On the dusty tracks of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, long-distance runner Swati Gadhawe comes to an abrupt halt and breaks into a coughing fit. A few paces away, middle-distance runner Tintu Luka is going through warm-up drills. For two days now, the 800m national record holder has had nausea.
The two runners are not the only ones facing health problems less than 48 hours before the Federation Cup, which will offer 42 Olympic spots, making it a crucial tournament for athletes seeking Rio berths.
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Delhi’s poor air, combined with poor conditions at the JLN Stadium’s competition and warm-up tracks, has left the athletes gasping for breath.
The Federation Cup is of huge significance for the country’s athletes aspiring to make the cut for Rio, especially because last Sunday’s Indian Grand Prix, the domestic season opener, was reduced to a farce following power failure at the stadium. All timings recorded at the meet could not be considered official since they were manually managed instead of the usual practice of monitoring it through electronic systems.
But the poor air quality and the noticeably dusty track surface is a cause for concern for several athletes and coaches. Most have complained about the immediate impact it has had on their health, many fearing it might also affect performances during the three-day event starting April 28.
The problem was first noticed during the Indian GP on Sunday when quite a few athletes started coughing and complained of breathing problems after the races. Gadhawe, a silver medallist at the South Asian Games 10,000m, says she has been taking paracetamol for the last two days to recover for her event this weekend.
“From the moment I landed in Delhi, I’ve been coughing non-stop. It aggravated after the race on Sunday, so I’ve been taking paracetamol. But it has affected my training severely,” Gadhawe said.
Middle-distance national coach J S Bhatia says most of his runners have been facing this problem after the race on Sunday. “For almost an hour after the race, they were coughing. It was a worrying factor. The dust in the air is making it difficult for athletes to perform to their potential,” Bhatia, a Dronacharya awardee, said.
Over the last one week, the National Air Quality Index in the JLN area has ranged from ‘poor’ to ‘very poor’. On Tuesday, the R K Puram air quality monitoring station, the one closest to the stadium, recorded a maximum of 559 ug/m³. Incidents of major fires in the city have added to the air pollution.
Quarter-miler Ashwini Akkunji, too, says she has had trouble breathing during the race, stressing that it’s a problem they face especially in Delhi. “We train in Patiala where the conditions are slightly better. But there’s an immediate change in how our body reacts while running here. Our breathing gets heavier and there’s coughing as well,” she said.
Adding to the air problem is the poor maintenance of the stadium. While the track at the main stadium is not in best shape, the warm-up area is dusty and “unfit for training”.
“It isn’t fit for athletes to train. They spend at least an hour at the warm-up track and just 15 minutes on the competition track. So it is essential that the training facility at the stadium is of good quality. But here, it is so dusty that we can barely stand there, forget training,” says a coach.
Athletics Federation of India president Adille Sumariwalla says they would have considered alternate venues had athletes approached them earlier.
“None of the athletes informed me about their apprehension of air quality earlier. If they had done so, we could have thought of shifting the meet out of Delhi,” he said.
Bhatia was hopeful that at least the dust issue inside the stadium will be resolved on tournament days. “Hopefully, they will water the track sufficiently so that the dust settles. Even if they manage to do that, the conditions will be much better than what it is right now,” he said.