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Amid COVID-stricken Delhi, India Open symbolises the 'new normal' in sports?

Despite several top players testing positive, India Open carries on in India's COVID capital. Could this have been avoided or is this just an occupational hazard now?

Kidambi Srikanth test positive covid badminton india open pv sindhu

Kidambi Srikanth had to withdraw from India Open after testing positive for the virus; PV Sindhu carries on into quarters (Sources: BAI)


Sohinee Basu

Updated: 7 Feb 2022 12:43 PM GMT

Bio-bubbles and all may be nice and necessary in COVID-19 times but living in a bubble world of your own conjuring - well, it is neither nice nor is it necessary, because sooner or later it only gets broken. The Yonex-Sunrise India Open 2022 currently being held in New Delhi, which aside from serving as the country's capital is also dually acting as the COVID capital, is seeing badminton players having to withdraw pre and mid-tournament after testing positive for the virus, well after having played their first-round matches.

Begging some pressing questions, the most relevant of which is - was it indeed so important to host the India Open in this timeline which shows New Delhi is peaking with cases this week, could it not have been postponed? Or is COVID-19 the new occupational hazard we need to make peace with and continue?

With a lot of conditional factors driving the India Open, the first tournament on the 2022 badminton calendar of the BWF, it can't have been held at a more risky time than this. Twice-canceled previously, the India Open was impatient for making a return and nobody can put that to blame - except the timing of the comeback couldn't have been worse, sadly.

The capital has a 26% positivity rate of the virus which is peaking in Delhi currently and recorded 27561 cases on 12th January 2022 - therefore, it does not come as a major surprise that players participating in the tournament, no matter the stringent precautionary measures being taken where tests are carried out every day, can fall prey to the virus, given its latest infectious and though largely harmless nature.

The BWF 500 India Open, which is set to be followed by the Syed Modi Championships in Lucknow and finally the Odisha Open is seeing players testing positive - top names like Kidambi Srikanth, Ashwini Ponnappa, along with 5 other Indian badminton players had to pull out of the New Delhi event mid-tournament after testing positive.

The premise of this India Open was however expecting this, in all fairness, given the spike in omicron cases nationwide. The cloud of uncertainty loomed over players till the eve of the tournament, with several badminton players having to withdraw after testing positive for the virus en route to arriving at New Delhi, even.

Prominently, the 2019 World Championships bronze medallist and Tokyo-returned B. Sai Praneeth tested positive pre-tournament and withdrew. The England team also had to pull out after Sean Vendy and coach Nathan Robertson contracted the virus. The signs of it snowballing were all there - but right now, given the times we live in, it is just a bitter pill of a fact to swallow.

Speaking to The Bridge after his first-round win against his brother, former World No. 11 player Sameer Verma echoed the panic playing on every other player's mind when asked about the conditions of New Delhi. "The mood of Delhi is largely fearful..except for this room, every other place seems very dangerous to me," he said, before revealing that he was unsure if the India Open will take place at all because certain players were testing positive even on the eve of the tournament.

However, no matter the new tidings, Day 3 of the India Open carried on like usual business, no eyelids batted, no such hullabaloo - after three years of the pandemic, the virus has lost its strength to induce the panic it would earlier. An attitude of complacency, if you will, has come over and red flags no longer seem red as well - pointing to larger truths instead.

The show must go on...?

Youngster Malvika Bansod defeated Saina Nehwal at the India Open 2022 (Source: BAI)

The recent events of players testing positive for the virus provokes a bit of a deja vu situation and takes the mind back to the 2021 BWF season's January outing in Thailand where again, B. Sai Praneeth contracted the virus, leading to Kidambi Srikanth, his roommate also having to withdraw.

Similarly, after World No. 2 player Kento Momota of Japan tested positive, it ruled out the entire chance of the Japanese contingent traveling to Thailand - a lot similar to how it went down with the England team looking to come to India Open 2022, as well.

However, neither did that Thailand leg stop nor does India Open plan to because of such drawbacks - the sport remains larger here and the show, once started, does go on. Only the timing could have been better - had it been waited out, no?

More than taking a judgmental stance about how the matter at hand is unraveling in New Delhi - the India Open can also be taken as an example case. As much as we may want to shrug it off, live in denial - the 'new normal' is here and it is here to stay. The fact that sports will have to take the pandemic and the virus in its playing group is also an undeniable fact and these instances are neither the first nor last of such occurrings that we will have to witness.

Loh Kean Yew in action at the India Open 2022 (Source: BAI)

The omicron variant of the coronavirus has wreaked havoc like anything but even in its virility, it hasn't proven to be deadly yet - which is a source of relief. However, the hosting of tournaments of this mass a scale - that features players from overseas, like the World Champion Loh Kean Yew from Singapore or even, the Daddies - Hendra Setiawan and Mohammad Ahsan from Indonesia, make the matter only concerning.

Like India Open, the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) also carries on in its own bubble world with approximately 30 cases present in recent history. 13 members of the ATK Mohun Bagan contingent have also tested positive for the virus, leading to a postponement of their match against Odisha FC. The league does not plan to take any drastic measure because of this though and rather opts for a more 'this too shall pass' ideology.

The lone critique that India Open makes itself available to is that perhaps the event could have been pushed back or relocated to a place that wasn't acting as a magnetic source of the infections. The sport does remain larger but how will it remain so if all players are not able to participate - this is the bothering question. Although there is no guarantee whatsoever that situations would have greatly changed or players would not have tested positive - it just brings forward a harsher truth that the pandemic has forced upon us.

If sport was only about outplaying your opponent earlier on the court, it is no longer limited to that, rather, it has retraced its path to a Darwinian yesterday where only the fittest will manage to survive - as aside from defeating the opponent, you also will need to defeat that antigen test daily, as well. And this is the reality that we need to live with, no matter what.

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