Olympic dreams in a pandemic year: How are Summer Olympics-bound athletes dealing with the new normal?

October 4, 2020 8:00 AM

A one-year delay, a virus at large, a global lockdown, multiple restrictions on travel and training even as the world opens up, months of inactivity and mental fatigue—how are the Summer Olympics-bound athletes dealing with the new normal?

Over the months, the restrictions have eased, with practise arenas opening and training camps starting.Over the months, the restrictions have eased, with practise arenas opening and training camps starting.

By Shriya Roy

When the Olympic Games in Tokyo were postponed in March, many athletes were devastated. Years of preparation and hours of excruciating practise were laid to waste. With the Games being postponed by a year (scheduled to start from July 23 next year), many athletes were left floundering and rudderless. The subsequent lockdown also meant that they were confined to their homes.

Over the months, the restrictions have eased, with practise arenas opening and training camps starting. But things are just not the same. The virus is still at large and the vaccine months away. So how are the Olympics-bound athletes coping amid these uncertain times? We get them to open up about how they are dealing with the new normal.

Indian men’s hockey team
Forced to pause after an all-time highest world ranking of no. 4, the team didn’t train for five months

The training camp for the Indian men’s hockey team began as scheduled on August 19 at the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI’s) south centre in Bengaluru despite half a dozen players—including skipper Manpreet Singh—testing positive for Covid-19. Striker Mandeep Singh, defenders Surender Kumar and Jaskaran Singh, drag-flicker Varun Kumar and goalkeeper Krishan Bahadur Pathak, too, had tested positive and were hospitalised. They are now in recovery.

When the lockdown was imposed, the team had been practicing at the SAI campus in Bengaluru. This meant that they had to spend over three months there unable to travel or head out. The team wasn’t allowed to practise together, but players could meet one another off the field. Forward Akashdeep Singh says that time within the campus was hard, but gave the team a lot of time to bond. “The positive to come out of the lockdown for us was that, with nowhere to go, we ended up spending a lot of time with each other and getting to know one another better. We would watch sports movies together and try to keep the morale up,” says Singh.

Defender Amit Rohidas says that he would practise in his room regularly and do exercises to keep his body going. “The lockdown situation was very difficult for me. Practise was entirely shut and there was no way to even go out. It was really stressful. Practising in my room helped me,” he says.

With months of no training, a sudden start might not have been the best thing to do and so head coach Graham Reid says he adopted a “conservative approach” to restart training to help the boys ease in. “The health and well-being of the players and support staff will be the top priority during the camp. I am trying to get the boys to start off with some basic sports activities ahead of full rigorous training. The morale has been good since all the players have been able to get to training after a gap of many months,” he says.

As some of the important players tested positive, the mood in the camp was a little down, but the recovering players are in good spirits now and looking forward to a quick comeback, says Reid. says. To keep them motivated, the 56-year-old Australian coach has given them a task to learn the country’s Olympic history.

Reid says that more than the postponement of the Games, it’s the settling into the “new normal” that has been tougher for the team. But even without any international competition scheduled for whatever is left of this year, the coach is confident that his side can regain the original intensity by the end of this year. “In this environment, once we are back to training fully, the boys, too, will feel more comfortable and confident. My main motive right now is to reboot the team from here and get them back to where they were in February,” he says.

But the players, who were on a roll ahead of the Olympics postponement, will now have to double their efforts, says midfielder Rajkumar Pal. “We have to put in more effort in training and strengthening our skills, so that we can reach the desired goal in the Olympics. Whatever shortcomings any individual player has, they can use this one year to better that,” says Pal, who misses practising with the team like before (right now, they are practising in small groups of two-three players), but knows that everyone has to be cautious. “It is obviously better to practise with the team and that is something I miss a lot. The interaction and the learning that comes from everyone being together is missing, but it is not in our hands,” he says. Pal and other players are unanimous in their appreciation for the “fantastic support” provided to them during this time by Hockey India, the governing body of the sport in India.

