How are India’s Olympians dealing with the lockdown?
With the Olympics postponed for a year due to covid-19, athletes are resting, trying not to worry and remain fit
u S. Sreeshankar is catching up on sleep, which he terms the “most important activity", and reading novels and self-help books on training as well as Milkha Singh’s autobiography, The Race Of My Life.
u Bajrang Punia calls his reading a “new beginning". “I have about five (total) books with me," he says.
u G. Sathiyan watches one movie every afternoon. He is also spending a lot of time with his mother and gardening.
u Vikas Krishan is teaching his three children—aged 6, 5 and 4—to play chess. He has also taught his father to hold up a punching pad and help him train. It also allows for some father-son bonding.
u Bhavani Devi and her siblings clean the house together while her family can watch her train and ask questions about the sport. She’s also devouring Tamil films, which are difficult to access outside the country.
u S. Chikkarangappa has been playing golf for 14 years and never spent “such great time at home". He and his mother cook, clean and play board games.
u P.V. Sindhu is sleeping in and enjoying the break from travel.
Boxer Vikas Krishan is spending a couple of hours daily chatting with his 93-year-old grandfather. Gnanasekaran Sathiyan is knocking table tennis balls against a robot. Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra is considering taking up sketching. Long jumper M. Sreeshankar has dedicated time for his online BSc classes. Wrestler Bajrang Punia has, for the first time, taken up reading. P.V. Sindhu is simply waking up later than she normally does.
The nationwide lockdown, which started on 25 March, has forced normally hyperactive professional sportspersons to find new ways of entertaining themselves. Or in some cases, reinventing old habits to fit the new normal.
On 24 March, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to push the Games by exactly one year from its original starting date to 23 July 2021, one of the last major tournaments to do so. For those who intended to participate in or qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, the postponement came as a blow—or a blessing.
The postponement gives many athletes more time to prepare. Some, like 27-year-old Sathiyan, believe they are lucky to get a shot at participating in two editions of the Olympics—the one after is in Paris in 2024—within a three-year gap rather than four.
The delay might have other repercussions but the immediate challenge for most athletes is how to keep themselves occupied, fit and in touch with their sport during the pandemic. The world of professional sports follows a repetitive pattern that involves the honing of skills, physical training, recovery, competition and travel. The enforced isolation has eliminated most of this, except for what’s possible at home.
Yet it has given them time to spend with family, watch shows on Netflix, pick up a hobby and take a break from the relentless and sometimes exhausting travel.
As Krishan says, “Ghar itna kharab nahin (It’s not so bad to be home)."
Chopra, one of the country’s medal hopes at Tokyo in track and field, returned to India on 18 March, on one of the last flights in, after a trip to South Africa and Turkey. He was quarantined in one of the National Institute of Sports (NIS), Patiala’s smaller hostels with four others. With limited mobile network, hardly any internet, no options for entertainment or much human interaction, his days seemed long. When he spoke to Lounge, it was the last day of his quarantine—the 22-year-old was to move into the main hostel, where he would have more company.
“For an athlete, training gives peace of mind, it feels normal. We can’t train much here but I am eating less to keep my weight down," he says.
Sportspeople are justified in feeling possessive about the Olympics because it is held once every four years, giving them limited chances of scoring a medal. A tennis player may have her annual four Grand Slams but for a track and field athlete, the Olympics marks the most important competition of their careers other than the World Championships and equivalent events.
How you qualify for the Olympics depends on the sport—like qualification tournaments, trials within individual countries, qualifications based on world rankings or prerequisite standards like timings. So far, at least 42 Indian individuals from six disciplines have qualified for the Olympics, including 15 shooters.
As of mid-March, according to the IOC, only 57% of the athletes globally had qualified for Tokyo. The remaining 43% had to compete by July in qualifying events, all of which were called off in the wake of covid-19.
“We waited for this (the Olympics) for four years and it was finally (almost) here. But it’s (the postponement) not so hard. We have tournaments all the time, so for us it’s a daily process," says Sindhu.
