Sumariwala.
Meanwhile, European athletics bodies adapted and organised competitions following social distancing and safety norms (like leaving one-lane gaps between runners) and creating bio-bubbles. The Czech Republic was the first nation to resume domestic competition, and the first international meet—Bislett Games in Oslo—was organised in June.
“In India some of the states haven’t even opened the stadiums. There were many restrictions.,” said Anju Bobby George, a former track star who is now an official of the AFI.
In November, Indian athletics’ high performance director Volker Herrmann of Germany resigned. The reason he gave was his inability to meet “self-imposed expectations”.
Herrmann was monitoring, among others, the training of Jakarta Asian Games champion in 1500m Jinson Johnson, a Tokyo Olympics hopeful. He was Johnson’s third coach in two years. Now, Johnson will have to start his Olympic preparations afresh. His personal best is 3:35.24 secs while Olympic qualification is 3:35.
“It’s not advisable to change coaches in the build-up months leading to a major championship like the Olympics,” said Anju.
Though a top-level coach quitting in the middle of the pandemic with a postponed Olympics looming ahead is a particularly bad combination of events, top coaches quitting ahead of the Olympics is not new for Indian Olympic teams. British Olympian Derek Boosey quit just three months before the 2016 Olympics from the same post after holding it down for less than a year, saying, “I’m no longer comfortable in the position.”
Constant and sudden changes in coaching and support staff is something that both India’s men’s and women’s hockey teams have been dealing with for years. It continued through the pandemic: High performance director David John quit in August, physiotherapist David MacDonald and analytical coach Chris Ciriello in September—all three Australians resigned citing personal and medical reasons despite signing contract extensions after the Olympics were postponed. Ciriello, an Olympic medallist and World Cup winner, also doubled up as the team’s penalty corner expert.
The hockey training camps too have been on since August at SAI’s Bengaluru centre, where the teams have spent months in lockdown. They have played no competitive matches since February. International hockey resumed in Europe in September with Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Great Britain participating in FIH Pro League.
“Given we have not had any international competition for the last nine months; it is very difficult to gauge where the team is at in comparison with other top teams,” said men’s team coach Graham Reid.
In shooting, there was a setback for skeet shooters with coach Ennio Falco, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics champion, resigning because of a fallout with National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) over differences with selection policy. Two skeet shooters, Mairaj Ahmed Khan and Angad Vir Singh Bajwa are among 15 quotas that India has grabbed in shooting. When the lockdown started in March, the shooters were waiting for the team to be announced for the Tokyo Olympics. After seven months and two postponements due to logistical hurdles, the shooting camp could start only in October. Till then, shooters had little choice but to stay at home and practice with whatever resources they had. Meanwhile, domestic and international competitions in Europe started in September.
Badminton finds itself in the same boat too—while the international calendar resumed in October, and most Asian countries organised camps and internal competitions since July, Indian badminton players could only start training last month with a small number of players attending Gopichand Academy and the SAI centre in Hyderabad. In September, an attempt to restart training camps was called off after players and SAI officials failed to find common ground on quarantine protocols.
“In Europe, Danish and German leagues are going on. Malaysia also conducted some national tournaments. Even Indonesia did something like that,” said India’s highest ranked mixed doubles shuttler Pranaav Chopra. “We have not played a match for nine months.”
Departure of foreign coaches has been an issue in badminton too. The latest to quit was Indonesian doubles coach Flandy Limpele in March in the middle of the Olympic cycle, exactly a year after taking over the reins from Malaysian Tan Kim Her who too exited in a huff.
Wrestling has seen the same scene play out—the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) sacked men’s freestyle coach Hossein Karimi just six months into his tenure. Women’s team head coach Andrew Cook was fired in the middle of the pandemic. Wrestlers who have qualified for the Olympics—Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat, Deepak Punia and Ravi Dahiya—trained on their own during the lockdown. The men’s camp started in September. The women’s camp, after being postponed twice, started a month later in Lucknow, but had to be called off after the Diwali break with women wrestlers not ready to go through the 14-day quarantine.
In swimming, while the government ordered the opening of pools in October, some of the elite swimmers are still without a pool.
“The Talkotara Swimming Pool is not functioning. My son (Kushagra Rawat) has achieved B qualification in three events—400m, 800m and 1500m freestyle, but is not able to train. Athletes from other nations have already started training for the Olympics,” says Hukum Singh Rawat, his father. “I’m surprised at the attitude of the sports administrators in the country as well as the Delhi government. The Delhi half marathon was held but no one is concerned about the home athletes who have potential to make an impact in the 2021 Olympics.”
Boxing does it right
Boxing was the first Olympic discipline to get its core group together in a national camp in Patiala in July. The Boxing Federation of India pushed for a camp immediately after the lockdown ended and then managed to send 14 boxers on a two-month Europe tour for training and competition. They have been training at the National Olympic Centre in Assisi, Italy and also competed in a tournament in France. The boxers will compete next week in Germany in the Chemistry Cup.“The important tournaments like Olympics and World Championships require at least a four-year plan and such a long period of inactivity will have some effects on athletes globally in their Olympic preparation,” said women’s chief coach Rafaelle Bergamasco. “At present the level of performance of our boxers is nearly 75% of their ability. Since lockdown and long period of inactivity, we will take some time to reach our maximum. The good thing is we have been invited by many European and African countries along with the USA for joint training and matches. This will definitely help our boxers to gain more international experience after a long inactive period with no competitions.”