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Guest Columns

Covid wave 3.0 — Is Indian sports ready to do it correctly in 2022?

Into the third year of pandemic, has Indian sports learned anything from the past, and will it take wise calls in a year that has the Commonwealth and Asian Games ahead?

Impact of covid indian sports saina nehwal anshu malik leander paes
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The preciousness of lost time - Saina Nehwal (left), Anshu Malik (centre) and Leander Paes

By

Manisha Malhotra

Published: 8 Jan 2022 1:20 PM GMT

'Tis the season to be jolly, which is what it would be normally at this time of year - with echoes of Christmas and the joys of heralding a brand new year but however the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have other plans.

They did tell us history has a pattern for repeating itself and unpleasantly enough for the third year running - we are going into lockdowns, quarantines and even worse, positive cases. Stuck in an inescapable loop as we feel, we are still reeling from disbelief at the periodic mess that life has become, living inside and outside of bubbles and making peace with new definitions of 'normal' every other day.

While it is a tough time for everyone, it is especially challenging for athletes. They have come out of a tough couple of years where most of our Indian athletes have trained in isolation and really lacked competitive exposure. The very idea of sports thrives in a competitive, interactive, largely physical environment and the COVID-19 pandemic has all but toyed at the very constructions of such ideas - imposing a fresh perspective on things.

Even though sports did resume, it is no longer being held in a way we once knew it and the athletes have been directly molded by the circumstances. They have been sequestered away from their families and have had to spend long spells isolated in various training bases - sacrificing, choosing and dedicating their blood and sweat for a larger purpose.

The woes of pandemic (im)permanence


1996 Atlanta Olympic bronze medallist and 18-time Grand Slam champion Leander Paes


While the new variant - the (in)famous omicron, doesn't seem as severe but it is much more contagious - so is another deja-vu period of lockdowns is where we are headed now? If the last 2 years of COVID have taught us anything, it is that anything can happen at any moment and impermanence has made itself a permanent home in our day-to-day lives.

The whole of 2020 saw sporting events getting slashed, postponed, and along with that countless dreams also getting crushed of so many athletes - the young and the old. For athletes who longed for the perfect swansong, the pandemic was a bitter pill.

In 2019, Leander Paes had announced his 'One Last Roar' campaign that would mark 2020 as his final year on the tennis tour, and with the Tokyo Olympics, the 18-time Grand Slam champion, and 1996 Atlanta bronze medallist would have liked to draw the curtain over his international career. But 2020 did everything in its power to stub many a dream and along with that Paes' hope to play a record 8th Olympics also bit the dust when the Olympics itself got postponed, inviting wide-scale anxiety among athletes.


New year, old dilemmas - can we pick and choose?

As we stare at the barrel of another period of lockdowns, for athletes that are especially tougher since training cycles are greatly affected with tournament cancellations. With it, a never-ending cloud of uncertainty also looms disturbingly that tinkers with the motivation and dare we ponder about the toll that it takes on the mental health aspect of athletes as well - by now, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles must have made their actions sound louder than mere words.

So now at the start of 2022, with COVID raging all around us globally where do we go from here?

This is an interesting scenario anyway, we just had the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics a few months ago (finally) and the athletes now have to go into a short cycle and then have at least 2 major competitions coming up in their various sports to prime themselves for.

Both the upcoming Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games have a very short turnaround time, so peaking for a prolonged period after a very short offseason is going to be a huge challenge for them, and to sustain that form throughout the span of such closely-spaced tournaments, is not going to be an easy task.

Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games (Source: Getty)

Internationally, most of the more advanced countries will not send their elite athletes to both events. This might be the time for us to start thinking along those lines also. PV Sindhu, ahead of the beginning of her 2022 season has already hinted at taking such decisions and the 2-time Olympic medallist made it known that in 2022, she won't be going for it all - but picking and choosing to serve a greater motive.

If we are to take a leaf out of this pre-planning book, for example in wrestling, the Commonwealth Games offers little challenge and it is safe to say even the nationals in some categories have more depth, it might be prudent to send the "B" team or juniors and keep the seniors for the Asian Games - instead of exhausting the 'best' resources.

Picking and choosing have never been as important as in a year like this that has already started with the news of tournaments getting canceled. In reality, the pandemic has crippled and cost us on the grassroots development and providing juniors with the right exposure front, as it is.

While Paes' miss of a 'dream' swansong may be a case for lament as might be 2012 London Olympics bronze medallist Saina Nehwal's missed chance at Tokyo because of the inadequacy of tournaments to get her qualification points - the heavier toll has been on the budding, junior athletes who have missed out on precious years of competition, deferring their bloom.

But if we do manage to be calculative and selective - choose a Team A and a Team B - this would be revolutionary for our sporting ecosystem, and many performance experts will tell you it would be the right thing to do but will we?

This would also make sense because most of our athletes who have just become seniors, missed their final year in the junior as most of the competitions were canceled the last couple of years. This could be a good way to get them back on the right track and set them on the correct trajectory.

We definitely have the experience of running "sanitary" events now and that is going to be the need of the hour, we cannot have our athletes going long spells without competitions again this year, and unlike the last time where we were the last to start hosting domestic competitions.

We cannot let this history fool us into exactly repeating itself - we need to be on our marks and we need to be ready to have some competitions going as soon as it would be allowed - if not for anything, but the sporting future of the country, that is already feeling the pangs of lost time.

"It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but the one who can best manage change": Charles Darwin is going to be the mantra for our athletes performing their best again in 2022 - and we hope they do know by now how to ride the waves, the rough and the kind with equal panache.

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