Leap of Faith: How Indian Olympians worked through an uncertain year

In 2013, at the 125th International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session in Buenos Aires, Argentina, it was decided that Tokyo would be the host city for the 2020 Olympics. The world was more than half a decade away from the pandemic. Like all plans that went for a toss in 2020, the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled to take place between July 24 to August 9, 2020, was rescheduled to 2021.

A pall of uncertainty was cast across the sporting world. While life seemed to move on for some with the work-from-home model, sportspersons found it hard to even continue with their routine practice, let alone participate in any event. The challenge was both logistical and emotional for those preparing for the big game. “With Olympics getting postponed, uncertainty loomed large over us. Still, the goal was to continue with our preparation. I kept Olympics as my goal and we kept pushing ourselves,” says the nine-time senior national champion Sharath Kamal Achanta, who has won eight Commonwealth Games medals and is a two-time Asian Games medalist.

And after the first wave came the second one and the going got tougher. “It was tough to find motivation. We practiced at home. I decided to have a routine and have short term goals. That kept me going mentally. Training form home was important to improve our fitness because we just did not know how long things would go on like this. But it was important to have Olympics as the bigger goal to keep moving forward,” says Sharath.

At 20, swimmer Srihari Nataraj represented the country at Tokyo this month and had previously participated at the 2018 Commonwealth Games held in Gold Coast. “It was hard to get training for around six months during the lockdown. But I went with my strength routine to keep it up and not put on weight and maintain fitness with the equipment I had,” he says. Regular training resumed after he got access to the pool but there were breaks again with the second wave. Like thousands across the world, Srihari also went with the flow.

For more than two years, Subha Venkatesan, the athlete representing India in the 4 X 400 mixed relay team at the Olympics, stayed in the camp in Patiala. She was part of the 4 X 400m women’s relay team that won silver medal in the Asian junior athletics championships in Japan. In 2019, she won two silver medals at the Junior South Asian Games held in Nepal. Subha’s long-time coach Indira Suresh worked with her during her time in Chennai (when Subha began training at Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu’s Centre of Excellence) and Nagercoil. It is at SDAT that Subha began honing her skills. “She had good endurance and we worked on her motor qualities. She never shied from hard work and since she stayed at the sports hostel, we could focus a lot more. For the last two years, she has been working with a foreign coach,” says Indira, who agrees that the last one-and-a-half years have not been easy for sportspersons like Subha.

“It has been two years since she met her family. After the pandemic broke out, they have all been at the camp, following all the norms of social distancing. There were times when she would feel homesick but the coaches would talk to her to boost her morale. Had she visited home in between, she would have had to quarantine herself for two weeks in her hometown and two weeks on her return to the camp. It would mean a loss of one month of training before the Olympics. One cannot afford to do that. During times of complete lockdown, they all followed their fitness regimens in their rooms,” says Indira.

But then, sportsmanship is also about beating those uncertainties and marching on with single-minded focus. Olympics also requires an enabling ecosystem, which is provided not only by the government but also private parties. For more than two decades, an institution in Moodbidri has been helping Olympians. “In times of covid, when immunity is the key word, who will have better immunity than sportspersons? They are trained to take on any adversity and be unperturbed,” says Dr Mohan Alva of Alva Education Foundation, which has previously sent Olympians like Satish Rai, MR Poovamma, Dharun Ayyasamy, and Mohan Kumar. This year, the foundation has sent Dhanalakshmi S and Subha to participate at Tokyo.

Dr Alva stresses points out the fact that from the beginning of last year, sporting activities have come to a standstill. “At school, district, state or national level, no sports meets have happened. Our sports culture is linked to schooling and this has made it very tough and has had an impact on the athletes. They need regular competitions and continuous training,” says Dr Mohan, who feels that discussions to improve sports should happen not just during the Olympics but throughout the year. “Our ministries have the budget but a lot of it goes into paying the salaries of the employees. Private organisations should help but they also need government support to enable the players. Both at the state and centre, more budget should be allocated and with a quantum jump in that, we can see improvements.” Beating all challenges, sportspersons from across the world are finally in Tokyo and a new chapter is being added to India’s sporting history. The event itself is a testament to the undying spirit that Olympics stands for.

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