India’s medal prospects for the Tokyo Olympics are preparing for a scenario where their personal coaches and other support staff — physiotherapists, psychologists, etc — as well as family members will not be with them during the event.
This is because of the decision announced by the organisers of the Tokyo Games on Saturday to not allow overseas fans because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the previous Olympics, the arrangement when it came to vital support staff, not part of the Indian Olympic Association’s official contingent, worked like this: They stayed at rented accomodation in the host city and purchased tickets or got day passes to meet the athlete at the competition/training venue or the Games Village. This way family members, too, got to meet the athlete.
However, strict restrictions have been put in place this time because of the pandemic.
In a statement, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach said ‘their Japanese partners did not reach this conclusion lightly’ but the top priority was ‘safety of the Japanese people’.
The decision is likely to impact Indian athletes. Take for instance the case of wrestler Bajrang Punia. One of the key persons who has catapulted Punia from the fringes of India’s Olympic team in 2016 to being a medal contender heading into the Tokyo Games is his Georgian coach Shako Bentinidis.
However, when the moment will arrive to fight for the Olympic medal come July-August, Bentinidis might not be there in Punia’s corner.
Shooter Rahi Sarnobat has reconciled to the fact that athletes like her will have to deal with the situation a lot more by themselves.
“We will have to be responsible for ourselves as not all coaches and support staff will be able to travel to Tokyo,” says Sarnobat. “We have to remain fit and understand our requirements so we can deal with any situation by ourselves at the Olympics.”
Normally, there is a cap (33 percent of the qualified athletes) on the number of coaches and support staff that can accompany a team at the Olympics and stay inside the Athletes Village. This quota is usually filled by those working directly with the national team.
India is expected to send a contingent of close to 150 athletes for the Olympics, which were postponed last year after the outbreak of the pandemic.
This time, like past occasions, the Indian Olympic Association and Sports Authority of India had plans to rent an apartment near the Village to house the support staff members of medal prospects who were not part of the official contingent. But that plan will have to be revisited.
“We had prepared a list with the names of all coaches and support staff of the athletes who are potential medalists,” said an official who is involved in the preparation process of the team. “But after Saturday’s decision, we will have to relook at our plans.”
The decision to not allow overseas fans comes on the back of the advice given by the organisers to athletes in February to not venture outside the Village except for training and competition.
“I do not think I will be able to go and if I manage to go without accreditation, it will not serve any purpose as I will not be able to meet my athlete because of the restrictions,” says a coach who works with a leading medal prospect.
“I have already told my athlete to start preparing for that situation. In such a scenario, we will revert to video calls like we did during the lockdown.”
Shuttler PV Sindhu, too, has her own physio while wrestler Vinesh Phogat, like Bajrang, has been working with a foreign coach – Hungarian Woller Akos – since mid-2018.
A majority of the 15 shooters who have so far won quota places, too, have their own support staff. “For athletes going for the first time, it will be tough,” Sarnobat, who competed in the London Olympics in 2012, says.