Sjoerd Marijne, the coach of the Indian women’s hockey team, could have been on an early Thursday morning’s evacuation flight from Mumbai to Amsterdam, arranged by the Dutch government. Instead, he is staying put in Bengaluru, with his players.
In late March, the Netherlands was one of 11 countries that approached the Indian government to evacuate their nationals from the country. After airlifting more than 500 people from five Indian cities since then, according to the Dutch embassy in India, there were six flights scheduled between May 7 and May 19 from Mumbai and New Delhi.
It is learnt that Marijne was expected to be on one of those flights. However, his plan changed after the sports ministry denied the campers permission to leave the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI’s) premises until the government lifts the lockdown.
“He could have got an exception if there was an official request since this was a case of an embassy evacuating its citizens. But since the players cannot leave the SAI campus, he too is staying back with them,” a SAI official said.
The men’s and women’s hockey teams have been locked inside the SAI’s Bengaluru centre since March 13. And for the last 44 days, after the nationwide lockdown was enforced, they have been largely confined to their hostel rooms, stepping out only for meals.
The Indian Olympic Association and Hockey India are learnt to have made several requests to the sports ministry to allow the campers to resume training. On Sunday, sports minister Kiren Rijiju ‘assured Rani Rampal (women’s team captain) and other players some kind of relaxation in the next two weeks.’
The players, however, are beginning to get impatient and, in some cases, homesick. A hockey player, requesting anonymity, said: “We understand the situation, but all of us have been inside the campus for 40-45 days now and are healthy. So, it will be nice if they let us use the gym and other training areas, with proper distancing norms. Our request is they should either allow us to train or let us go home so we can be with our families because, for a few, this is getting mentally draining.”
Sources said the option of sending the players home on Monday via buses was considered. But the idea was dropped as it was seen to be ‘impractical.’ The SAI official said the fact that every athlete and coaching staff member who leaves the campus will have to be in quarantine for 14 days upon returning is also a factor in not letting them go home yet.
Questions sent to the captains and coaches of the women’s and men’s hockey teams, via Hockey India, remained unanswered.
But the emotions among the 100-plus athletes and officials at SAI Bengaluru and National Institute of Sport (NIS) in Patiala are the same. A track and field athlete, stranded at the NIS, said it is essential for them to start proper weight training now. According to experts, it could take an athlete up to ‘three or four weeks to recover from one week of training lost’. This is the seventh consecutive week of athletes – from javelin star Neeraj Chopra to weightlifting sensation Mirabai Chanu – not training at all.
“There’s only a certain number of exercises you can do using your body weight. Ideally, we want to access the gymnasium but since it is not possible right now, I feel like I am losing my strength,” the track and field athlete said.
The SAI official pointed out a couple of reasons that have forced them to extend the lockdown within their premises as well. The foremost reason, according to the official, was that the National Disaster Management Act gave them very little wriggle room legally.
It was a point raised by Rijiju as well. “…the National Disaster Management Act, which was invoked to put the lockdown, doesn’t permit (athletes at SAI centres to resume training) yet. Sporting events are not under the necessary list – not of essential requirements – so it doesn’t get the relaxation,” Rijiju had said while addressing a Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) webinar.
There are also apprehensions that if training is permitted, athletes’ health would be put at risk. “So far, the SAI centres have been safe because no one has entered or exited the facility. (But) for training to start, we will have to call in maintenance staff at the SAI Centres since it will be essential to keep the training areas clean and hygienic. So, if something happens, who will take responsibility?” the official said.