Updated: October 19, 2020 7:45:45 am
THIS BIO-BUBBLE allowed shuttlers in Odense for the Denmark Open to step out to a grocery store or a restaurant — and up to 500 spectators inside the competition hall.
The unique arrangement was what four Indians — Kidambi Srikanth, Ajay Jayaram, Lakshya Sen and Subhankar Dey — settled into last week as badminton cagily rebooted into action. And while it took a few days for them to adjust to this new abnormal, some changes served as constant reminders of the pandemic.
For one, India’s support staff struggled to draw up game dossiers on opponents. Earlier, they would fan out around the arena and take notes on potential opponents’ form and fitness, given the main coach was focused on the Indian on court. But this time, they stayed away from the stands for fear of exposure to untested spectators who trooped in through the turnstiles.
“Usually, we would be at the stadium an hour before and watch potential match-ups as preparation. The biggest change is we couldn’t watch others’ matches as organisers did not want players and support staff to be anywhere near the spectators,” says India trainer and physio Kiran Challangundla.
“It’s not clear yet how the virus behaves indoors. Even guidelines for safe distance indoors are different — some say 2 metres, some say 3 feet. I also read that the virus could travel 40 feet indoors. So we made the safest choice… (But) sitting in India you might get better angles! For us, it’s like a webcam — just one angle from one side in a room outside the hall,” he says.
While only three courts were operational in the early rounds as matches started last Tuesday instead of Wednesday, other changes became the norm in the tournament that ended Sunday. A shuttle dispenser pushed out birds from a rubber pipe. The chair umpire sat for 2-3 matches in a row. Line judges were masked. Most significantly, coaches — only one per player — were all mic-ed up so you could hear their instructions.
Music had been ringing out in the early rounds, even during points. In-stadia sponsor banner flexes had Danish product names on display in Chinese and Korean — with an eye on the Asian market — though this wasn’t strictly pandemic-related. And testing followed a timeline. “Once before we left, then as soon as we entered the hotel reception and another test (during the tournament),” Kiran says.
Badminton’s resumption has been hardly smooth after the big comeback, Thomas Uber Cup, was aborted due to withdrawals. Scaling back, the Badminton World Federation managed to keep the Denmark Open on schedule, more as a trial run than a full-fledged show.
Unlike the IPL or the constricting bubbles of early German football, badminton has eased the terms of consented confinement a tad. So one could step out and grab a meal or hop off to a nearby grocery store, if the organisers deemed it safe.
Stores in Odense never really crowd up much, but in allowing spectators, after Denmark tested this in other indoor sports like handball, the organisers walked a thin line of keeping players safe — no one tested positive — while still letting in fans.
Masks have not been imposed outdoors but the rules are strict about them in enclosed spaces. “There were police inside to check at train stations or malls or even at breakfast,” Kiran says, adding that the thinking was perhaps direct exposure to the sun means the virus can be tackled better in open spaces. “While sitting at the table and eating was the only time you could remove the mask. If you had to go to the spread laid out at the buffet, you had to mask up again,” he says.
“Country-wise tables were assigned during breakfast at the hotel,” said Ajay Jayaram, who lost to finalist Anders Antonsen in the first round. Of the four Indian men — the women chose not to travel — Srikanth managed to reach the quarterfinals before losing to World No 2 Chou Tien Chen.
In fact, soon after the pandemic broke out as early as February, the Indians were the first among athletes to travel to the Philippines for the Badminton Asian Team Championship.
“We had set out a protocol even then. Masks are important but I have always insisted on face shields during travel. Players can only have warm beverages from outside, if they must. And no half-sleeves, the full body needs to be covered in travel, plus sanitising hands every half hour. No touching hand rails or escalators. If there’s no face shield, they need to wear specs or goggles at least,” Kiran says.
Besides, the team hasn’t used the common gym, and relied on body weights, while anyone accessing warm-up areas is masked. But Kiran is a little surprised at how fit most international shuttlers still are. “They have done a decent job, everyone was just eager to resume,” he says.
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