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Anxiety, fatigue, mental toll: How long can athletes endure the weight of bio-bubbles?

Mostly a bane than a boon, the bio-bubble world is stifling sports in a larger way by affecting competition and taking a toll on the mental and physical health of athletes.

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For how long are athletes expected to bear the weight of bio-bubbles?

Manisha Malhotra

Updated: 8 Feb 2022 9:48 AM GMT

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 brought a fair share of new terms to our vocabulary - isolation, quarantine, social distancing, vaccination, and the unassumingly ominous — bio-bubbles.

Ever since the outbreak of the virus, players and support staff have found themselves locked up alone in an isolated environment during competitions to prevent the risk of the pandemic. While this method, now famously known as bio-bubble, has been successful to a certain extent in curbing the risks of the virus, it has started to show its flaws, as it weighs down on the athletes - mentally and physically.

The best example is the Indian Super League (ISL), where 8 of the 11 clubs are locked up in a room as the virus breached the bio-bubble. The Indian men's football team and Bengaluru FC skipper Sunil Chhetri took to Twitter to talk about the bio-bubble fatigue the players are in.

However, he is not the first one to do so. The conversation first started last year during the Indian Premier League (IPL) when Virat Kohli asked the BCCI to manage the workload of players in these trying times.

Since then, many players from across sports have spoken about the adverse effect this forced isolation has on their mental health. The long hours of alone time can lead to introspection and rumination consisting of constant negative feelings.

In an increasingly social world, people have all but forgotten how to live with only themselves, in whatever capacity - they need to be social, engage physically is an all-too-human need, that only makes the pandemic so much more difficult to endure. Like the Pavlovian experiment, we too, are conditioned to seek company and the presence of the 'imaginary' bubble is only a reality that is running on limited fuel.

The burden of the bio-bubble

Simone Biles withdrew from her individual events at the Tokyo Olympics (Source: Reuters)

The bio-bubble has started instilling a sense of fear in the athletes' minds. One of the top athletes once said, there is always a fear of getting infected but it is the love for the game that keeps them going - this is the fuel that athletes are banking on, as they move from one bubble to another.

But at what cost?

Players find themselves pulling out of tournaments midways citing mental fatigue. As per research by Dr. Shervin Sheriff, Men's football team doctor, and Dr. Naveen Bansal, there were eight instances between 1st July 2020 and May 31st, 2021, when athletes decided to skip or pull out midway of competitions - need we remind ourselves of gymnastics GOAT Simone Biles, in this regard, who pulled out of her individual events at the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021.

However, the real problem starts even before the competition begins.

During the pre-competition quarantine phase, players are restricted to their hotel rooms only. In the 14 days of mandatory isolation, they become susceptible to various mental issues including mental fatigue, depression, insomnia, and anxiety.

And there is nothing they can do to shake off this feeling because there is no give them the much-needed human interaction, in a physical capacity.

The bio-bubble effect on sport

Bajrang Punia (Source: United World Wrestling)

Bajrang Punia in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, where he won bronze in the 65kg weight category, said he had started reading books to keep himself positive. One of his favourite books, he recalled, was 'The Secret' by Rhonda Byrne. Interestingly, many wrestlers had followed the same route. Byrne's self-help book focuses on the Law of Attraction and is a wonderful capsule of motivation and positive thinking, showing ways one can manifest thoughts to steer the trajectory of their lives.

While athletes are trying their best to keep themselves positive it has not been enough to escape the mental fatigue - one can only use so many ways of distraction, till the harsh reality stares you in the face.

And even in 2022, the story remains the same as the authorities have failed to address this pressing matter.

On the eve of the AFC Asian Women's Cup that kicked off in Mumbai, two members of the Indian women's team tested positive for COVID-19. This would certainly have had an impact on the team's morale as they geared up to face the formidable Iran side, in their opener that ended with no goals being scored by either sides.

Apart from the host national, four other teams — Japan, South Korea, China, and Vietnam – will also miss a few of its players due to COVID-19.

While it does affect the participating teams, the rise in cases all put dark clouds on the competition itself. Moreover, it also changes the dynamic of a match. To put it in perspective, if a team loses three of its key players due to the virus, their chances reduce significantly. The result of it would be a good team getting knocked out early in the competition, with a bubble and the virus to blame.

The BWF's badminton schedule for 2022 also started in India at the hot seat COVID-capital of the country, New Delhi with the India Open. With the omicron variant peaking, the KD Jadhav Indoor Hall somehow staged the Super 500 event that saw the likes of World Champion Loh Kean Yew, Indonesian veterans, Hendra Setiawan/Mohammad Ahsan being a part of the event.

However, it was hardly a smooth ride with a sizeable number of withdrawals during the tournament with players testing positive - including Kidambi Srikanth and Ashwini Ponnappa, who contracted the virus well into the tournament - spreading a sense of constant panic in the minds of the competing players and the support staff at the event.

To make things worse, if a competition gets cancelled, like Rome Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series, it spoils athletes' careers. One of the wrestler's, who is a part of the team that was supposed to participate in the wrestling event, said with competitions delayed he is now worried about his performance in the build-up to the Asian and Commonwealth Games.

The Tokyo bubble anomaly

Interestingly, many argue that why were there almost negligible COVID-19 cases at the Tokyo Olympics?

To put it simply, the organizers had put strict guidelines in place to prevent the quadrennial event from becoming a super-spreader. They managed to pull off the Olympics and Paralympics successfully during the time Japan was experiencing a spike in the cases.

Moreover, while there was a bio-bubble in place at the Games Village, it was large enough for players to move out of their rooms after a 3-day quarantine. Although the visitors were not allowed to leave the Village, the Japan Olympic Committee made all arrangements to keep the participants entertained during their stay - making the bubble more spacious than just limited to the confines of the hotel room where they have to live out of the suitcase.

Bio-bubbles cannot be a permanent solution to prevent COVID-19 outbreak. The authorities will need to find other ways to normalize things. And if need be take inspiration from big leagues such as Premier League or NBA where fans have slowly started returning to the stadiums. The fact that with every day, the bio-bubble grows heavier mentally for the athletes, is something to take into consideration - the bubble claustrophobia, in its bid to shield and protect, is stifling for sports and we will need other solutions for it soon.

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