Talking about the training, Rohidas says that although it was a little tough initially, the body has finally started adjusting now. “It was a slow start, but we are practising our basic skills in small groups,” he says.

The team is now picking up from where they left off, getting back the rhythm slowly and steadily. The pandemic might have slowed things down, but it has failed to shift their focus from the eventual goal: an Olympic medal. “There has been no change in our target, our final goal. We are all focused on the job at hand,” says Singh, adding, “The Olympics is the biggest stage for any athlete. I am trying to look at this postponement as having got more time to better my game.”

Indian women’s hockey team
From being stuck in a camp to their captain being awarded the Khel Ratna, it has been a series of ups & downs

Returning to the field, which was just inches away for more than three months, came as a huge relief to the players of the Indian women’s hockey team in August. But even when they were confined to their rooms in the SAI campus in Bengaluru, the team was busy, raising funds to the tune of `20 lakh to help the country’s fight against the pandemic. The team raised the money through an 18-day fitness challenge through crowdfunding—a player would set a new challenge every day, tagging 10 people on their social media handles to take up the challenge and donate Rs 100—and the funds were used to provide basic necessities for patients and migrant workers.

The Covid break was tough, say the players, but it gave them time to self-evaluate. Goalkeeper Savita (who goes by one name only) says the lockdown period gave her time to introspect both “personally and professionally”. Amid all the dullness in the air, there also came some good news, as captain Rani Rampal became the first women’s hockey player to be awarded the Khel Ratna, while defender Deepika Thakur received the Arjuna award. The news brought a fresh wave of motivation and enthusiasm in the team, says head coach Sjoerd Marijne. “Individual players may have got the awards, but it’s the overall team achievement and everyone knows and understands that,” says Marijne, adding, “The morale right now is very high and so is the energy. The players are gearing up for the Olympics. We need to take things one step at a time now.”

When asked about the changes in the way training has to be planned now, Marijne says that one has to adjust on the basis of what is within human and individual control. “We are no longer looking at what we can do on the field… rather what can we do,” he says.

The lockdown, for sure, was difficult for the players. “It has been one of the most important phases in my life. Our routine, be it training or going out for a movie or shopping, was completely disrupted after the lockdown. Ever since I started playing hockey as a kid and joined the national camp, never has there been a day when I didn’t pick up the stick to go on to the field. The experience was quite overwhelming. We were trying to wrap our heads around it and understand its magnitude,” says Savita.

During their lockdown stay in the SAI campus, the team’s physical trainer gave the players a schedule, so that everyone could practise in their rooms, says defender Manpreet Kaur. Coach Marijne adds that while the lockdown did hamper preparations for the Olympics, one has to understand that it wasn’t just about them. “It’s people all around the world… every single person. We have to look at what we can control,” he says.

Practising after a long time now and that too in small groups is definitely hard on the players, but they are taking it in good stride. “It is difficult to practise in small groups… but the fact remains that the players couldn’t do anything in the past months, so they are now very happy with anything they can do as long as they are on the field and not confined to their rooms. Everything right now helps and motivates,” says Marijne.

Defender Gurjit Kaur, for one, is positive despite the pandemic and the postponement of the Olympics. “The postponement of the Olympics has obviously hit preparations hard. The lack of full-fledged practise has cost all the players. But we can utilise this time to learn new things in our game instead of being negative,” says Kaur, adding that she is looking forward to when things are better and the team can huddle together and share anecdotes.

Savita agrees, saying that since the team qualified for the Olympics, their goal has been to perform and win, and that doesn’t change. The Olympics is the biggest event and they can’t be lagging behind, she feels. “We can’t let our guards down. When we look at it on paper, it might seem that we have 10 months until the Games, but a player knows how less even those 10 months are,” she says.