Krishan, who has qualified for Tokyo in the 69kg category, says he needs to use this time to become more consistent. “I want to achieve a (certain) level of mastery. I will never be perfect but I have one year and four months more time. I will become unbeatable in that time. I will work so hard that no one will be able to land a punch on me," says the 28-year-old.
Sathiyan, currently ranked 31 in the world, says: “I am getting better every year and in 2021, I will be even better than in 2020. There’s nothing to worry, I just have to make changes to plans according to this situation."
For many athletes, the concern is that they can resume full-fledged training only once the lockdown is over and international sporting bodies are able to put together a calendar of events.
“You have to still maintain focus, energy and try not to get injured. There are things that are not in your control," says 26-year-old fencer Bhavani Devi. “The problem is in the mind. Everyone was focused on 2020, but when it gets extended, you have to maintain the momentum for longer."
The not-for-profit organization GoSports Foundation, which supports her, conducted two online education sessions recently on mental and physical well- being for 58 athletes. The objective was to help them find meaningful ways to stay engaged and to find activities to help them deal with the anxiety and stress that come with the current situation.
In these sessions, a lot of athletes who have been travelling for years and never got time to spend at home said they were enjoying that part of the break. They were feeling more connected with people, says Divya Jain, head of psychological services for the department of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis, Gurugram, who conducted a session. On the flip side, athletes who were used to being constantly outdoors and expending energy felt a sense of restlessness and loss.
Bhavani was in Italy, where she has been training for three-and-a-half years, when the covid-19 situation began to escalate there. She moved to Belgium just before travel restrictions in Europe and ahead of her qualification tournament there. When the Belgium event got cancelled three days after her arrival, she returned home, again just before India went into lockdown.
While she could possibly become the first Indian fencer at the Olympics, Bhavani needs partners and a place to practise before she can hope to qualify. She manages some body-weight exercises and uses the terrace in her Chennai home to put a mask on the wall and a fencing bag, which is 5ft tall, for some imaginary target practice.
Jain advises all athletes to stick to a routine, wake and sleep as close as possible to their usual time, design tasks, set goals, and work on stamina if they can’t work on skills. “Create a sporting environment at home, including the attire and music, if you use it. Keep similar eating and exercise patterns as before is our suggestion," she says.
Chopra does some running, jumps, chin-ups and core exercises; Sreeshankar works on mobility, stretches in the morning and cardio, strength in the evening. Krishan does push-ups and shadow boxing, for which he does not need equipment. Sathiyan is making use of his Butterfly Amicus Prime table tennis robot imported from Germany. Golfer S. Chikkarangappa has laid down a mat on the terrace of his home just outside Bengaluru, hung a few blankets a few feet away and hits golf balls into them.
“One year is a long time, it’s equivalent to five years for an athlete. To maintain fitness during this time…" trails off Punia, who qualified for the Olympics in the 65kg category.
“The world is suffering and the Olympics is just sport," says Krishan, as he tries to put into perspective what this delay means to him and other athletes.
The forced break has led several, like him, to introspect, look outside their sporting bubble. He talks about unwanted wastage, the time frittered away roaming in his village near Bhiwani, Haryana, and pollution—all of which is controllable. “We can change society when we change ourselves. These are the few things we can control, by staying home. My three children need my time," he says.
“I was moved by the suffering of people," says Sathiyan, who has donated to government relief funds. “We complain about living at home and there are migrant workers who have no home. So many lives have come to a standstill. We have to be grateful to people who make our daily life normal."
“I had said this before too," adds Punia. “As long as life is safe, there will be many Olympics. Everyone had prepared for the Olympics. No one had prepared for corona."
Chopra talks about hygiene, Sreeshankar mentions the importance of sleep, Sindhu stresses the need for patience and the importance of positivity, while Sathiyan is venturing into yoga and meditation to stay calm.
“I miss this when I am in camp and vice versa," says Krishnan about being home. “I want to live in the present. I can spend time with family now so I don’t miss them when I am at camp."
Chikkarangappa is using his learning from last year’s course in Vipassanā to meditate and be calm. “That’s where I learnt, understood to live life with what I have."
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.
FIRST PUBLISHED17.04.2020 | 11:42 AM IST