The domestic senior athletics season will kick-off with the first of the three Indian Grand Prix events to be held at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala beginning February 18.
While it is a regular feature and prominent feature on the season calendar, the Grand Prix carries a lot more importance in an Olympic year. Even more so, since it will mark the return to formal competition for the athletes after a trying year.
When the Coronavirus outbreak forced a country-wide lockdown in March, most of the Indian athletes were still in coaching camps at various locations – Patiala, Bangalore and Ooty. The Athletics Federation of India moved in swiftly to ensure their safety first and made sure they stayed motivated during the long lulls of inaction.
“First we created a bubble to make sure no one got in or out,” AFI chief Adille Sumariwalla to Olympic Channel.
“They were under very strict protocol. At one point, they were not even allowed to go to the track and train. Because they were all in Sports Authority of India campuses, it was very easy for us to work with the government to enforce the protocols.
“We were continuously in touch with our athletes. We kept speaking to them every week, we spoke to them individually, we spoke to them in groups. We did lots of different things to keep them motivated to try and understand what the issues were, keep them in the best of spirits.”
As things got better, the AFI eased the conditions and allowed the athletes on the track to train. They arranged in-house meets to make sure the athletes somewhat regained their competitive edge.
“In proper competitive, not training, environment,” Sumariwala, a former sprinter, said. “So there was a proper gun start, timing system so that they should feel that they are in a competition.”
Unlike most other federations, which govern only one game, all the track and field events come under the AFI’s purview. While holding competitions in itself is a logistical challenge, it is more so during the pandemic, keeping all the SOPs (standard operating procedures) in mind.
The AFI resumed national competitions with the Junior Federation Cup in January.
“It is tough,” Sumariwalla said about the organizational aspect. “In Bhopal, after every throw we were sanitizing the implements. We were making sure only the right number of people entered the stadium. We were making sure that people maintained social distancing. We want to ensure that our athletes are safe, yet they get the competition they require.”
After the lockdown was lifted, the AFI shifted the javelin throwers, which include India’s bright medal hope Neeraj Chopra, were shifted to Bhubaneshwar because they wanted to train in warmer climates. The athletes were earlier scheduled to embark on a training stint to South Africa, but with the new strain of Covid-19 emerging from the country that trip was cancelled.
“Right now we don’t have plans to send our athletes anywhere,” said the AFI chief. “Their safety is our priority. If they do go for exposure trips, it will probably be after April.”
The pandemic not only delayed the Tokyo Games, but has made the preparation that much more difficult. It might be tougher on those who had qualified well in advance and have had to stay sharp physically and mentally for it.
“We have worked out the periodization very well,” Sumariwalla said. “We had worked backwards, month-wise, week-wise and then day-wise for every single athlete. Yes we've had to make a couple of changes in that because the goal posts have changed. But we have spoken to our athletes constantly and have drawn out a plan to make sure they peak during the Olympics.”
One of the prickly points, going into the Olympics, may be vaccination. The AFI chief said that though the federation hadn’t discussed the matter, he would encourage the athletes to get vaccinated but not force them. “But if Tokyo says if you are not vaccinated you can’t come then it’s a personal choice,” he added.
Twelve Indian athletes, in five events, have already secured their place for the Tokyo Games.