COVID-19 impact: Challenging times ahead for Indian sports as hosting tournaments, grassroots development continue to suffer

The challenges for Indian sports will only grow next year as hosting tournaments, travel, and training will become difficult due to pandemic and the financial distress it has unleashed worldwide.

Shubham Pandey September 11, 2020 13:42:33 IST
COVID-19 impact: Challenging times ahead for Indian sports as hosting tournaments, grassroots development continue to suffer

Kabaddi nationals was among the last few tournaments organised in India before COVID-19 outbreak. Shubham Pandey

Para badminton athlete Manasi Joshi tweeted out a video two weeks ago in which she is relearning running. Yes, relearning!

Running with a prosthetic leg is different, she says in the caption of the video. It is not the same as running on legs. It is a skill that she has forgotten and the time courtesy the lockdown has given her a window to relearn it on a new set of prosthetic legs that help in running, she told Firstpost. It is the skill she needs to relearn. Every step of her counts in her bid to get better as a player.

A lot has changed over the last six months in India and around the world, but athletes' success still depends on one key factor - training. They are trying to find their own way, each one of them, during COVID-19, to come back strongly.

While Manasi is rediscovering a new skill, another paralympian swimmer Suyash Jadhav is busy training in a pond using his own unique methods.

However, despite these unique attempts by various Indian athletes to keep themselves in shape during the pandemic, the resumption of all sports in the country remains a distant reality, thanks to the disease.

At the Nationals of the kabaddi in February-March in Jaipur, there was not an inch of space left at the venue to watch the Vikash Kandolas and Naveen Kumars. That sight seems a forgotten reality right now. The new normal is here but can Indian sports resume in this new normal? There is no clear answer to it as we approach the eighth month of the COVID-19 and the country continues to see a surge in the number of cases and with no full proof plan to tackle it.

In the USA to play a couple of tennis tournaments - Western and Southern Open and US Open - Rohan Bopanna found playing in COVID times a completely different experience. Bopanna took risks to fly to the USA to play in the tournaments as he saw it the only way to make a restart. USA has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, yet the USTA went ahead with this year's US Open. Expectedly, many marquee players backed out. However, Bopanna feels this is the only way to know, for both organisers and the players, about how sport can be played in these abnormal times.

"I don't know if it is going to be new normal going ahead. Each country will have different rules, different ways. I am glad tennis has started, if these tournaments go well, it will help players gain confidence in terms of travelling and also for organisers for organising more tournaments. Players are happy that tournaments have begun," Bopanna told Firstpost from New York.

Like all players travelling for sports events, he stayed in a bio-secure bubble which he found a little challenging courtesy its restrictions.

COVID19 impact Challenging times ahead for Indian sports as hosting tournaments grassroots development continue to suffer

File image of Rohan Bopanna. AFP

"It is definitely challenging. Right now under a bubble, staying in a hotel where you can either eat at the restaurant of the hotel or the room service. You cannot step out of the hotel apart from going to the tennis court. You have to be wearing a mask all the time. These times are new for everyone. Some days can get frustrating, staying in one place, not being able to go anywhere. But that is one way to get tennis back. To understand where each and every player is at the tournament. How they can start running events at various different parts of the world," Bopanna added.

International cricket too has adopted the bio-secure environment format and we saw two successful series happening under strict restrictions in England.

However, in India, even organising training camps have become a task. Some elite athletes are not keen on taking risks and are happy to train at their home or in nearby academies. Training in contact sports, especially, has become a task, with norms of social distancing in place.

Rushdee Warley, CEO of Inspire Institue of Sport, believes news ways need to be found to ensure there is proper training for athletes. And that they have to adapt to the new normal, which also includes preparing themselves, mentally to train in new ways and play matches in empty stadiums.

"I think we have to find a way to be creative and innovative in terms of how we are going to hold training sessions for the athletes. The away competitions are going to be slightly different. The big crowds are not going to be there. Teaching athletes to compete in an environment is something we will have to adapt to. Those are some of the key challenges that we are looking at," said Rushdee.

At the National Institute of Sports (NIS), boxers are still not sparring, and the focus has been on building their aerobic capacity and strength training. But India's high-performance director Santiago Nieva had said earlier that at some stage, sparring will have to start as boxers tend to lose the idea of the distance.

What that means is that the basics of training in some sports cannot be done away with. At this moment, the athletes are either scared of attending camps or not being able to resume full-fledged training in camps.

Hosting a tournament in India

While a new way to resume sports is being adopted and rediscovered across the world, in India, the first major multi-team tournament that is expected to take place  - Indian Super League - is still without a date. The IPL, post deferment, shifted to UAE as the government could not give permission to hold the event here. National Games, which were supposed to held in October have been postponed. India's domestic cricket season may not even happen.

India men's hockey team was supposed to play in the Asian Champions Trophy in Bangladesh but that also stands cancelled because of the pandemic. India Open badminton which was supposed to happen in March this year, can be held in December but it is also subject to government clearance and that is subject to COVID situation in the country.

