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2020 – the year in which Covid’s long shadow paused sports events globally

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The coronavirus pandemic had started to make itself heard outside of China and before the end of the first month of the year, major sports events started falling to the pandemic.

Picture: Matthew Jordaan

Rohit Mundayur, in New Delhi – The year started with the anticipation that is characteristic to an Olympic year. This time, however, there were also rumblings of uncertainty in the background. The coronavirus pandemic had started to make itself heard outside of China and before the end of the first month of the year, major sports events started falling to the pandemic.

The Tokyo Olympics was scheduled to start on July 24 and the calendar until that date was crammed with last minute qualifiers for a number of sports. For India, the initial blows came in the form of the Asian boxing Olympic qualifiers, which were scheduled to be held in Wuhan – the city that ended up becoming ground zero for the virus – being postponed and shifted to Amman, Jordan, and the women’s hockey team’s tour to China being cancelled due to the pandemic.

Apart from the problems with holding the qualifiers, international travel restrictions and different levels of restriction on movements around the world left the organisers with little choice but to take up the unprecedented step of postponing the Olympics. The Tokyo Games will now be held from July 23 to August 8, 2021.

To what extent the pandemic caught the organisers and stakeholders off guard is testified by the fact that on March 4 – 19 days before the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, and the Japanese government announced the postponement of the Olympics – IOC president Thomas Bach was still comparing the situation to the myriad other problems that previous editions of the Olympics faced months before they started.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach. Picture: EPA, Du Xiaoyi, POOL

“We had (before the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games) a situation where we did not know if we could have Games on the Korean peninsula (because of tensions with North Korea). Before Rio de Janeiro 2016 we were talking about the Zika virus. Boycott discussions about Moscow 1980, we had the counter-boycott in Los Angeles 1984. We had a terrorist attack in Munich in 1972. We had the African boycott in 1976. You need more?” said Bach at a press conference after a two-day meeting at the organisation’s headquarters.

The majority of cancellations or postponement of sports events in India came during March, including big ticket cricket events like the ODI leg of South Africa’s tour of India and the 2020 Indian Premier League (IPL). On March 12, the Sports Ministry issued an advisory asking for all sports events to be held only if they are unavoidable and spectators won’t be allowed to any of them. The advisory was also marked to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which promptly announced the postponement of the IPL. On March 19, the ministry put out another advisory calling for no sports events to be held until April 15.

The April 15 deadline was only a temporary one and it kept extending as the government renewed the lockdown that was put down in the country on March 25 and in May, Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju said that there would be no sporting events in India for the foreseeable future.

A silence pregnant with uncertainty prevailed in the country’s sports community during this period, only pierced by virtual events involving current and former athletes and administrative issues like a turf war within the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and National Sports Federations (NSF) losing recognition provided by the Sports Ministry due to a Delhi High Court order.

Just under a week before Rijiju’s comments, however, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) issued detailed Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for a phased resumption of sporting activities in the country, starting with training for Olympic bound athletes.

India’s top athletes were mostly housed either at the National Institute of Sport in Patiala or the SAI centre in Bengaluru, Karnataka and the issuing and implementation of the SOPs meant that they could finally get out of their respective hostel rooms and do things that at least slightly resembled their normal training routines.

By the end of July, murmurs of the IPL being set to be held in the UAE started doing the rounds. With the number of infections continuing to spike in India, the BCCI finally decided to hold the tournament in the UAE while implementing strict bio-security rules. Artificial crowd noises filled up the silence that existed in the stadiums during the broadcast as the 2020 IPL was held from September 19 to November 10.

With that, men’s international cricket also restarted for India with the team travelling to Australia for their full tour of the country right after the IPL. However, there is yet to be a concrete plan for the Indian women’s team while any form of domestic cricket tournaments will take place only in 2021.

It has been a similar case in other sports as well with international tournaments that were set to be held in India and national championships of different sports being postponed to next year. Those athletes that did get some game time under their belts did so outside the country, like badminton and tennis players who participated in tournaments once their respective sports’ international calendars restarted.

Indian boxers were taken on an extended European tour in October and they managed to participate in local tournaments in France and Italy. More importantly, the boxers could spar again once they reached Europe, something that they were not allowed to do according the SOPs and the NIS were they were situated.

Wrestlers also got a chance to get back on to the mat at the wrestling Individual World Cup in Belgrade, Serbia, although a few of the top wrestlers chose to give the tournament a miss.

Preparation for an Olympics is a meticulous process with almost each month of a medal prospect accounted for during the four-year period between two Games. For many, it was this structured process that was delivered a body blow when the 2020 Games were postponed but now, it is all about making the most of whatever 2021 has in store for them and be prepared once again for a first-ever postponed Olympics.

IANS