With the Olympics already delayed by a year, athletes are struggling to stay positive and continue training while trying their best to not test positive for COVID-19.
Many countries have suspended flights from India due to the devastating second wave of the pandemic. This has left some athletes helpless and unable to participate in Olympic qualifying tournaments. Worse, with the host country, Japan, itself reeling under a series of new outbreaks, its citizens have taken to the streets to protest the arrival of over 11,000 athletes from across the world. As the clock continues to tick toward July 23, India’s Olympic contingent find themselves in a difficult position.
“It’s been a terrible time for athletes,” says Deepthi Bopaiah, executive director at GoSports Foundation, a Bangalore-based non-profit that has worked towards the development of many top Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Some notable examples include Dipa Karmakar, the first Indian female gymnast to compete in the Olympics, and Devendra Jhajharia, a javelin thrower who became the first Indian Paralympian to win two gold medals.
Bopaiah, on speaking about the plight of the Olympic-bound athletes, says, “To be able to give your best performance at a particular time, you have to work for 6-8 months prior so you can peak at that time. Having to do it twice over, because the Games were postponed, is very hard. A large part of this year has also been under lockdown, so it’s been even more difficult for them to cope.”
Additionally, athletes are forced to put aside their family worries while they continue training in camps across the country. Priyanka Goswami, the national-record-holder in the 20 km racewalking event, says, “Even when we do take some time off to visit our families, especially when someone is ill, Covid has ensured that we come back to a 7-14-day quarantine. That’s a lot of training days lost. We cannot afford it at this stage.” Racewalking is a long-distance sport different from running in that one foot must appear to be in contact with the ground at all times. Goswami clocked at 1:28:45 hours for 20 km in February setting a national record. The current world record in this category is 1:24:38 hours held by Chinese race walker, Liu Hong.
Goswami, who has recently recovered from COVID-19, very aptly describes her situation and those of her fellow athletes, “We not only have to win our tournaments, we also have to win over Covid. Within the Bangalore camp where I train, we have already had several athletes test positive. We are all tested every few days and we are all tense until the results come. I was so disheartened when I tested positive – I thought it would be the end of the road for me as far as the 2021 Games were concerned. Luckily, I recovered quickly and am back in training.”
The news hasn’t been as encouraging for some other athletes, who have taken almost two months to recover. The ‘doping angle’ makes matters more complicated. “There are certain drugs and medication that athletes are not permitted to take,” explains Bopaiah. “Each time a medication is prescribed for an illness, we have to write to NADA (National Anti-Doping Agency) and ask for permission to administer it. If we don’t, and give the athlete a banned drug, they could get disqualified from the competition if it is found in their blood.”
The other problem is the nature of COVID-19 itself, which affects the lungs. “For athletes, everything depends on their lung capacity. That’s what helps them power through competitions, and makes them different from non-athletes. That’s why testing positive for COVID is a more severe diagnosis for an athlete. A non-athlete could continue living their life after recovery despite a lower lung capacity than before, while that can be a career-ending situation for an athlete,” says Bopaiah.
Against this backdrop, it’s no surprise that the mental health of India’s potential Olympians is at risk. Divya Jain, the head of the psychological services department at Fortis Healthcare, deeply understands the athletes’ concerns. “We’ve all been affected by the pandemic, but these athletes have been working towards the Tokyo Olympics for as long as a decade sometimes,” she says. “It’s also more difficult for them because of the perception that an athlete’s career is restricted by time. For most sportspeople, an event like the Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Four years from now, they may just not be good enough to qualify.”
Jain is currently working with Indian Olympians and Paralympians on enhancing performance, improving concentration and treating depression and anxiety.
GoSports also got their mentees involved in a fund-raising initiative called ‘Play for India’ to raise money and support for daily wage labourers involved in sport – groundsmen, stadium cleaners, junior coaches – who have been completely out of work. Athletes ran their own crowdfunding campaigns and managed to raise over Rs 65 lakh. “The initiative helped players divert their minds from their own concerns for a while,” says Bopaiah. “It also gave them a lot of joy because they knew a lot of the people affected and were able to help them directly. Besides that, they learnt a new skill, and got to experience a sense of their own power and influence beyond sport.”
Jain says her role has been to help athletes think about their situation in a philosophical way. “It’s important for sportspeople, in general, to be able to cope with uncertainties,” she says. “Things can always change in competition – the weather, the referee’s judgement, the draw you get. You need to be able to adapt to uncertainty. It’s the same uncertainty they are dealing with when it comes to COVID-19 and the Olympics. I tell athletes that it is okay for them to feel sad, and encourage them to express their feelings. I help them to focus on things they can control, like their own training. I urge them to be grateful for what they have, to try and be safe for their own sakes and for the sake of their fellow players.”
She is also drawing up a schedule for the days the athletes spend in quarantine upon arrival. “It’s important for players to have a set routine before and after their events,” she says. “If they’re idle before a game, a lot of anticipation anxiety tends to build up and they tend to create imaginary scenarios in their heads. To avoid this, I encourage players to have a schedule, whether that’s eating a certain kind of food, watching or listening to something, or talking to certain people. As far as post-event management is concerned, we have found that sportspeople tend to isolate themselves when they lose. We don’t want that happening, so we are making sure they have resources and digital support networks where families, sports psychologists, nutritionists, extra coaches and other teammates are available, on video call or in person. The better prepared players are, the easier they’ll be able to cope.”
Whatever their efforts to provide support, Bopaiah and Jain agree that in the end, it really comes down to the athletes themselves. “Sportspeople are naturally resilient people who challenge themselves, deal with discomfort, and overcome barriers every single day. That is what has helped them get to this level in the first place.” Bopaiah adds, “When they returned from last year’s lockdown, most of our athletes maintained their performance levels, and many posted personal bests. It was very heartening to watch. They have clearly handled the pandemic better than most of us.”
No better example of that never-say-die attitude exists than that of Priyanka Goswami. Asked if she would be very upset should she miss her chance at Tokyo 2021, she replied simply, “Obviously, I would feel very sad. But there will be another Olympics in four years, and I will continue to prepare for that.”
Rohan Pai is a first-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University pursuing a double major in History and International Relations.