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A possible detour

Will China organise Hangzhou Asian Games amid soaring Covid cases? If it does, will participating countries take the risk? Answers to these questions will decide the fate of the Games that also serve as qualifier for 2024 Paris Olympics in some fields

A possible detour

The rising number of Covid cases across China in recent weeks could well lead to a postponement of the Asian Games, to be held in Hangzhou, from September 10th to 25th.

China has a rich history of hosting top-class international sports events. It began with the Hiroshima Asian Games in 1994. After that, when Beijing hosted the Olympic Games in 2008, it was held with clockwork precision where a high voltage opening ceremony grabbed eyeballs. It was at the same Games, Abhinav Bindra won India's first ever individual gold medal in air rifle.

Two years hence, when Guangzhou hosted the Asian Games, in 2010, it was again world class. The infrastructure built was fabulous and arrangements for athletes, officials and spectators were of top order. For a country to host the Olympics and Asian Games in a two-year gap speaks volumes about their organisational capability as well as humongous funds at disposal.

Earlier this year, Beijing hosted the Winter Olympics, which was low key for many reasons. Covid was just one of them, and political issues ensured the Games would be under scrutiny. Human rights have been a very big issue in China. It is not merciless treatment of Uighur Muslims mercilessly alone which is a huge issue. The way tennis star Peng Shuai has "vanished" for six months is now the talking point. The world tennis bodies have tried to intervene and plead, so did the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

However, videos of Peng Shuai which have made the rounds appear doctored. She had made harassment allegations against a Chinese politician. After that, she became incommunicado. Now and then, former tennis stars show their concern on social media but China remains unmoved.

Cut to present, the Covid cases in China have flared up massively. The country has adopted a harsh policy while dealing with Covid positive patients. Real figures on how many tested positive and how many died in the last two years seem a mismatch. From Shanghai to Beijing and now Guangzhou, there are many Covid cases. Quarantine there is harsh, unlike India where patients can stay at home.

It is against this backdrop that one is anticipating a postponement of the Asian Games in Hangzhou. The venues are ready. Everything is spick and span. However, a rise in Omicron cases in large numbers has forced the world to look at China with suspicion. It would be no surprise if the host city itself seeks a postponement of the Asian Games, when the Olympic Council of Asia meets on May 6 to take stock of the situation in Tashkent.

Comparisons are being made with Tokyo, which held the Olympics last July/August and the Paralympics, with tightest controls. The entire city of Tokyo was under lockdown. Spectators were banned. From arrival at the airport till entry into the Games Villages and hotels under the Bio Bubble, each athlete, coach, official and media person was subjected to strict testing. There was daily testing for Covid, even as the city showed an increase in numbers. However, it is to the credit of Japan and the city of Tokyo, the Olympic Games were held without any glitch.

Questions are being asked as to why Hangzhou cannot repeat what Tokyo did. To be sure, the world never viewed Tokyo with suspicion. Everything was transparent and Covid protocols were water tight. At the Asian Games, around 14,000 elite athletes are expected. Given the situation in China, there is genuine concern whether they will want to host the Games in September or seek postponement. The latest one hears is that even the airport in Guangzhou is cancelling flights galore.

It would not be an exaggeration to state that at a time when the world has opened up and the skies are busy, travel to China is next to impossible right now.

Institutional quarantine of 16 days is hard and with there being so many uncertainties involved, to envisage China as a safe travel destination is impossible.

The irony is while the world has been battered and bruised by the Covid virus and its variants for two years, there is some sense of relief now. Travel to most

countries is possible and vaccines have been effective to a very large extent. However, even though China produced its vaccines, the efficacy of it remains questionable. If not, such cases of Covid breaking out in Chinese cities and evoking strong reactions would not be there. To quarantine millions is bizarre, as lockdowns the world over have not been effective. Two prime examples of it are the way Australia and New Zealand dealt with the virus.

In comparison, India has dealt with the pandemic in a more effective manner. There was a shortage of oxygen, beds and so on, last year. But there has been a drastic improvement as the vaccination policy of India has been a super hit. There are Covid cases cropping up, now and then. Yet, hospitalisation and mortality are not worrying factors.

As for sport, India has opened up everything. From cricket series to national championships in several disciplines, Indian athletes have learnt to live with the virus. It is to the credit of the Sports

Ministry, the Khelo India Inter University Games are on in Bengaluru. The logistics involved are mind-boggling. At the same time, the Indian Premier League is being held at home. There are Covid cases cropping up in the IPL, but not as bad as in 2021.

Frankly speaking, it is not about how China will deal with the Covid situation now. To instill confidence in elite athletes from Asia will not be easy. To fly into China and compete straightaway at the Asian Games looks impossible. They have a strict quarantine policy in place and prospects of improvement look bleak at this point of time.

The Asian Games are important in the Olympic cycle. When Tokyo sought postponement of the Games by a year in early 2020, it was a well-thought-out decision. The world thought even last June the Tokyo Olympics would be cancelled. However, the host nation showed it could produce the best Games despite the pandemic. No athlete felt unsafe in Tokyo.

The Hangzhou Asian Games will serve as a continental qualifier in many disciplines for Paris. With close to 44 disciplines to be held, holding the Games will be a big challenge. No one doubts the organisational capability of China. It is the trust deficit, overall, which is now creating doubts.

A top official connected with the Olympic movement in India and the Olympic Council of Asia told this writer that the May 6 meeting is very important. Assuming that China says it will go ahead and hold the Asian Games, will all Asian nations feel comfortable going there?

Covid has made everyone suspicious about China, in many ways. One could well argue from now till September is a long time. However, given the Covid virus mutations and the way China has pressed the panic button now, holding the Asian Games will be a challenge.

For Indian athletes, the Asian Games are very important. Apart from individual athletes, Hangzhou is big for the hockey teams as well. Winning gold can guarantee a direct entry to the men's and women's teams for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Then again, in the Olympic cycle, when the Asian Games will be preceded by the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this July, how Indian athletes, the national sports federations and the sports ministry will rework plans remains to be seen.

If there is a postponement of the Asian Games, then the Indian government will have to continue spending on the elite athletes. After the decent showing at the Tokyo Olympics (seven medals), the mood is upbeat. There is hope, India can win more medals in the next Olympics. But before that, India will have to do well in the Commonwealth Games as well as the Asian Games.

New champions have arrived, like Lakshya Sen. Fresh faces are knocking on the doors of selection. Badminton has already completed its trials. shooting continues to hold trial after trial, in a mechanical manner. One does wish the Asian Games are held on time.

That a big "if" has cropped up makes things so uncertain. All of a sudden.

Views expressed are personal

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