While the world is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, sports have taken a backseat with a majority of events being postponed and delayed. It’s been more than three months since the lockdown in India, and while our sportspersons are preparing for a return, swimming as a sport, faces the gravest of time staring at a precarious future.
Swimming pools and complexes have been shut in India ever since the national lockdown was announced on 24 March. While Unlock 2.0 is being on progress in the country, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has extended the lockdown protocol till July 31 on school, colleges, cinema halls, gyms, theatres, Metro services, swimming pools, bars, social gathering and religious gatherings. The Sports Authority of India (SAI) too, has left out swimming from the Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) it provided to sports bodies as Ministry of Home Affairs barred swimming pools from reopening.
However, the Swimming Federation of India (SFI) wants the MHA to allow pools to function systematically in designated centres for senior athletes, who are ready to get back to training with proper facilities and safe environment, that SFI ensures they can provide them. Swimming pools across the country remain closed due to the pandemic, leaving the likes of Virdhawal Khade, Srihari Nataraj and others in a fix. Six swimmers have attained the B qualification mark for Tokyo Olympics. Their goal of achieving the A mark keeps getting distant as swimming facilities stay inaccessible.
The SFI believes their athletes are being deprived of their right to train and stress on the importance of resuming training in the backdrop of Olympic 2021. But nothing has been done so far. “Absolutely zero feedback. Regular follow up with MYAS is yielding no results. All appeals to permit elite and competitive training to resume are hitting a wall at MHA. Without MHA permission, no state government willing to permit,” SFI Secretary General, Monal Chokshi told PTI.
It was just last week, frustrated at not being able to resume training, Asian Games bronze medallist Virdhawal Khade had said he may consider retiring from the sport if swimming pools continue to remain shut due to restrictions. He warned that the delay in the resumption of training would put the Indian swimmers at a huge disadvantage ahead of Tokyo Olympic Games. Several countries including Thailand, parts of Australia and UK have opened swimming pools, allowing athletes to return to training.
The only elite Indian swimmer to have resumed training is Sajan Prakash, who stayed in Phuket. He started training at Phuket’s Thanyapura Aquatic Centre in the last week of May, having stayed out of the water since early March, when Thailand entered its own lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19. The others, including Khade and Srihari Nataraj, have been forced to improvise (land-based exercises). But, as a swimmer, land-based exercises don’t do much.
In Karnataka, the Covid-19 has induced a common plight for over 900 swimming coaches, lifeguards and maintenance staff in the state. After losing a major chunk of their annual income with no summer camps this season, many swim centres are either paying partial salaries or have let go of their staff. The coaches, who belong to an unorganised sector, are now being forced to do odd jobs to stay afloat.
According to Times of India, M Satish Kumar, who runs a chain of swim centres in Karnataka, has asked most of his staff to look for jobs elsewhere. He will have only 10 of his 55 staff members on board, who will be paid a portion of their salary. While Dronacharya awardee Nihar Ameen, has asked seasonal coaches to go back to their respective home towns and retained his core team.
The situation is also similar for Olympian Nisha Millet, who is the director of Nisha Millet Swimming Academy. Some of her staff members have taken pay cuts while some have found other jobs. Still, the expenditure of maintaining a swimming pool is huge while income is nil. Millet has planned to crowdfund to help coaches and for that, she wrote to former trainers, friends and well-wishers to chip in and help the coaches in need.
Nothing is different in the neighbouring state of Telangana. Ayush Yadav, Sports Authority of Telangana State (SATS) swimming coach at the Gachibowli Stadium, feels there is little chance of returning to pool at least for another two months, he told Telangana Today He is also of the opinion that lockdown has hit swimmers hardest than any other athletes where the point of return is not going to be easy. Aditi Nadella, a 10-year-old prospect, rued the workout they do at home is not at all sufficient to stay in shape.
With each passing day, the number of coronavirus cases in the country is surging with no means of remedy yet to be found. While the fear of contracting the virus is looming large, being unable to train the Indian swimmers lives in despair about the unforeseeable future.