The boxing national camps have begun but coaches have no idea when they can start sparring and which is the next tournament the boxers are taking part in. On 10 September, the Badminton Association of India cancelled the national camp for Thomas and Uber Cups as SAI wanted the players to go in seven-day quarantine, an idea rejected by players and the association.

In such a scenario, one wonders how many leagues and competitions would be able to start in India in the coming few months? And what does it take to organise one?

Nandan Kamath, co-founder GoSports Foundation, said only a few big tournaments could be hosted in India in the near future, those "who could afford" to build a safety net, bio bubbles etc. Understandably, money plays a huge role here.

"Sport could be impacted by societal changes that we have seen and are likely to see, including a lack of trust in, and deprioritisation of, large gatherings and activities. It might be a while before we see full stadiums again. Elite sport might focus on a few sports that can afford all the safety protocols, bio bubbles, etc. in the near term. Other than 2-3 of the biggest leagues many of the others might be non-starters," said Kamath.

The words seem truer as we see the rise in the number of cases.

Hiren Mody, Group Vice President of Chennaiyin FC and Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT), concurs with Kamath's views.

"ISL is investing heavily in creating a secure bio-bubble. Since there are lives at stake, domestic organisers should organise events only once a secure bio-bubble or suitable preparations are made. We should not forget that this is a marathon and not a 100-metre dash," Mody told Firstpost.

COVID19 impact Challenging times ahead for Indian sports as hosting tournaments grassroots development continue to suffer

during the Hero Indian Super League media day held at the JW Marriott hotel in Juhu, Mumbai on the 10th November 2017
Photo by: Sandeep Shetty / ISL / Sportzpics

What needs to be underlined here is the investment needed for bio-secure bubbles and considering the way pandemic has affected sports in India, the survival of those sports which don't have massive financial backing will be difficult.

Financial impact on athletes

With no competitions happening, the livelihoods of athletes have been affected as well. In August, India's women footballer Dalima Chhibber had shown her worries over lack of funds in women's football in coming months thanks to COVID-19. Women football is still in its growing years and with governing bodies lacking funds, other stakeholders prioritising other big tournaments, women's football may not be a priority for many. Same with women's cricket. Not that their financial situation is as bad as women's footballers, but when it comes to prioritising, they also seem to lag behind. While BCCI is making IPL happen, in between plugging in a few women's T20 matches, there is no concrete plan in place for women's team, with their tour to England standing cancelled due to Coronavirus.

Mody believes the economic crisis will affect the non-cricket sports more.

"With the economy severely affected now, sponsorship revenue in non-cricket sports will suffer. So it is important for us to be ahead of the curve. Costs will have to be re-aligned, those which were good-to-incur might move into must-incur and those that were earlier must-incur will move to good-to-incur," he said.

Kamath says the role of foundations, institutions, boards is significant here as such a crisis may have a generational impact on athletes. "The role will be to look at the non-obvious and to do the difficult things, including sustaining livelihoods, keeping talent (sporting, coaching, off-field) in sport through the next 2-3 years. Otherwise a short time crisis could have a generational impact," he said.

Sports budget

With India's economy in distress and economists doubting quick recovery in the coming months, the budget for sports in India may also be reduced hugely next year, with the government looking to focus on other key areas during or in a post-pandemic world. The budget for 2020-21 was Rs 2826.92 cr, in which more was spent on the Khelo India Programme, which is aimed at grassroots development of sports and there was a significant decline in the funds to National Sports Federations and Sports Authority of India. The budget for the 2020-21 cycle may not see a rise or in fact even see a further decline, knowing where Indian economy stands today.

COVID19 impact Challenging times ahead for Indian sports as hosting tournaments grassroots development continue to suffer

File image of Sports minister Kiren Rijiju. Image credit: Twitter/@RijijuOffice

Kamath agrees that budget will surely take a hit but demands will be high. "I would be surprised if there wasn't a hit, given other national priorities at the moment. At the same time, with sponsorships having few avenues for ROI and CSR funds deployed elsewhere, the government will be seen as the funder of last resort by almost everyone in the Indian sports ecosystem so the demands for funds will go up," he said.

Grassroots development

Grassroot development in sports is also expected to be severely affected as many academies and schools won't be organising tournaments and training camps for the kids for the fear of the virus. The financial factor will also play its role, and Kamath resonates with this apprehension, calling it a major challenge.

"Grassroots sports depends on the flow of funds down from major events and from philanthropy. Both these are facing major challenges. It will require a concerted effort to see balanced development at a time when most organisations will be focusing on direct revenue generation and prioritising these."

Mody also called it a lost year for children, saying that it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to kids.

The coming 12 months will be hard for Indian sports and for the stakeholders, whether the athletes, the academies, boards, organisers, broadcasters etc. Some believe that this pandemic will just be a blip in India's growth story as a sporting country. However, one cannot look past the role of finances in the upliftment of some sports in India, kabaddi, being the best example. When BCCI, the richest cricket board in the world, talks about cancelling their domestic tournaments due to COVID-19, one can easily gauge the effect of the pandemic on other sports.

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