Tokyo Olympics 2020: With or without COVID-19 vaccine, India’s top athletes ready for Games

Thursday marks six months since the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics were postponed. Can the Games be held without a vaccine next July? Firstpost spoke to seven Tokyo-bound athletes and two coaches about competing at the Games next July in the absence of a vaccine.

Amit Kamath September 24, 2020 16:56:59 IST
Tokyo Olympics 2020: With or without COVID-19 vaccine, India’s top athletes ready for Games

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike (right), meets with Minister for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games Seiko Hashimoto. AP Photo

It’s been exactly six months that the Tokyo Olympics were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In these six months, most of India’s Tokyo Olympics-bound athletes have had no competitions and have been forced to abandon or severely tweak meticulously scripted plans to prepare for the quadrennial sporting showpiece.

The virus not only forced the Olympics to be pushed forward by a year but is also causing concerns across the world about how the Games will be held in July next year if a vaccine is not found.

Over the past month, to assuage fears of athletes, international Olympic committees, international federations, fans and sponsors, the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 organisers have gone on overdrive to state that the Olympics will be held even if there’s no vaccine by the time the deferred Games come around.

Be it Japan's Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike saying the ‘Games will be held at any cost and by any means’ or IOC Vice President John Coates saying the Games will be held ‘with or without COVID-19’, the message has been simple: the Games will go on. IOC chief Thomas Bach even said that a COVID-19 vaccine will not be a silver bullet for staging the Games.

But what do Indian athletes feel about competing at the Olympics next year in the absence of a vaccine?

Firstpost spoke to seven Tokyo-bound athletes and two national team coaches ― boxers Vikas Krishan, Ashish Kumar; shooter Anjum Moudgil; archers Deepika Kumari, Atanu Das; steeplechaser Avinash Sable; shuttler Chirag Shetty, national hockey team coaches Sjoerd Marijne, Graham Reid ― and the consensus was overwhelming: if the Games are happening, count us in.

Chahe COVID aaye ya isse bhayankar koi disease aaye, it doesn’t matter to me. Humko koi doubt nahi hai Olympics main jaayenge ya nahi. COVID ho ya na ho, humko Olympics main jaana hai aur jeetna hai. (Be it COVID-19 or an even deadlier disease, it doesn’t matter. I have no doubts about competing at Tokyo 2020. I will go, and I will win a medal),” says Vikas, currently training in Virginia, USA for his next pro boxing bout.

Tokyo Olympics 2020 With or without COVID19 vaccine Indias top athletes ready for Games

Boxer Vikas Krishan is aiming for an Olympic gold next year. Image courtesy: Reuters

Archers Atanu Das and Deepika Kumari have had to undergo similar protocols to start training at Pune’s Army Sports Institute earlier this month for the first time since the lockdown in March.

For both, competing at the Olympics is a no-brainer. The duo said as long as the organisers were ensuring safety of the athletes, they had no doubts about travelling to the Games.

Indian athletes had mixed emotions when IOC announced the postponement of Tokyo Olympics on 24 March. Some, like doubles badminton player Shetty, said they were devastated and heartbroken initially, while others, like shooter Moudgil, said they were relieved that they were only postponed rather than cancelled.

The IOC is expected to have meetings with Tokyo 2020 organisers and Japanese authorities on Thursday and Friday to figure out a way to host the Games in the middle of a pandemic. A report by Agence France-Presse suggested that athletes might have to face strict controls on their movement, using an app, when in Tokyo besides repeated testing before flying for the Games and upon landing in Japan.

Quarantines, bio-secure bubbles?

Over the past few months, many sporting events have been held with repetitive testing done on athletes, quarantine measures, and bio-secure bubbles.

However, given the scale of the Olympics and the Paralympics put together ― where over 15,000 athletes are expected to descend on Tokyo from over 200 countries ― creating a bio-secure bubble seems a tall order. What makes it even more difficult is that the Games are usually spread across the city, sometimes even to neighbouring cities (Sapporo, 800 kilometres away, is supposed to host the marathon events). Quarantining athletes on arrival could also get tricky right before an Olympics.

“If there’s a vaccine, I feel it will be much better to do everything freely from travelling to training. But, at least for me, vaccine or not, I’d really like to go for the Games. Even if I need to be quarantined for 10-15 days after coming back, I don’t mind,” says Moudgil, a rifle shooter is preparing to go for her first Olympics. The 2021 Olympics will come three years after she won a quota.

“I’m ready to undergo any quarantine for the Games,” she says before admitting quarantining for 10-14 days right before competition would severely affect their performance, especially in a precision sport like shooting. “Maybe we’ll go to Tokyo 20 days before so that we quarantine for 10 days and then can train for 10 days leading up to the Games.”

Tokyo Olympics 2020 With or without COVID19 vaccine Indias top athletes ready for Games

File image of rifle shooter Anjum Moudgil. Reuters

Leagues like the Premier League, Indian Premier League and NBA have resumed action without fans in stadiums in order to keep the virus in check.

Shuttler Chirag, whose doubles partner Satwiksairaj Rankireddy had tested positive for the virus, says it would be a shame if the Games were held without fans.