Maintaining social distancing while practising together has also been hard on the players. “We are trying to do our bit, but the new normal is hard to settle in. Individual training, exercise and workout, therefore, become primary,” says Savita. Manpreet Kaur agrees, saying that more than team training, they are right now focusing on individual training. “We are doing a one versus one game, as we have to keep in mind the social distancing norms,” she says. The players also disclose that the coaches had asked for their opinion on whether training should be started immediately. They were asked what kind of training-extensive or intensive-they wanted to start off with as well.

What’s most important right now is to stay motivated in the quest to win the country an Olympic medal and that’s something the players understand very well. “We have to remember that if we get past these hard times and use it to our benefit, we will be an inch closer to achieving our Olympic goal. And that is enough to keep us motivated,” says Gurjit Kaur.

PV Sindhu
India’s star shuttler is gearing up for gold at the 2021 Olympics after a silver at Rio

India’s badminton superstar and world champion PV Sindhu was in the UK competing at the All England Championships when coronavirus was wreaking havoc in China. The situation escalated quickly and before she knew it, she was back home doing shadow practise and video calls with her coach.

She has even pulled out of the first tennis tournament, Denmark Open (scheduled to start on October 13), post the pandemic because of the rising number of cases there. She, however, says that she wants to participate in the Thomas & Uber Cup, which was scheduled for October in Denmark, but has now been postponed until 2021. “The preparation now is going well… ahead of the Olympics, there are a lot of tournaments where I hope I can do well because things will start after a long time. I hope by the time we participate in the Games, all will be well,” says Sindhu, who the silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Back on court after a four-month break due to the pandemic, Sindhu is keen to add new strokes and variations to her game. She agrees that the pandemic created a break in the rhythm of athletes, as one needs to keep playing tournaments to remain in the best shape and maintain rhythm.

Talking about her time during the lockdown, the shuttler says she was following her trainer’s schedule. “The lockdown has taught me a lot of things apart from badminton. I hadn’t taken a break in a really long time, so I got a lot of rest,” says Sindhu, who also took out time to participate in the first-ever live digital Olympic workout to celebrate Olympic Day on June 23.

For now, the 24-year-old has her eyes set on securing more honours for the country when play is allowed to resume. Events will most likely be played back-to-back now to make up for lost time when matches resume, she says, stressing on the fact that as athletes they work hard for four years to prepare for the Olympics and naturally its postponement is not ideal. “When the Olympics was postponed, I knew it was not only for me, but everyone else in the world. Apart from being physically fit, it is very important to be mentally fit for the game as well. In this situation, when we can’t play, we have to give importance to our mental health. We have to be positive,” says Sindhu, who meditates to stay calm and positive.

There were also no hurdles that she faced during this time apart from not being able to practise at court, she says. “My sponsors and coaches have been very kind and supportive. In life, there will be ups and downs, but we have to take it in a positive way and keep looking ahead,” she says.

The 2021 Olympics will be a very different one for players. With no crowds and restrictions on travel and movement, the experience will be a stark contrast compared to the norm. Sindhu says it’s a long hard battle, but sports can help win it. Her ultimate goal is to get the gold in 2021. “It will be a tough task, but I am ready to fight for it,” she says.

Kidambi Srikanth
The former world number 1 shuttler calls the lockdown the ‘toughest period’ of his life

Kidambi Srikanth’s last time at a packed court was at the All England Championships in March after which came an unexpected break. Srikanth, who was very unhappy with the sudden break, says that while breaks are important, this kind was unexpected.

Calling the lockdown the toughest period of his life, he says, “The lockdown has definitely affected the preparation for the Olympics because we couldn’t do a proper training session for over five-and-a-half months. Also, it takes a lot of time to come back to 100% fitness,” says Srikanth, adding that if the scheduled tournaments before the Olympics don’t get cancelled, he will definitely participate. “It will be a pick-and-choose situation. I’ll try and play the tournaments that are relatively safer until the Olympics,” he says.

The shuttler, who won the silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, feels it is very important for tournaments to go on before players participate in the Olympics, as this will give them good match practise.

