Indian athletes believe Olympic postponement is the right decision

Mihir Vasavda

Commuters sit in a train carrying a poster showing the Tokyo 2020 Olympics mascot, Miraitowa, in Tokyo, Monday, March 23, 2020. (AP Photo)

Vinesh Phogat maintains a diary, which she updates every night. In it are her uncensored, unfiltered emotions; a glimpse into the person behind the athlete. Each entry, though, is centred around just one thing – the Olympics. “I have noted everything in the diary – thoughts on my wrestling, my weekly planning, sleeping patterns, dreams, ambitions... I was in the zone,” the wrestler says.

Then, on Tuesday, when she was stretching after finishing her training, her physio broke the news to her: Tokyo 2020 would now be Tokyo 2021. “I didn't even finish my stretching. Khalipan sa ho gaya (there is a feeling of emptiness).”

Her sentiments, upon learning the news, went from emptiness to disappointment to anger. “Usually, when I feel like this, I go shopping or just out somewhere. It works as therapy.” But even that would not be possible now, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi declaring a 21-day countrywide lockdown. “Everything is happening today,” Vinesh laughs.

With the world virtually grinding to a halt in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was under increasing pressure from its own fraternity – athletes and officials – to cancel or postpone the Games. On Tuesday, after consulting the organising committee and the Japanese government, the IOC decided to postpone the Olympics, which were to start in four months' time. A new date hasn't been announced yet, but the IOC said in a statement that the Games will be “rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021.”

Vinesh says she was hoping against hope that the situation would turn around just in time for the Olympics to take place as originally scheduled, from July 24 to August 9. It was always going to be a challenge, though, especially after the other major event of the summer, the European football championship, were deferred by a year.

The IOC was hoping to wait till April and then take a call, depending on how things stood at that time. But with 43 per cent of athletes still to qualify, and normalcy nowhere in sight globally, many argued that going ahead with the Olympics would risk athletes' health and also dilute the playing field.

“In that sense, the decision is understandable and a fair one too. I have been able to train because there is a facility in my house. But there are so many who aren't able to do it, athletes from India as well as other countries,” Vinesh, who qualified for the Games after finishing on the podium at last year's World Championships, says. “And think of those who have not qualified yet! They must be under so much stress. So, it is good that they will get enough time to start training again and then aim for the Olympics.”

India have been aiming for a double-digit medal tally in Tokyo. Seventy-three athletes have qualified till date and several more were expected to seal their berths in the coming months but all qualification tournaments had been called off in the aftermath of the pandemic. The process is likely to resume once the situation gets normal across the world.

But even for those who have qualified, the preparation would have been far from ideal if the Olympics had gone ahead. Vinesh has been training in Haryana while her personal coach Woller Akos is in Hungary. Fellow wrestler Bajrang Punia has been locked inside his apartment in Sonepat, unable to do anything more than sit-ups and stretching. Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra has been in self-isolation after returning from Turkey last week. “I still have a week's time left for my quarantine period to end. I have been working out in my room and playing a lot of games on my phone,” he says.

Chopra had been away from the field for more than a year owing to an injury and qualified for the Olympics in his first tournament on his return earlier this year. He remains one of India's biggest medal prospects at the Games but believes the decision to postpone was the right one. “We should not even be talking about sports at the moment. Health is the top priority and I completely support the postponement. We athletes knew it was inevitable and that's why it doesn't come as a shock.”

Chopra's views were echoed by boxers. The last two months have been a series of lucky breaks for the boxers. The contingent was scheduled to take part in the Olympic qualifiers, initially scheduled for February 3-14, in Wuhan, China —Ground Zero for the pandemic, so to speak.

The tournament was then postponed and shifted to Jordan, en route which the Indians trained in Italy, and left in the nick of time. A record nine boxers secured Olympic berths at the Asian qualifiers which concluded on March 11. And within hours, the Americas qualifiers were called off and the European event followed suit after three days of action.

"The magnitude and the seriousness just kept increasing for us," says pugilist Lovlina Borgohain. “The Wuhan tournament cancellation was the first shock. We realised 'okay, this is getting serious'. When we were in Italy, there were only 1-2 cases. I never imagined that Italy would soon be in such rough shape. Reading reports of other qualifiers being cancelled was the first time I thought the Olympics could be in danger.”

Lovlina says the fact that Japan kept saying that the Olympics won't be postponed was “scary”. "Living under lockdown, it becomes clear that this is a life-or-death scenario. Olympics would have been dangerous,” she says from her residence in Golaghat, Assam.

Vikas Krishan, who was hoping to focus on professional boxing after the Olympics, says the delay will give him enough time to pursue that. But for others, who had planned to retire or pursue other goals, things may have got a little complicated.

Indian Olympic Association (IOA) secretary-general Rajeev Mehta accepts a one-year postponement 'might impact the career/qualification and plans of some athletes' but said they will address those concerns in the coming months. “We would be also consulting with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports in revising the preparation plans,” he said in a statement.

The plan, for now, is to stay indoors. Late on Tuesday, the Sports Authority of India ordered suspension of all Olympics-related camps, advised all athletes to maintain 'social distancing' and not even indulge in gym sessions.

For some athletes, like Vinesh, it means a little more time to get over the initial disappointment of the postponement. Ask her what her diary entry for Tuesday, March 24, will be, and she says: “I don't know. I won't leave it blank for sure. The story hasn't ended yet.”