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Reigning pandemonium

Postponement of Hangzhou Asian Games has disrupted the training schedule of athletes across sports and put the Olympics selection process in limbo, also subjecting China’s organising capabilities to test

Reigning pandemonium

A fortnight ago, when I had written that China was in big trouble and the Asian Games in Hangzhou could be postponed, reactions were one of sarcasm and smirk.

The much-hyped Games were postponed indefinitely at a meeting of the Olympic Council of Asia on May 6, throwing into turmoil the preparation of elite Indian athletes as well as that of other Asian nations. To be sure, the situation has been very hard for Indian athletes since the pandemic broke out in March 2020.

If, in the first place, the athletes had to stop training, then they were also unsure when they could resume activity. That India opened up slowly and steadily in all areas and arenas is a fitting tribute to the way athletes, national sports federations and the Indian government handled the crisis.

Tangible results were achieved in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which were postponed by exactly a year. Tokyo at large knew how to handle the crisis and the Bio Bubble management was a super success.

However, with China as host, there has always been uncertainty. The true facts on millions testing positive and many dying were never calibrated correctly. At a time when the World Health Organisation (WHO) has ruffled feathers in India by talking about the death toll in the country during Covid, what is important is how India has handled three waves resulting from virus variants. The vaccination strategy of the country has been very successful.

Those doubting the efficacy of vaccines need to know that any vaccine has its efficacy percentage and people with compromised immunity will be at higher risk. India is buzzing. Forget petrol and diesel prices. Economic activity has resumed, people are back at work, some from home and mostly offline. Educational institutions are on, in full swing. Sporting activity is almost at the pre-pandemic level.

The postponement of the Asian Games does hit India in a big way. Athletes train in a cycle. The Olympic cycle is very important. At the same time, India also does attach importance to the Commonwealth Games, to be held in Birmingham late July. It was visualised as a challenge as to how athletes would handle the pressure of competing in the Commonwealth Games as well as the Asian Games. Add to it the world championship in athletics and a few more disciplines, postponement of the Asian Games is bad news.

There is no doubt regarding the importance of the Asian Games. Standards of competition across disciplines is very high and doing well in the Asian Games is seen as a benchmark of achievement. With the Asiad now postponed indefinitely, the situation has become very tough. Athletes peak in cycles. It is impossible to produce the same form day in and day out. It is also impossible to sustain the intensity levels for months and years in a row.

Herein lies the big challenge. In athletics, the world championship in the USA this year is important. Not all track and field athletes are medal-winning contenders but, at least with Neeraj Chopra, the expectation is realistic. There have been some very good performances from the others in recent times abroad — including Avinash Sable who broke Bahadur Singh's 5,000-metre record and Annu Rani in javelin. At the same time, there is also serious concern over Kamalpreet Kaur failing a dope test. She tested for stanozolol, a banned anabolic steroid.

The awareness on doping and education has been there. Yet, when athletes choose devious methods and get caught, the brouhaha is justified. Any cheat will always say, "I did no wrong." From Ben Johnson in the 1988 Seoul Olympics (again stanozolol) to Kamalpreet Kaur, there have been cheats at large. One has to be very careful, be it abroad or in India. When the Asian Games get postponed, the athletes at home need to be even more careful, with their own preparations as well as regarding consumption of food supplements, which are blamed so easily!

Doping is a major concern for India and the good news is that now NDTL (National Dope Testing Laboratory) has got its accreditation back. More elite Indian athletes need to be tested and fear has to be instilled among them. They cannot be left to assume they will get away. If punishment is meted out to dope cheats, it is welcome. People need to learn from this.

Back to the Asiad postponement, athletes and the entire group of people planning, strategising and reworking goals, have to be fast. There are important assignments in 2022 in athletics, shooting, wrestling, archery and many more disciplines. Preparation for the Commonwealth Games has to be full tilt. It is easy to think that standards in some disciplines are low. Whatever it be, Indian athletes, who are funded lavishly by the Indian government and sports NGOs, have to ensure they readjust and rework plans. Medal expectation is justified and reasonable.

For a sport like hockey, postponement of the Asian Games is bad news. Hockey India cannot say that competing in two big events back-to-back, CWG and Asiad, is hard. The best teams (men and women) have to be sent to Birmingham and medals from them will be welcome.

Yes, the wait to get Olympic qualification gets worrying as there is no news when the Asian Games will be held. Or maybe, the Asian Hockey Federation and the International Olympic Committee will have to think as to what would be the best route to ensure that the continental qualifiers do not get delayed till 2023.

In shooting, athletes have ample chances to qualify for Paris through World Cups in 2022 and 2023 plus the Asian Championship next year. The performance from Indian shooters has been pathetic in the last two Olympics and the last Asian Games in 2018 (Jakarta and Palembang). Shooters winning medals in the junior world championship is no big deal.

Failed/dud coaches have been rehired by the National Rifle Association of India. A national federation which today conducts excessive trials and indulges in victimisation of its coaches is under the scanner. Eliminating Jaspal Rana as coach and re-hiring the same old useless coaches makes no sense. The young generation of shooters is cropping up. However, you cannot expect them to handle the big stage pressure so easily.

There are problems for many other sporting disciplines as well due to the Hangzhou Asian Games postponement. To say that it is inevitable is wrong. China was lying for long and the way cities have been sealed due to Covid is shocking. Humans are treated worse than animals and it is no exaggeration to say that houses are sealed and roads blocked as if it is a war zone. For athletes to get ready mentally and compete in China will require a great deal of courage.

So, will the postponement of the Asian Games indefinitely be accepted? I doubt it. One year before the Paris Olympics if Asian athletes are going to be on tenterhooks, it is not good. China has to come out clean and show that they can host a safe Asian Games. If not, one may as well scrap it. After all, even the debate over safety of Tokyo as host city for the Olympics was under question till 15 days before the Games began last July 25.

India, Asian countries and the rest of the world are throbbing with sporting activity. I went to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou. They hosted it with precision. What is hard to comprehend now is will China ever be safe again for travel at large. Their quarantine is harsh and treatment of humans for Covid has been inhuman.

Perhaps, it is as bad as North Korea telling the world they never had Covid cases. Covid cases and doping in sport, both cannot be hidden. China must realise this truth. Please prove to the world you are a safe country, please restore normalcy like the rest of the world. If not, the fear of travelling to China will be like never before.

Views expressed are personal

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