“For now, I am thinking about preparing myself for the Olympics next year… just focusing on continuing training until July next year and be fit for the Games,” he says.

Manu Bhaker
The 2019 gold medallist at Shooting World Cup is chasing her Olympic target of winning a gold

Eighteen-year-old shooting star Manu Bhaker had a memorable August even amid the gloom surrounding coronavirus. Conferred the prestigious Arjuna award in a virtual ceremony, Bhaker says the honour has given her a lot of confidence ahead of her debut at the Olympics. “This was supposed to be my Olympic debut year, the biggest honour for any sportsperson in the world. The postponement is disheartening, but it was absolutely necessary.”

Talking about the award, Bhaker says it’s a dream come true for any athlete. “This is one of my first awards and it is a great feeling… feels surreal. To be awarded the title gave a major boost to my confidence, which I want to carry forward to the Games,” says Bhaker, who won the gold at the 2019 Shooting World Cup, 2019 Asian Shooting Championships and 2018 Commonwealth Games.

The ace youngster, who is quarantining with her family in Haryana’s Jhajjar, had almost lost her chance to qualify for Olympics 2020 due to an equipment malfunction (in the 25m Air Pistol category) at the Shooting World Cup final in 2019 in Munich. However, the very next day, Bhaker gathered herself to shoot down an Olympic quota in the women’s 10m Air Pistol category. Speaking about the malfunction, Bhaker says that it was a rare bad day. “My pistol did not fire. I spoke to the manufacturers who said the odds of that happening were one in a million,” says Bhaker, who is training at her in-house shooting range to keep the momentum going.

Bhaker doesn’t seem to be bothered by the Games being postponed by a year and says her training is going as planned. She is working not only on her physical fitness, but mental fitness as well. “My in-house range was started three years back before the 2018 Commonwealth Games, but recently, I also installed an electronic range for better aim and practise,” she says, adding that Indian shooters, including her, were at their peak before the pandemic.

When asked about any hurdles she had to face during the past months, Bhaker shakes her head, saying she enjoyed the time with her family while continuing to train. That’s good news, as India’s hopes for an Olympic gold in shooting rest heavily on Bhaker. “Not just one, I am aiming for multiple golds,” she reveals.

Deepika Kumari
From getting married to resuming practise after six months, Kumari had a mixed experience

The past few months were a mixed bag for archer Deepika Kumari. While on the professional front the coronavirus-triggered lockdown dampened her hopes for the Olympics this year, on the personal front, it was a joyous occasion. Bang in the middle of the pandemic, in June, Kumari tied the knot with fellow archer Atanu Das. The wedding was long due and was conducted with very few people and proper precautions in place.

Both Kumari and husband Das, however, couldn’t train during this time. Almost six months after she last shot over the 70-m distance, she along with other archers could only start training at the Army Sports Institute’s archery range in Pune from the third week of September. “Preparations weren’t happening at all. In archery, if you do not have access to the range, there is very little you can do. I was doing my physical training and a bare minimum of 10-m practise at home during the quarantine months,” says the 26-year-old, who won the gold medal at the 2018 Archery World Cup.

She understands that it will take her some time to get back to pre-lockdown form. “We were going forward with a good mindset and I was also in a particularly good form. The abrupt stop was extremely hard for my mind to accept. It was really frustrating,” she says, adding. “I was also feeling low and worried about the qualification rounds.”

Despite all the hurdles, however, she is going to give her best at the Games, she says. “I have started my training. I’m putting double the effort and my goal is to win an archery medal for my country,” she says.

Deepak Punia
The wrestler was excited to get back to the akhara after months, but then he contracted the virus

Covid-19 hit the wrestling camp hard. Three wrestlers, including 2019 world championship silver-medallist Deepak Punia, tested positive. he tested positive during the test administered by the SAI on his arrival at the national camp in Sonepat and was admitted to a hospital. We spoke to him on September 1 ahead of him testing positive.