“It can’t be held behind closed doors for sure,” he says, “It will affect the Games tremendously if there are no fans. Being a part of the Olympics and not having crowds in stadiums would not feel like the Olympics. I’m sure that won’t be the case. If the Games are being held I’m sure the stadiums will be filled with spectators. Having an Olympics behind closed doors wouldn’t be feasible.”

Reid, the men’s hockey coach, has seen multiple players on his team conquer the virus, including skipper Manpreet Singh. He highlights the fact that Indian national hockey players are currently staying at Sports Authority of India’s campus in Bengaluru in what can be called a bio-secure bubble.

“The Olympics is a different beast. The boys are very keen to compete in the Olympics. They’re now much more aware of the risks of COVID-19. Some of them have had COVID-19. They’re much more educated on what needs to happen regarding procedures, hand washing, and making sure they wear masks all the time. The processes put in place for Tokyo will be fine for everybody. I think everyone’s comfortable with that,” he says before adding, “Whenever someone leaves the SAI facility in Bengaluru and comes back, they have to follow a stringent 14-day quarantine period in their room.”

Lives on hold

Understanding why the athletes are so keen to go to the Olympics despite the risk is fairly simple: for many, the Olympics are the biggest event in their sporting careers. Many athletes plan their lives in four-year cycles revolving around the Olympics and Paralympics.

If stakes are high for the organisers of the Games and the IOC having poured billions into hosting Tokyo 2020, athletes too have a lot riding on participation and winning.

As Deepthi Bopaiah, Executive Director of GoSports Foundation, points out: “There are sacrifices and compromises that every athlete has made. It’s is required for their performance. They have gone through extreme situations to prepare for the Games. Some of these guys have not met their families for months as they train away from home.”

GoSports works with around 120 athletes, of which they expect 45 to 50 to make the cut for the Games. Moudgil and Shetty are among athletes supported by the foundation.

There are sacrifices and compromises that every athlete has made. They have gone through extreme situations to prepare for the Games. Some of these guys have not met their families for months

“The topic of vaccines is not on top of athletes’ mind as of now, which is why they’re saying whatever happens we will go. It’s already been delayed by a year. So many plans (are in limbo). There are certain Para athletes who were looking at doing this as their last event before retiring. And now it’s been pushed ahead,” adds Bopaiah. “If the Games get pushed ahead, then you’re going to have to move everything else. It’s a multitude of things that hinge on competing and winning at the Games. Job security, if they win a medal, for Paralympians especially. Then there’s prize money. There’s a sense of independence that comes after winning a medal.”

Logistical nightmare

The absence of a vaccine also adds to the logistical burden of each country sending a sizeable contingent of athletes to another country.

Some countries are learnt to be planning to charter private flights to transport athletes to Tokyo so as to reduce the risk of disease transmission while travelling in commercial flights.

It is learnt that JSW Sports, which supports athletes like Neeraj Chopra, Vikas Krishan, Ashish Kumar and Avinash Sable, were planning to rent out rooms closer to the wrestling arena for the Tokyo Games since it was a fair distance away from the Athletes Village. The idea was to get the exhausted wrestlers to rest at the room between bouts, rather than hanging about at the arena or shuttling from the venue to their room at the Games Village. JSW Sports supports grapplers like multiple World Championship-medallist Bajrang Punia, World Championship bronze winner Pooja Dhanda and Rio Olympics medallist Sakshi Malik. The former has qualified for Tokyo 2020, while the other two are biding their time with future qualification events. If Tokyo 2020 organisers implement a bio-secure bubble, that idea will have to be reworked, if not scrapped.

Bopaiah was in Tokyo last year to recce the accommodation and infrastructure facilities besides checking out the medical set-up in place to be better prepared. “That was so we know what to expect. But now because of this 'new normal', what has changed, we may not know,” she says.

Ignoring the what-ifs!

With so much riding on the Games, and athletes having faced so much uncertainty over the past few months, Bopaiah said that GoSports was ensuring their athletes had access to sports psychologists to help them cope with the uncertainty.

“Athletes like preparations and plans,” she says. “But when there was no clarity, it affected a lot of athletes mentally and emotionally. It’s a lot to deal with for the athlete. It’s quite overwhelming. That’s why we’re doing a lot of sessions with sports psychologists. We’re trying to get athletes to think of the present, because that’s the only thing they can control. Maintaining body weight, training. Focus on the now.”

Tokyo Olympics 2020 With or without COVID19 vaccine Indias top athletes ready for Games

File image of Indian men's hockey team chief coach Graham Reid. Twitter @HockeyIndia

Reid, the men’s hockey coach, says the fact that there’s a revised date for the Games helps bring some certainty into the lives of players who have not had competitions for half a year.

As both he and Dutchman Sjoerd Marijne, the coach of the women’s national hockey team, put it, they’re not concerning themselves with what-ifs.

Asked about the possibility of the Games being held in the shadow of COVID-19, Marijne says: “It’s out of my hands, so I cannot control it. If it’s something I cannot control, it’s not in my mind.

“We’re not thinking or talking of ‘what ifs’ because we can’t control ‘what ifs’. It doesn’t make sense to think of what may happen during July 2021. We’re training for the Olympics, and that’s the only thing that matters.”

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