Speaking about his experience during the lockdown, Punia says, “I am used to staying with other wrestlers at the akhara, especially ahead of big events like the Olympics. The lockdown months at home in Haryana’s Chhara felt extremely lonely.” The 21-year-old had secured a place for himself in the Tokyo Olympics and so the pandemic hit him in the worst way possible. His preparation was solid, he says, and the postponement came as a big disappointment.

In wrestling, the concept of social distancing becomes null and void, as it’s a contact sport. So how difficult has training been? Punia said that they started with running, chin-ups and basic exercises before moving on to contact-based practise. “It has been hard, but we have tried to maintain social distancing while training as much as possible. Being a contact sport, there is only so much one can do,” he said. As per his latest medical report on September 6, Punia has been advised home quarantine by doctors as he is stable and asymptomatic.

Bajrang Punia
India’s top hope for an Olympic gold in wrestling, Punia ensured he didn’t miss a single day of training

Star wrestler Bajrang Punia was among the first few people who donated his six months’ salary towards the fight against coronavirus. This was the little bit that he could do, he insists. The 26-year-old is among India’s top players in the Olympics and one of the strongest contenders for a medal at the Games. The Arjuna Award and Khel Ratna awardee has won three world championship medals and also won gold in the men’s freestyle 65-kg category at the 2018 Asian Games.

When the lockdown was put in place, schedules were thrown out of the window. Punia, however, ensured that he didn’t miss a single day of training despite his coach flying home to Georgia. He even bought a small wrestling mat to practise at home in Jhajjar, Haryana. “This is a new situation for the whole world. We had taken our freedom for granted and now we will be valuing it more,” says Punia, adding that a major opportunity like the Olympics comes only once in a while in a player’s life and so he doesn’t want to let it slip from his fingers.

Speaking about training during the lockdown and the following months, Punia says it has been a serious challenge and the team has tried to come up with innovative solutions and safety protocols to deal with it. “It feels bad because all the training and planning have gone to waste… we follow a periodisation training programme, where on-season training is quite different from off-season training. When a sportsman is training during ‘peak season’, but has to come back to ‘off season’, the whole planning goes to waste,” he says, adding that he had his trainer and physio with him during the lockdown, which helped him remain in touch with training.

Punia, who won the gold at the 2018 Asian Games, 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2019 Asian Championships, also lauds the efforts of the SAI and the Wrestling Federation of India. “The SAI’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme, which helps Olympic aspirants reach their full potential, came in very handy,” says Punia, who is currently at the national camp in Sonepat.

But the delay has resulted in frustration and anxiety for many athletes, including Punia. “Training in a well-equipped facility is different… and having the bare minimum equipment and modifying and innovating workouts is different. We can’t get all that we want right now,” he says, adding that the delay has allowed him time to introspect. “Before the outbreak, we trained or competed most of the time. Due to this, we never got time to introspect. But now, we have got time to analyse our techniques and sharpen them,” says Punia.

Ravi Kumar Dahiya
The thing that keeps wrestler Dahiya going is the thought of winning a gold at the Games next year

Freestyle wrestler Ravi Kumar Dahiya decided to stay back at the Delhi training centre during the lockdown in fear of gaining weight if he went back home to Haryana’s Nahri. Dahiya, who won a bronze medal at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships, was among the 15-20 wrestlers who stayed back at the training centre. They would rest and practise as much as they could with the limitations in mind. The 23-year-old wrestler had sealed an Olympics berth last year in the 57-kg category, but found himself more suited to the 61-kg one. He had planned to shift to the 61-kg category post the Olympics, but the delay put a question mark on that.

Talking about his present routine, Dahiya says that he is focusing on individual training. “We are practising with a small group… just a few boys, so that we can take the precautions. We are trying to also keep contact to the minimum, which is hard in wrestling,” he adds.

The thing that keeps him going is the thought of winning a gold at the Games next year. “I will put all the effort to make sure that I gift a gold to my country,” Dahiya signs off.

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